Water at the Heart of our City
Posted on February 12, 2016
Water has always been at the heart of our city, and San Antonio has been built around it from its beginnings. This is celebrated in one of the subtle gems of our city at San Pedro Springs and the surrounding park. Here the springs and pool are an oasis to the surrounding area, while also giving a glimpse to the long storied past of this place.
The Springs have provided the source of life for all that inhabited the area for at least 12,000 years. According to archaeological evidence, the springs have been a favorite meeting place and campsite for native Americans throughout its history, and even further back as a watering hole for wildlife in the area. The bones of mastodons, giant tigers, dire wolves, Colombian elephants, and extinct horses, along with projectile points and stone tools were found in the area.
In the late 17th century, with the Spanish fearing French expansion into their claimed lands, efforts were made to explore the area. The Spanish Franciscan priest Damian Massanet, who along with a military expedition in 1691, brought the first European contact with the Payaya Indians and their village Yanaguana near by the springs. Nineteen years later, as a part of one of several “Entradas”, or formal expeditions, another Franciscan missionary Isidro Felix de Espinosa, who traveling along with Antonio de San Buenaventura de Olivares, would describe the springs in detail in his diary and giving them their name.
“We crossed a large plain in the same direction, and after going through a mesquite flat and some holm-oak groves we came to an irrigation ditch, bordered by many trees and with water enough to supply a town. It was full of taps and sluices of water, the earth being terraced. We named it agua de San Pedro….”
These early explorers realized that the plain to the south of San Pedro Springs would be a strategic spot against further French incursions, but it would be another nine years before a settlement would be established by Martín de Alarcón–a Spanish soldier of fortune and governor of the province of Texas–along with Fr. Oliveras would found the city of San Antonio by establishing mission San Antonio de Valero and Presidio San Antonio de Bexar. The simple mission was destroyed by hurricane floods in 1724–and while the mission here would not be permanent–it was relocated to the south along the Sand Antonio River becoming what we know of today as the Alamo. It was there long enough to build the first acequia in the area, taking waters from the springs to support the nearby farmlands, and later extended for further irrigation and household use. Alarcon would chose a location farther south along San Pedro Creek as the site of the Royal Presidio which became the tip of the Spanish sword in its defense of western Texas and San Antonio.
The importance of the spring was confirmed when the land was designated an “ejido”, or public land, by King Philip V of Spain in 1729. Many consider this designation makes San Antonio’s San Pedro Springs land grant park the oldest public park in America, second oldest in the country only to Boston Commons which dates from 1630.
Shortly after, the first non-missionary and military settlers coming to San Antonio–Canary Islanders that would arrive in 1731–camped in the area and provided temporary farmland there by creating the first true European civilian settlement. From this point forward, the springs area would be the social center of the city as well as the physical crossroads with several important roads radiating from this point–including the Camino Real. Another street nearby would become known as Calle del Camaron for the abundance of crawfish found in the springs and San Pedro Creek which is still true today.
A remnant in the park today that may remain from the early times of the Canary Islanders, is known as the “Block House”. The history of the house has been disputed over the years–early maps are not clear on the verification of its location–however, there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests it dates from the 1730’s when the settlers farmed this area.
Theodore Gentilz, the nineteenth century Parisian born artist who came to Texas as a surveyor in Henri Castro’s nearby Alsatian colony, turned his attention to detailing the surroundings at San Pedro Springs and creating accurate depictions of this south Texas scene. His painting Ojo de Agua San Pedro captures the distinct character of the spring waters seeping from the limestone aquifer into various pools of the springs in shades from emerald-green to aquamarine.
In the mid-nineteenth century, San Antonio’s first surveyor Francois P. Giraud, architect of the Ursuline Academy and later the first mayor of San Antonio, would define the park’s boundaries based on the original Spanish land grant. The city declared it an official public city park in 1852, making it the oldest public park in the state. With tall cypress trees and lush vegetation shading its banks, this oasis became a destination for entertainment and recreation in the growing city. Around this same time, Fredrick Law Olmstead–the 19th century landscape architect and designer of Central Park–would visit the San Pedro and San Antonio springs while traveling through Texas, describing it:
“… a wooded spot of great beauty, but a mile or two from town, and boasts a restaurant and beer-garden beyond its natural attractions.”
