At the crossroads of debate, historic structures in Brackenridge Park brim with tales of San Antonio's layered past
Since time immemorial, the shady upper reaches of the San Antonio River within Brackenridge Park have provided ideal habitat for inhabitants of all kinds. While birds build their nests in the tree canopy above the stream, humans have built structures of their own along this stretch.
“What drew everybody here was the water,” Joe Turner of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy said, emphasizing that his “everybody” was inclusive of all creatures.
The significance of this stretch of water to San Antonio’s human history is reflected in the current plans to restore several historic structures that all have ties to the city's early water management system. Although the park intends to work on more buildings if possible according to Turner, the 2017 Bond Project names three specific structures as the scope of work. They are the retaining walls of a swim beach from the 1910s, a stone pumphouse from the 1870s, and a Spanish colonial acequía from the 1770s. All provide direct connections to different layers of San Antonio’s past.
Maria Pfeiffer is a park historian. She expressed that the park itself is “so rich [in] interpretive history because you have the Spanish colonial water system overlaid on the city’s later historical system.”
These structures are also the reason there have been protests in the park lately— though they haven’t been the focus of the debate. The expanding roots and trunks of trees near the historic structures have begun to gradually dismantle them. As part of the 2017 Bond Project, it was deemed that the trees threatening the integrity of the historic structures had to be cut down in order for the restoration projects to occur.
Protestors have objected to the felling of those trees, which they say will degrade water quality, diminish the natural feel of the park, and remove key habitat for nesting birds. At the Historic and Design Review Commission meeting on February 16, 2022, several objectors noted that the trees were not specifically mentioned on the ballot of the 2017 bond election. This included Rose Hill, a member of the 2017 Bond Committee who claimed that “not enough community input” was sought for this project. Others wondered if the restored walls could be redesigned or moved in order to ensure the retention of the trees.
This caused lengthy meetings for the city’s Historic Design Review Commission. As a result, the city halted the project so that it can undergo further review to ensure “that the removal of heritage trees is minimized,” according to a City of San Antonio press release.
“No one wants to remove heritage trees, especially from a historic City park, but if the removal ultimately remains necessary to protect the public and historic structures at Brackenridge, I want the community to understand the full context of the project,” City Manager Erik Walsh wrote in the release.
Lynn Bobbit of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy expressed the need for urgency in protecting these structures.
“The river flooding adversely affects these resources each time, causing more uncertainty about their stability,” she wrote via email. “The city approved the listing of Brackenridge Park on the National Register of Historic Places and its designation as a Texas Antiquities Landmark. With this honor comes the obligation and commitment to be good stewards of the resources.”
To the untrained eye, the structures might seem like mere stacks of stones, grayed by the patina of time. But when interpreted by those who are aware of their history, their stories come to life. Such stories not only teach about San Antonio’s past but also reveal the importance of water in San Antonio’s growth and development.
Moving backward in time, the first structure is Lambert Beach. The pioneering Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert restructured this part of the stream in 1915 into a public swimming pool. To do so, he backed up the flow with a spillway dam near the current footbridge. He also had the bottom of the streambed dredged out and lined with concrete. At the moment, it is overlaid with silt, but the original concrete surface is still there.
“It’s mind-boggling how deep it is,” Joe Turner declared. Lambert even poured sand in the upstream portion to create shallows for a child’s section.
To make it more inviting for visitors, Lambert added stone stepways into the water, whose remnants are still underwater, and a large bathhouse for guests to change clothes. This has been repurposed into a playscape for children.
Lambert Beach remained a popular attraction for several decades as picnic areas, the Joske Pavilion, and ball fields were added nearby, but it is not known with certainty when and why it was permanently closed to swimming. Maria Pfeiffer, whose husband born in the 1930s remembers visiting the beach, suspects it was shut down during the polio scare of the 1950s.
Ray Lambert is responsible for many of the prominent attractions within the park. The Witte Museum, the San Antonio Zoo, the Japanese Tea Garden, the golf course and the movement of historic iron bridges from downtown to their current locations within the park all contain his thumbprint. However, his legacy of the beach itself is currently threatened as parts of the original retaining walls crumble into the river.
Indicating stone walls in various states of deterioration above the western riverbank (on the same side as the zoo), Joe Turner pointed out, “You can see that wall there is getting ready to cave.”
