The Comal Springs are the largest in Texas and the American southwest. Seven major springs and dozens of smaller ones occur over a distance of about 4,300 feet at the base of a steep limestone bluff in New Braunfels' Landa Park. The Springs and the Comal River below are home for a federally endangered species, the Fountain Darter. In Spanish, comal is a flat griddle used for cooking tortillas, so the name probably refers to the flat area below the bluff where the springs issue forth. The largest and most easily visited is the one shown at left, just west of Landa Park drive.
These springs were a favorite camping place for native Indian tribes for thousands of years, and many artifacts and burial mounds have been found. In the language of the Indians the Comal Springs were called Conaqueyadesta, which means "where the river has its source" (Ximenes, 1963). The Comal River arises entirely, except after major rains, from springs in this vicinity and flows for just over two miles through Landa Park and New Braunfels before confluencing with the Guadalupe River. It is said to be the shortest river in the United States.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in 1691, they found a huge concentration of Indians at Comal Springs, some from as far away as New Mexico (Brune, 1981). In 1716, Juan Espinoza encountered the beauty of the springs and more than a few ticks:
Soon we reached the passage of
the Guadalupe which is made of gravel and is very wide.
Groves of inexpressible beauty are found in this vicinity. We
stopped at the other bank of the river in a little clearing
surrounded by trees, and contiguous to said river. The waters
of the Guadalupe are clear, crystal and so abundant that it
seemed almost incredible to us that its source arose so near.
Composing this river are three principal springs of water
which, together with other smaller ones, unite as soon as
they begin to flow. There the growth of the walnut trees
competes with the poplars. All are crowned by the wild
grapevines, which climb up their trunks. Willow trees
beautified the region of this river with their luxuriant
foliage and there was a great variety of plants. It makes a
delightful grove for recreation, and the enjoyment of the
melodious songs of different birds. Ticks molested us,
attaching themselves to our skin (Tous, 1930).
The "three principal springs" described by Espinoza were probably the two large and one moderately large spring on the west end of Landa Lake. The Spanish never established a permanent presence here, although it was the location of an early Spanish mission, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, from 1756 to 1758. In 1827 the league containing the headwaters and Springs was granted to Juan Martín de Veramendi, Mexican Governor of Coahuila and Texas.
Early uses and development of Landa Park
In 1844, German settlers arriving in Texas under the auspices of an emigration society, the Adelsverein, discovered they had been grievously deceived regarding the suitability and ownership of a tract in the Hill Country intended for their settlement. In San Antonio, society organizer Prince Carl Solms was told by John Rahm, an old Texan, about "Las Fontanas" - a place where huge natural springs formed the headwaters of a perpetually flowing river. With his first immigrants living in deadly conditions at the coast, and with waves of thousands more expected, Solms was desperate to establish an inland way station. Dan Murchison, a scout belonging to Captain Jack Hays famous company of Texas Rangers, piloted him to Las Fontanas. In March of 1845 he purchased the site from Veramendi's heirs for $1,111 (Harby, 1888). In 1847 William H. Merriweather bought the Comal Springs tract. Merriweather built a saw and grist mill and a cotton gin on the property. His slaves dug a millrace to divert water for power. The Springs were dynamited to increase their discharge and eventually harnessed for many commercial purposes.
It didn't take the industrious German settlers long to begin harnessing the power of the Springs. This article from the March 31, 1849 edition of Scientific American extolled the new little town's promising prospects.
By 1860, seven grist, flour, and sawmills were using the Spring waters for power. There were also cotton and woolen factories, a paper mill, an ice plant, and a brewery. Hydroelectric power was generated using springflows from 1890 until about 1950 (Brune, 1981). New Braunfels merchant Joseph Landa purchased the site in 1860, and by the 1890s it had become known as Landa's Pasture and was a popular picnic and recreation spot.
An RSVP envelope for New Braunfels' 50th anniversary in 1895 highlighted the little city's abundant water, declaring it had "The Finest Water Power in the State of Texas" and "The Most Complete Water Works in the South, supplied with pure Spring Water."
In 1897, Helen Gould, daughter of railroad financier Jay Gould, visited Landa's Pasture and was impressed by its beauty. She suggested that the International and Great Northern build a spur into the property. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad also built a track into the park. By 1899, the railroads were offering 'very low excursion rates' to attract tourists from San Antonio and Austin, and they sponsored special music events, such as concerts by Carl Beck's Military Band. The Pasture became known as Landa's Park and grew into one of the most popular resorts in the Southwest.
