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Austin's Driskill Hotel

Story and photos by Kathleen Walls

The Driskill lobby with Col. Driskill's picture

It was in the 1830s the first permanent white settlers established a village they named Waterloo at the site of present day Austin. By 1839, it was chosen to be the capital of the Republic of Texas. The city was renamed after Stephen F. Austin, "the father of Texas."

With the arrival of the politicians, the town’s population burgeoned to 856 people. When the Republic became one of the United States, it clearly stated in two elections that it wanted Austin to remain the capital of the new state.

When a young high roller from Tennessee named Jesse Driskill came to Austin in 1869, the city was on it way to being a metropolis.  Driskill had already made and lost one fortune during the Civil War. The young Irishman, who held the honorary rank of Colonel, had furnished cattle to the Confederate Army and the Texas Rangers. Unfortunately, he had been paid in Confederate money so by the end of the war, he had no money and no cattle.

By 1884, he had rebuilt another fortune and decided to invest some of it in a luxurious hotel to complement the new capital building being erected on the cities highest spot.

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Driskill's bar lounging area

Driskill purchased an entire city block for his hotel for the outrageous sum of $7,500. When The Driskill opened in December of 1886, the Daily Statesman called it "One of the Finest Hotels in the Whole Country." Two weeks later The Driskill began a tradition by hosting the inaugural ball for Texas Governor Sul Ross. Later governors have followed this tradition including William P. Hobby, Miriam (Ma) Ferguson, Dan Moody, John Connally, and Ann Richards who all hosted their balls in The Driskill’s magnicifence ballroom.

But for Driskill, fortunes were "Easy come. Easy go." When an early freeze in 1888, killed off much of his herd, Driskill was forced to sell the hotel. It passed through several hands until it came into possession of Major George W. Littlefield in 1895, who proclaimed that "it would never close again."

Social, political and entertainment big wigs all stayed at The Driskill. In October 1898, Austin’s first long-distance telephone call was placed from the lobby. Over the years The Driskill has played host to almost every sitting president since it opened. Lyndon Johnson’s first date with Lady Bird was breakfast at The Driskill.

One of The Driskill's suites

One of the interesting things about the hotel is that every room is different. The art alone is worth visiting the hotel to view it.

Littlefield was almost proven wrong in 1969 when the hotel was destined to be razed and a new modern hotel to be constructed on the site. Fortunately, local citizens banned together and saved this Texas treasure for posterity – and the ghosts that roam the building.

Yes, there are more than one here at The Driskill. It is only fitting that Colonel Driskill should still inhabit his masterpiece. His presence is most often signaled by the phantom smell of cigar smoke; Driskill was known to always be smoking his cigar.  Many people have seen him standing with a hand on a chair; a common position he assumed when he was alive. Ed Van de Vort, a local historian told me of a woman who was arranging a meeting of a New Age group at the hotel. One of hotel staff, Janice, was showing the woman around. When they reached the stair landing where Col. Driskill’s portrait hangs, the woman stopped and stared at it for a moment. She then asked, "How did he die?" 

Janice answered, "A stroke."

The visitor replied, "He was in great pain."

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One of The Driskill's ballrooms


Ed also gave me a tour of the hotel. When we reached the Maximilian Room, he pointed out the mirrors. They had been destined for Emperor Maximilian and consort Carlotta’s Palace in Mexico but instead found their way into a Texas pawnshop. In the 1930’s the hotel bought them and had them installed in the grand Maximilian Ball room. The same lady who had commented on Driskill’s pain was shown the ballroom as a possible venue for the meeting. She saw an apparition of a woman with a young boy sitting in the corner. She claimed the boy was "very sad." The woman was wearing a long flowing white dress of the style popular in France in the mid 1800s.

Carlotta? Perhaps.  Yet the mirrors never had any contact with her except possibly when they were chosen. The boy presents a confirmation that the woman was probably Carlotta. During their short but turbulent reign as rulers of Mexico bolstered only by Napoleon III’s troops, the couple were childless. In an effort to legitimatize their rule, they adopted the grandson of a former emperor of Mexico, Agust�n de Iturbide y Ar�mburu. The child also named Agust�n was taken from his home to live with the royal couple and given the title "His Highness, the Prince of Iturbide." That is enough to make any child sad.