He added that the extent of the problem was made more obvious once the city removed vegetation that was obscuring the crumbling structure.
“They cleared the weeds out about two weeks ago, maybe, and all of a sudden it’s just a different perspective on what’s happening,” Turner said, pointing out the walls’ current state.
Above the beach sits a pumphouse from 1877. Its weathered stones, chiseled from limestone that came from the quarry that the zoo now occupies, give off the course striations of age. Calling it the “jewel of industrial buildings” in historic San Antonio, Pfeiffer noted that it is the “second oldest industrial building left” in the city. By building a waterworks for the expanding city, French immigrant Jean B. LaCoste essentially brought San Antonio’s water system into the modern age.
Think of the system the pumphouse drove as “the precursor to SAWS,” Bobbit explained. The structure used the flow of the San Antonio River to pump its water uphill to a reservoir a mile away, on the current grounds of the Botanical Garden. From there, gravity distributed water to the city below.
The 1877 pumphouse remained functional for a little over a decade as drought and the growth of the city affected the river’s flow. George Brackenridge, LaCoste’s financier who assumed the waterworks after LaCoste fell into debt, then built another pumphouse a little further downstream within the park.
Originally, the structure itself was a bridge with water flowing directly beneath it, and the 2017 Bond Project aims to restore it as such. A rendering of the restored pumphouse can be seen here as the thumbnail photo on the top right.
Before LaCoste and Brackenridge’s waterworks system, San Antonio’s main method of transporting water was through its acequías, or aqueducts. This system of stone masoned canals was started by Spanish settlers, and much of their actual construction was completed by local indigenous residents.
One of these acequías travels through Brackenridge Park. Built in 1776, the Upper Labor Acequía was responsible for transporting water to the western side of town. Shown in this map, it was fed by a diversion dam close to the northern edge of the park near Hildebrand Avenue. From there, Pfeiffer explained that it directed water “down through Tobin Hill, down in that direction towards San Pedro Springs” where water that wasn’t used could be returned back into the system.
This Upper Labor section in the northern area of the park is “chock full of history,” according to Joe Turner. There just so happens to be an additional layer to the park’s acequía story.
During the Civil War, members of the Confederacy expanded upon the Upper Labor Acequía in order to power a sawmill and tanneries. These were examples of what Pfeiffer calls the Confederacy’s preponderance of “home industries” that were necessary to supply its diffuse war effort. The tannery provided things like saddles and bridles for cavalry while the sawmill contributed lumber. For such expanded operations, “the Confederates built the dam on top” of the original Spanish dam, Joe Turner explained.
The city bought the area after the Civil War, and a large flood in 1868 destroyed much of what the Confederates had created.
“What is so cool” about this Upper Labor section, Bobbit claimed, “is that we can tell the whole story in this small area of the park.” They plan to do so by creating a cultural loop trail that connects its various historical features. For instance, this trail will pass by the 1877 pumphouse and incorporate an existing pedestrian bridge that was part of the path for donkey rides that happened in the early 20th century. They also hope to keep at least a minimal flow of water in the acequía so visitors can view a working example. This section also connects tothe Miraflores sculpture garden on the opposite side of the river, acquired by the city to eventually integrate into the park.
The 2017 Bond Project is planned to occur in two phases. Phase 1 will shore up and repair the retaining walls along western side of Lambert Beach from the historic footbridge up to the 1877 pumphouse. Phase 2 will restore the 1877 pumphouse itself, the staired platform just upstream of the pumphouse, and the Upper Labor Acequía area.
Of course, this project only tells a limited story of human inhabitants who have been in this area for many millenia. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Payaya people dwelled around this river they called the Yanaguana. Back at the HDRC meeting on Feb. 16, Matilda Torres spoke on behalf of the area’s indigenous residents, past and present, and their values of reverence for nature. She recounted the Payaya’s creation story of the Yanaguana and its surrounding landscape.
“One day the waterbird (cormorant) flew into the blue hole (San Antonio Springs) and encountered the Blue Panther. The Panther roared, and the bird turned around and flew out again leaving water droplets from its tail feathers and that is how life began in this region.”
Within Brackenridge Park, those droplets of water still flow, tying together all its creatures and the structures they create.