In 1904 the Landa Estate produced its second edition of The Oasis of Texas, a 30 page treatise on the area's history, its industries, and the park. After gushing about New Braunfels for 28 pages, Harry Landa finally concedes:
This scribe feels the poverty of his vocabulary, for one may bankrupt all the lexicons of all the languages and not flatter this heavenly spot.
An advertisement from the San Antonio Express-News, June 29, 1921. Nowadays the notion of radium in water tends to cause concern; the truth is that almost all water on Earth contains small amounts of naturally occurring radioactivity.
By 1922, Landa Park was drawing over 100,000 visitors per year. In 1926, the park was sold along with much of the Landa estate to J. E. Jarratt of San Antonio. On Easter Sunday in 1931 the Park officially opened for its 37th year, but within a few years, as the Depression took hold, the owners were forced to close the Park and surround it with a barbed-wire fence. Local residents organized a petition drive to hold a bond election aimed at providing funds for a city purchase. In 1936 the city purchased 128 acres including the headwaters and adjoining springs, and two additional tracts totaling 72 acres were purchased later (Landa, 1945 and Haas, 1968).
An early photographic view of the large spring west of Landa Park Drive. Another photograph from the same roll identifies the ladies as Mrs. Gough, Isabell Stark, Mrs. Frey, APJ, and Viora Frey. On the back, one of them wrote:
Section of Comal River. In one place it is 12 feet deep and the bottom is seen as clear as though there was no water.
With the purchase and consolidation of the headwaters properties by the city, and with the establishment of nearby resort parks like Camps Giesecke, Ulbricht's, and Warnecke (more on those farther down this page), New Braunfels grew into the epicenter of regional water recreation. When new interstate highways opened in the late 1950s, all the elements were in place for a regional synergy. Since San Antonio and the Alamo are only 30 miles away, families in station wagons from far and wide could spend a few days exploring the historic missions and battlegrounds of old San Antonio, and then spend a few days basking in the natural aquatic wonders of New Braunfels.
Even today, it is difficult to overstate the importance of water recreation to the economy of New Braunfels. This tourist brochure from the early 1960s featured, what else, water. Somebody on eBay beat my high bid of $24.99 for this; if I am someday able to acquire one I will post the whole brochure here, right now I just have the cover. I'm glad I collected most of the stuff on these pages in the early days of eBay when there was no competition.
The Springs and Park Today
Today, Landa Park is still a mecca for local residents and tourists. Attractions include nature trails, paddle boats, a large spring-fed swimming pool, a miniature train, a golf course, and lots of sites for picnicking and celebrations. Swimming is no longer allowed in a large portion of Landa Lake because of the presence of the endangered species. Fountain darters can be easily observed at the paddle-boat landing. Landa Lake is very shallow and lined with gravel washed in by floods from upstream Blieders Creek. Many small springs issue forth through the gravel, their locations marked by bubbles and schools of fish that congregate around them. When habitat restoration efforts were undertaken in 2013 that involved removing this accumulated gravel and sediments, more than 450 springs were identified. The freshwater zone is very narrow here and the "bad water" line is less than a mile from Comal Springs.
Flows at Comal Springs become intermittent when the level of the J-17 index well drops below 620 feet. Almost all flow at Comal ceases at an elevation of 618 feet. It is often said that Comal Springs went dry during the drought of record in the 1950s, but gage records reveal that was not really the case. The Springs were almost dry from June to November of 1956 and the river was reduced to isolated pools of water. The minimum springflow recorded during that period was 41 gallons per second. In any case, flows were not enough to support the Comal River population of the fountain darter - it was completely eliminated by the drought and was reintroduced using individuals from another population in San Marcos, where springflow was still sufficient to support the species. Models suggest that in a repeat of the 1950's drought, given current levels of pumping, Comal Springs would be dry for a number of years.
Only a small portion of total springflow comes from the largest springs shown in the graphic above. Special springflow measurements made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey determined that most of the spring flows (about 78%) come from the many small springs and seeps under and around the shores of Landa Lake (McKinney and Sharp, 1995). Most of the water that becomes Comal springflow originates with recharge far to the west of the Springs and moves through major flow zones in Medina and Bexar counties on its way toward New Braunfels (see Flowpath Map). In five ground-water trace tests performed by Ogden, Quick, and Rothermel (1986) around Comal Springs, none of the dye appeared at any of the spring orifices. This supported earlier hypotheses that very little recent, locally derived recharge waters emerge from Comal Springs.