The surrounding area was used for a wide variety of things during these times, from its longtime use as a military campground to housing a stable for the U.S. Army Camel Corps. In 1856, it was the location of a speech delivered by Sam Houston opposing Texas Secession from the United States in 1860. During the civil war it was used as a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers and then became a training ground for Buffalo Soldiers. These intense uses by the military caused extensive damage to the Park and in 1863 the City Council prohibited military encampments and livestock.
Not long after this, in 1864 the city would come to an agreement with John J. Duerler, a Swiss landscape designer who had leased land adjacent to the park, to redesign the park. He was tasked with developing the parks landscape with gardens, picnic areas, a zoo, a aviary, a music pavilion, a ballroom, a bar and even a horse-race track. The park grounds were fenced and additional trees were planted and the springs were cleaned up. Duerler also created fish ponds to the west of the lake below the springs, and areas for formal flower gardens.
A description of the park from 1873 in Scribner’s Monthly Magazine by Edward King reads:
“The San Pedro is commonly known as a creek, but has many a beautiful nook along its banks; and in one of them the Germans have established their beer garden, at what is called “San Pedro Springs.” There, in the long Sunday afternoons, hundreds of families are gathered, drinking beer, listening to music and singing, playing with the fawns, or gazing into the bear garden and the den of the Mexican panther.
There, too, the Turnverein takes its exercise; and in a long hall dozens of German children waltz, under the direction of a gray-haired old professor, while two spectacled masters of the violin make music. This is the Sunday rendezvous of great numbers of citizens of San Antonio, Germans and Americans, and is as merry, as free from vulgarity or quarreling, as any beer garden in Dresden the fair.”
The park continued to flourish in this period. Naturalist Gustave Jermy opened the Museum of Natural History, a fore-runner to today’s Witte Museum, in the park in 1885. It was also host to some of the spectacles of the day–like Miss Stella Robbins many balloon ascensions and parachute leaps.
The Grotto referred to is a strange little conical building with a fountain allowed to run down the sides creating a habitat for moss and ferns. Added in 1884, It may have been originally built as a Victorian summer home when cool summer retreats were all the rage.
Other Victorian elements include this ornamental column which is part of a limestone stair that leads up from the springs headwaters, as seen in the background of this early photograph and another from today.
But this flourishing would be short lived as Duerler’s descendants were not able to keep up the park and the drilling of the city’s first artesian wells in the 1890’s dried up the springs for a period. This, along with economic depression of the times, left the park in poor condition. In 1897, the park was reinvigorated by Mayor Bryan Callaghan who focused on the park’s renovation. This included: the filling in of stagnant ponds, the cleaning of the lake, repairing stone walls, adding boat landings, and building a new bandstand similar to one at Alamo Plaza. The landscape was resuscitated with new grass lawns and tropical plantings, limestone walkways, and bridges and benches. The lake was populated with ducks and swans and on August 11, 1899, the new San Pedro Park was formally reopened and reclaimed is place as the center of outdoor life in San Antonio.
With the coming of electricity in the early 1900’s, an area across the street from the park became home to San Antonio’s Electric Park. The electric lights, being new at the time, were an attraction in of themselves. The park also had a variety of amusements such as a ‘Chute The Chutes’ water slide that emptied into a widened portion of San Pedro Creek, and a bandstand built directly over the acequia.
The park remained popular, and another renovation in the early 1920’s would bring more elements to the park. The animals were relocated to a new zoo within an old quarry at Brackenridge Park and new amenities sprang up in their place. San Antonio’s first municipal pool was built in the old lake bed as a sort of naturalistic pool replenished by the springs.
San Antonio’s first branch Library was also built in the park, designed by San Antonio architect Atlee B. Ayres. This classical gem still graces the park today and marks the entry to the park from San Pedro Street.
Another great addition to the park during this time was the San Pedro Playhouse, built in 1929 and designed by Bartlett Cocke. Its façade inspiration pays homage the original market building in downtown San Antonio with its doric temple and front portico.
These new elements re-established the park as a cultural center for the surrounding neighborhoods, which it still serves as today. In a more recent restoration of the Springs and pool they have restored some of its original flavor, restoring the pool and landscape as well as structural features that are important reminders of the park’s long and interesting history.