Carlotta, who ended her days completely insane, would not be very good company with which to spend eternity. Luckily there are lots of other phantoms in The Driskill. Besides the stories I gleaned from Ed, I spoke with John Maverick who leads tours for Austin Ghost Tours under the name "Maverick." (This tour is great way to learn more about haunted Austin.)

One of the most common specters seen at The Driskill is "The Bride." Actually, there are two "brides" one is believed to have committed suicide after being jilted in the 1920. She is seen mostly in the ladies rest room.

The more commonly seen one dates to the 1970’s era.  She is often seen on the stairs or in the hall of the fourth floor carrying lots of bags. In life, she came to Austin from Houston Her fiance had just informed her that never planned to marry her. She came to Austin to think things over. The last people who saw her in life were the bartender who remembered her ordering a diet Coke and the bellman who remembered her walking across the lobby to the elevator loaded down with shopping bags. To get revenge, she had hit him where it hurts most; in his pocketbook. She maxed out his credit cards with a grand shopping spree of more than $40,000 then went to her room, picked up a pillow to muffle the sound and killed herself with a bullet to her stomach. She wasn’t found until three days later when a housekeeper wondered about the constant "Do not disturb" sign.

One group attempted a seance using a ouija board and got an answer from a female spirit with the initials DB or Deeb. Another instance of a female specter trying to communicate was a bit more direct. It happened when two women were working late one night in an office with a curtained window to the lobby. One worker heard someone knocking on the window and opened it to see what the problem was. They were confronted with an angry gestulating young woman who disappeared in front of their startled eyes.

Back in 1999, two young women came to stay at the hotel. They wanted to stay on the old side but were told it was under repair. Late that night, they snuck into the historic side of the hotel. The floors were all covered with black plastic and all the wall trim had been removed. They noticed a woman get off the elevator and go to room 27.  The hall was dark but they saw that the woman was carrying a lot of bags as if she had just returned from shopping but it was 2A.M.

The two young guests called down to her, "Don’t you mind staying in a room with all this construction going on?"

The woman did not turn to face them but replied as if from a great distance," No I don’t mind at all."

Somewhat frightened by her tone, they quickly left for the better-lit area in the new section. As they turned the corner, they noticed the woman was no longer by the door and must have entered the room.

When they checked out the next morning they complained to the concierge, "Why did you let that woman stay in the old section but not us?"

He replied that no one was stating in that section but the women were so insistent that they had seen a guest enter room 27 that he took the master key and brought them over to show them the room. He opened the door of room 27; there was no furniture in it; plastic draped the floor. There were not even any fixtures in the bathroom. It was then that the women realized they had seen "The Bride."

One of the most recent episodes happened to a brand new security guard earlier this year. He was on his second week on the job and on the stairwell between the fifth and sixth floor. This is the highest point that the original hotel reached. He stopped and bent over to tie his shoe when someone tapped him on the back and said in a gruff male voice, "Do you have a match?"

 Having heard the stories he knew Col. Driskill had smoked cigars. Not daring to turn around he rushed down to the lobby and some human companionship. The desk clerk remarked "Are you alright, you look kind of white."

 The terrified watchman replied, "I don’t know! I heard all the stories but I never believed them but I think I just met Col. Driskill."

 A manager in the cafe had to go down to the basement to get some tins. While he was there, all the generators and lights went out then a single one went back on and he felt someone brush past him and felt a cold spot. Then all the lights came back on. Needless to say, he hurried back upstairs and was not anxious to return to the basement. 

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Bar at The Driskill

For spirits of a different kind visit The Driskill Bar. The bar is a true Texas experience. The furnishings are plush but masculine. Overstuffed leather couches, light fixtures made of guns, spurs and little lampshades, a copper-plated ceiling, longhorn cattle mounted on the wall and bar chairs with cow-print backs make this a really comfortable meeting spot. It’s not crowded and has plenty of Texas style seating arrangements spaced around that give the feeling of having a drink at Southfork while waiting for J. R. to come swaggering through the door.

You can order from the bar menu but I suggest you visit the Driskill Grill to really take advantage of the superb food prepared under the watchful eye of Executive Chef Josh Watkins. Have one of their famous beef dishes. This is Texas after all.

For a lunch or breakfast try the 1886 Cafe and Bakery located in the front of the hotel. I had Mama's Meatloaf served with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans and Mushroom Gravy. Yumeeee!

 If you enjouyed this story, you will love my book, Hosts With Ghosts: Haunted Historic Hotels in the Southeast.

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