Data from dye-tracer studies also suggests there are some separate flowpaths that feed the individual spring orifices. Ogden, Quick, and Rothermel (1986) discussed their conversation with a scientist (Rettman) who injected dye into a well in Panther Creek about 500 feet from the nearest spring orifice. The dye emerged from one orifice but not another nearby. The trace was repeated and the results were the same. In March 2002 these results were duplicated by scientists from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, who injected green dye in the shallow well in Panther Creek. In less than three hours the dye started showing up in surprisingly strong concentrations in one spring, while no dye was seen in another spring only 10 feet away.
Official flow records for Comal Springs begin in 1928 and have been uninterrupted since then, giving Comal the longest period of record for any of the Edwards springs. The chart below shows it is typical for springflow rates to settle in at about 200 million gallons per day and decline very slowly if dry conditions are extended for a long time. The sharp peaks that extend off the top of the y axis do not represent springflows - they are caused by surface stormwater runoff during flood events. During dry weather, all the water that passes by the gage can be attributed to springflow. For the latest Comal springflows see the USGS Real-Time data page.
By the spring of 2013, New Braunfels had begun implementing a number of management and restoration efforts listed in the newly approved Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the endangered species in the Springs and the Comal River. An island was removed in the Comal River to increase Fountain Darter habitat, and other measures in the plan include flow management, restoring and maintaining native aquatic vegetation, managing public recreational use, and controlling harmful non-native species such as Asian gill parasites (see the New Braunfels section of the HCP). Over 75,000 snails were removed, along with 2,300 pounds of non-natives such as nutria and talapia, erosion control mats were installed, and more than 10,000 aquatic plants were planted. There were plans to consider a ban on certain types of non-native live bait and develop an education program for fishermen regarding what types of bait are appropriate in such a sensitive area.
For $3 per person, you get 30 minutes of paddle boat time, but they are not real strict about it if you show up back at the dock a little late. It's a great way to see the Lake and also get some exercise!
This tree in Landa Park is called the Founder's Oak. Legend has it that founders of New Braunfels held their first council meeting under the tree in 1845. Core samples taken in 1985 concluded that it sprouted in the year 1700.
This image appeared in the Magazine of American History Illustrated in October 1888. Author Lee C. Harby wrote:
The first meeting of the council was held under a large oak in the lovely park of the Comal Springs. The tree was then crowned with verdure, and the gushing, sparkling water sang its song to the luxurian caladiums which grew along its margin. Here the German girls came to fill their buckets, which they carried suspended from each end of a yoke which lay across the neck. These they still use, and very picturesque and un-American do the girls look in their straight skirts and short bodices.
1764 by French explorer St. Denis. Later a stop on El
Camino Real. In 1845, the area was settled by German
immigrants under Prince Carl Solms-Braunfels and called
Las Fontanas. 1300 surrounding acres were purchased for
Good features at this site included five springs, fertile fields, timber, meadows and the nearby river. Two friars ran the small mission, with a citizen guard, so as to avoid friction. Four Spanish families and 47 Indians (27 of them baptized) comprised the inhabitants of this mission as of January 1757.
The earliest postcard I have found of the Comal River. Mailed in 1900. This is Clemens Dam, just downstream from the Springs, which later became known as Stinky Falls. Published by B. E. Voelcker
This postcard was technically illegal, because it has a "divided back", with one side for the address and the other side for writing your note. Divided back postcards were not made legal in the U.S. until 1907, but apparently some manufacturers simply ignored this requirement.
Postcard manufacturers of the day would often share images. This card appears to use the same photo as above, but it was published by E. C. Kropp Co. in Milwaukee. Like the card above, it has a divided back and was illegal.
Postmarked Jan. 25, 1908. In those days postcards were like the text message of today, and it was expensive to send a lot of them. Ella Wise wrote to Miss Pauline Pepper:
Thank you very much for your postal. You don't know how much pleasure it gave me. But I am sorry to say that I cannot correspond with all for I am not able to. So I hope you are satisfied with this postal because that is all I can send you and no more.
From the first series of cards produced by famous postcard producer Curt Teich. He always numbered his cards with a unique identifier, but in the beginning did not record production dates. From the copyrights on other images card collectors have deduced that Teich cards numbered in this range were produced between 1900 and 1908.
About 1909 B. E. Voelcker and Son produced a series of hand-colored Real Photo cards of Comal Springs and Landa Park. This one is postmarked from New Braunfels on April 14, 1909. There are a number of additional examples from this series among the cards below.
