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Looking Back at Aqua Fest, One of Austin's Early Festivals

Texas Archive of the Moving Image
A young skier during the Austin Aqua Festival in the 1970s.

In light of the descending extreme sports — or "action" sports, if you're partial to that label — festival coming into town this week, today's Wayback Wednesday looks back at Austin's first sports-music hybrid festival, the Austin Aqua Festival. 

Founded by the city's chamber of commerce, the annual festival, which ran from 1962 to 1998, aimed to boost tourism during the slower summer months. As the years went on, Aqua Fest drew huge crowds (more than 200,000 at its peak in the '80s) and drew national acts and local favorites, like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

But, it also enraged some communities along Lady Bird Lake, most notably Hispanic communities in East Austin, who protested noisy speedboat races near Festival Beach, and those in Bouldin Creek, who didn't like the idea of motorcycle races careening through their neighborhood. Ultimately, the fest ended in 1998 after years of declining attendance, but below is a look at the proto-X-Games, proto-ACL known as Aqua Fest.

In its first year, the fest featured a water ski jump contest on Town Lake, an accompanying rodeo, a boat parade down Town Lake,  a 100-mile canoe race down the Colorado River, fireworks, a couple of beauty contests, some concerts and a couple more land parades.

Below is a collection of gifs from Aqua Fest over the years. 

Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
A skier vaults off a ramp on Town Lake and just barely sticks the landing during the first Aqua Fest in 1962.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Participants in the 100-mile canoe race finish their trek and plop into Lady Bird Lake in 1962.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
A look at the first Aqua Fest's downtown parade.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Aqua Fests frequently had rodeos to coincide with the 10-day event. Here's a look at one participant wrestling a bull to the ground in 1962.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Another look at the first festival's parade, which featured a float sponsored by Lone Star.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Two years later, the festival stepped up its parade game by including a float from Bergstrom Airforce Base that showcased the 'Hound Dog' missile.

Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
That same year, the ski tournament also featured tandem skiing.
Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
As the festival grew, organizers included a drag boat racing. The boats, which could get up to 180 miles per hour, were an earful for many in East Austin. Protests of the festival from Hispanic neighbors in East Austin were common from the 1970s through the '80s.

 

Credit Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Starting in the '70s, motorcycle races were incorporated into the festival. Here's a shot of a race near the Long Center in 1983.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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