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San Pedro Creek dig unearths church cornerstone, illuminating more of AME community's history in San Antonio

Photograph of AME church cornerstone unearthed as part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project
San Antonio River Authority
Photograph of AME church cornerstone unearthed as part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project

An archaeological dig on the banks of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park in the west end of downtown San Antonio has unearthed the cornerstone of the post Civil War-era Saint James African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The initials AME and the year 1875 are among the markings chiseled into the cornerstone. Researchers believe the church stood on the site from 1871 to 1877.

The San Antonio firm of Raba Kistner is winding down the dig and research at the site on behalf of the San Antonio River Authority or SARA. Weather permitting, that work may be completed in as soon as two weeks.

SARA reported the cornerstone discovery on Oct. 7 to a project focus group.

The San Antonio River Authority halted work on the $300 million creek project after the church's pre-pandemic discovery to allow for research and study to qualify for state and national historical designations.

Work on the creek away from the church site resumed earlier this year. A proposed plaza that's part of the creek project had to be downsized to share space with the church's original stone footprint. The site will be marked with historical designations and interpretive signs as it's integrated into the larger project.

Research on the church is complicated by the overlapping footprints of other structures that stood on the location — the Klemke-Menger Soap Factory from 1847 to 1859, and the Alamo Ice Company from 1878 to 1887. That was later expanded into the Alamo Ice House and Brewing Company from 1887 to 1889.

"It's thought the original soap factory was actually two buildings that abutted with each other. Those were then expanded into the church, which is what you see here in the black tarp," said Christine Clayton, SARA's manager of the creek project, as she gave TPR a tour of the site.

Researchers also believe the church later became the ice house and brewery with new additions.

"It's a combination of adding on to it, taking down, expanding. Some of that work we are also working on clarifying here," Clayton said.

The river authority is building walkways, retaining walls, public performance space, art installations and water features all along the creek. It's also adding landscaping to convert what was once a trashy creek and cement culvert for floodwaters into linear park space.

The artwork includes a five-panel mural that tells the county's 300-year-old history and a lighted waterfall that will sync to music or voices speaking into a retro 1950s style microphone in front of TPR, which sits on the creek banks in the 300 block of West Commerce Street.

The firm chosen to create the murals is meeting with community stakeholders to ensure the panels tell a diverse story. The lighted waterfall has been tested, but tweaking continues. There is no microphone yet.

There have also been bridge replacements and road closures along the creek's path from near I-35 and Santa Rosa to the confluence of the Alazan and Apache Creeks. The creek channel has also been widened to improve flood control, which means wider bridges had to be installed.

The county is funding the project, but says its $300 million cost will more than pay for itself in the form of billions of dollars of new economic growth in downtown, including new apartments, offices and businesses.

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