The gazebo was built in 1898 and was called the Philippine Pavilon. An article on the Sophienberg Museum website says the story is this gazebo was fashioned in the Oriental style so popular in the late 1800s when the United States was involved in the Spanish-American War, in which the first battles occurred in the Philippines (sophienberg.com, 2007).
Hydroelectric power was generated using springflows as early as 1890. This power plant in Landa Park was built in the 1920s and operated until 1972. It sat vacant and decrepit for many years, until 2004, when a project began to re-develop the site into loft apartments.
Not mailed or dated, but dated to roughly 1935 as it straddles the "White Border" period of postcards and the "Linen Card Era" that began about 1930. It appears highly yellowed but really is not - the border is printed with the reddish tinge.
I am having a good time on my vacation. There are lots of pretty parks, pools, and mountain drives and we have a big rock cottage up on a mountain - it overlooks the Comal Springs and Guadalupe River. Daddy is coming today. Love, Sally.
The drought of record in the 1950s appears to have seriously impacted postcard production in those years. This is the only one of Landa Park I have seen, postmarked April 11, 1955. The springs were almost dry from June to November of 1956.
A section of Landa Lake used to be sectioned off as a children's pool.
Stinky Falls and the Comal River
Though it winds for only two short miles through New Braunfels before confluencing with the Guadalupe River, the Comal River's importance as a recreational destination is long and legendary. In the mid 20th century, Stinky Falls, Camp Warnecke, Camp Ulbricht, Camp Giesecke, and Camp Placid were all popular sites. In 1979, the Schlitterbahn Waterpark first opened on the site where Camp Warnecke was, and today it is one of the country's premiere water parks.
Stinky Falls was located at Clemens Dam, the site of an earlier dam and mill built by John F. Torrey in 1850. Mr. Torrey operated a grist mill, a cotton factory, and a wool factory, and he rebuilt his facilities several times after partial destruction by floods until all were finally washed away. In 1882 banker William Clemens acquired the property and built a new cut limestone dam to supply water under contract to the city of New Braunfels, but it soon became idle when the city built its own waterworks operation next to Landa Park. In 1907 a well was drilled nearby for the purpose of acquiring pure artesian water, but it produced only hot and smelly sulfur water. The well was left flowing, and the site became a popular swimming spot for kids long before anyone invented water parks. It became known as "Stinky Falls" (Sophienberg, 2006).
The M. K. & T. train known as The Katy Limited over the Comal River in New Braunfels around 1915. The card incorrectly identifies it as the "Camel" River, which might explain why this card is rare.
By the 1960s, Stinky Falls was drawing mostly unsupervised teenagers and hippies from all over the state. Though popular, the site was entirely unsafe. In the early 1970s I witnessed a lot of dangerous diving and risky swimming through the dam's outlet. The name "Stinky Falls" could just as easily have referred to all the weed. In 1976, the city built the New Braunfels Tube Chute at the site and capped the well. It is still an extremely popular summertime cooling-off spot.
By 2011, crowds on the Comal River had begun to grow so large that one could barely get a tube in the water. That summer, police concerned about public safety were forced to turn some visitors away, and city officials began looking at ways to control the number of people getting on the River. One of these might be an admission fee, but opponents insist that since the river is public property, it shouldn’t cost anything to get wet.
Another controversy erupted in the summer of 2011 over a container ban passed by the city of New Braunfels. On August 22, the city banned disposable food and beverage containers on the Comal River and a small portion of the Guadalupe River that passes through the city. Opponents promised a lawsuit and a petition drive to overturn the measure. The issue was placed on the November 8 ballot and voters approved the ban by 58%. It remained to be seen whether the ban would stick, however, because a 1993 state law prohibits cities from banning disposable containers. A lawsuit was filed by a group of local business owners and residents in state district court. In February of 2012, that suit was dropped and another was filed in Austin, also naming two state officials as defendants, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery. Attorney Jim Ewbank said that as Land Commissioner, Patterson is responsible for state owned waterways, and Vickery is charged with managing municipal solid waste.
Over the Memorial Day weekend in 2012, a noticeable reduction in the amount of trash in the Comal River was attributed to the new ban on disposable containers, but not everyone was pleased. Commercial river outfitters who rent inner tubes claimed that trash was down simply because crowds were smaller. They noticed that rentals were down, even though weather and tubing conditons were excellent. Apparently some tubers simply went to stretches of the Guadalupe River outside the New Braunfels city limits, where beer cans were not banned.
