The Driskill: A Fixture In Texas History

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
| Published 12/14/2009

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Texas Times

This December marks 123 years since the opening of one of Austin’s most storied landmarks, the Driskill Hotel. This four-story hotel was the brainchild of notorious cattleman Jesse Lincoln Driskill and officially opened on December 20, 1886. It is the oldest-operating hotel in Austin and one of the most famous in Texas.

Driskill was a descendant of the O’Driscoll family, who originally emigrated from Ireland and settled in Virginia in 1775. Driskill married Nancy Elizabeth Jane Day in 1847, and after stints as a merchant in Bastrop, San Antonio and Bryan, he entered the cattle business in 1857. During the Civil War, Driskill sold beef to the Texas Rangers and the Confederate Army. Paid in Confederate dollars, Driskill’s money was worthless after the war. Broke and with no cattle, Driskill slowly began to rebuild his herds. He eventually became a legend on the Chisholm Trail, known for his fearlessness and adventurous spirit as he drove cattle to northern markets.

In 1871, the cattle trade suffered a major setback when the residents of one of the most prominent destination for trail drives—Abilene, Kansas—shut down their market. Driskill then moved his family to Austin, where he continued to trade cattle but also caught the commercial development bug. Driskill purchased the site for his future hotel, on the corner of Sixth and Brazos, for $7,500.

He hired Jasper N. Preston and Sons of Austin to design the Renaissance Revival style hotel. The original cream-colored brick and limestone building, with two-story porches, Romanesque Revival columns and Richardsonian arched entrances, is said to be inspired by the Ames Building in Boston, which had recently been completed.

Not long after the Driskill’s grand opening, Jesse Driskill lost his fortune when 3,000 of his family’s cattle were killed by a late spring freeze. Driskill was forced to sell the hotel, and he died just two years later, in 1890, of a stroke.

His vision for the Driskill Hotel and his namesake lived on, however. Though it would change hands several times and come close to bankruptcy, the Driskill endured. In 1969, faced with demolition, the Driskill was rescued by the Heritage Society of Austin, which led a campaign to raise funds from local residents and private investors to save and revitalize the hotel. The Heritage Society sold stock in the newly formed non-profit Driskill Hotel Corporation and managed to raise $500,000 to save the hotel.

Since it first opened in 1886, the Driskill has catered to a number of famous guests. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird had their first date at the Driskill. During his political career, Johnson spent several election nights at the Driskill, awaiting results for his senatorial, vice-presidential, and presidential races.

Some believe a handful of Driskill guests never really checked out. The Driskill is consistently ranked as one of the most haunted hotels in the nation. The first spirit recorded at the hotel was that of the daughter of a Senator who was living at the Driskill during a legislative session in the late 1800s. While chasing a ball, she took a fatal fall down the grand staircase. Since her death in 1887, guests have reported hearing a child’s laughter and the sound of a bouncing ball in the first floor lobby and along the grand staircase. Today, the hotel offers a special Haunted Halloween package for guests that includes a haunted tour throughout the hotel, led by tour guides dressed as the original proprietor Jesse Driskill and his family.

Today, after 123 years, the Driskill remains a fixture of elegance and history in Texas. It is an Austin landmark that has and continues to be supported by the local residents and guests who cherish its timelessness.

Sources: Texas State Historical Association; The Driskill Hotel

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