In January of 2014, state District Judge Don Burgess ruled the New Braunfels can ban is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Jim Ewbank, lawyer for the water recreation interests that sued the city, said "We hope that, now that the court has spoken, declaring these ordinances unconstitutional, we can sit down with the city and try to work out a solution that addresses everybody's goals and purposes." New Braunfels said it would appeal the ruling. The first major holiday after the ruling was Memorial Day in May of 2014, and tubers hit the river with cans in hand. The city was providing free mesh bags through the tube outfitters for people to collect their trash in, and everything seemed under control. Anybody who finds themsef in Texas is at least part Texan, and Texans know you don't trash the river by "sinking your empties." If any Texans witness such behavior, it is expected they will put a stop to it and send the offender back to New York.
In November of 2013, an ownership squabble developed over a scenic little spot in the Comal River called Spring Island. For many decades, the general public has been excluded from the one-acre island - the only persons allowed were those residing within the Comal County Water Recreational District No. 1 in the Landa Park Highlands and Landa Park Estates subdivisions. The District was created in 1937 for mosquito and trash control and is the state's only Water Recreational District. The legislation that established it said its purpose was to "protect the health of those residing in such district and keep such waters in good condition for the recreational purposes of swimmers and fishing therein and boating thereon by those entitled to do so." This was interpreted to mean the only "entitled" persons are those in subdivisions with deed provisions that grant them access. After a spate of trespassing complaints in 2013, the District was asked to produce a deed, which it couldn't. Board chairman Cecil Eager said "The district was given authority over the island by the Legislature. I believe it's owned by the residents of the subdivisions." Mike Reynolds, publisher of the Texas Citizen weekly newspaper said "They're basically squatting on public property and claiming it for themselves," and he offered to fund the defense of the first person arrested for trespassing. "We want to see this ownership claim test in court. It's not going to pass muster," he said.
Not mailed or dated, but from the linen post card era that lasted from about 1930 to 1945. At this address today is The Resort at Schlitterbahn, adjacent to the park itself and offering a wide variety of accommodations from hotel rooms to vacation homes and condos. The caption on the back of the card says:
This spring fed pool, plus Camp Landa's new modern, one and two bedroom cottages, and our recreational facilities make Camp Landa an ideal place for YOUR family vacation.
Just below Stinky Falls and Clemens Dam, Camp Warnecke was one of the top family summer resort areas in South Texas for most of the 20th century.
Camp Warnecke was created by A&M professor F. E. Giesecke, who purchased a 60 acre site in 1910 for the purpose of establishing a summer school for students. A generator attached to a waterwheel provided electricity the first year, however, the contraption was unreliable because the paddles of the wheel were warped on one side, causing an irregular turn and sudden dimming and flaring of the lights. The second year the electricity was provided by Harry Landa.
By the 1940s, Camp Warnecke was a large and popular attraction. Long trains of swimmers hooked tubes together by locking feet under the armpits of the one in front of them, forming a train to “shoot the rapids”. Another favorite pastime was “catching the ledges”, which involved diving into the rapids and hanging on to the limestone rocks. If you were “shooting the rapids”, the trick was to avoid being tumped over by young local boys catching the ledges. After tumping you over, they would help you get back into your tube. (Sophienberg, 2006).
Enlarge the image below to figure out where the cabin you had as a kid would be today on the Schlitterbahn site.
A 1950s era postcard from Camp Warnecke. The Camp had little cabins all along the shady banks of the Comal River. In 2009 Jim Walters recalled they were true cabins, with no refrigerator, just an icebox. In the 1950s, summertime stays at Camp Warnecke were a tradition for his family. He declared that:
Heaven is bound to have such a river, where you can just float along on a hot afternoon, without a care in the world, exerting no energy and feeling no stress. (Walters, 2009)
A Real Photo postcard showing an aerial view of Ulbricht's Summer Resort. It was produced by the EKKP company, a major national producer of Real Photo cards in the 1930s and 40s. This one was not mailed or dated, but the narrow white margin is characteristic of other EKKP cards produced in the mid 1930s.
On the banks of the Comal River, within the city limits, are Camp Warnecke, Camp Ulbricht, and Camp Giesecke. Accommodations are modern here, where cooling gulf breezes fan the city, which is located just below the escarpment of the Edwards Plateau at the entrance to the scenic Southwest Texas "Hill Country."
The artistic license that lithographers took in creating colored postcards is evident by comparison with the card above. This Real Photo card mailed in 1947 apparently served as the base image for the highly colorized version above.
This card was included in a collection of 18 images that were featured in a postcard mailer marketed to tourists. Unlike other collections, they were not intended to be separated and mailed as individual cards - the entire booklet was mailed with all the accordion-folded images intact.