Index to all pages:

San Antonio Springs
and Brackenridge Park


The San Antonio Springs are located mostly in the Incarnate Word community near Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue. There are several major spring outlets and thousands of small springs extending north into the Olmos Basin, and many still flow during wet times. The largest spring, known as The Blue Hole, and many of the smaller springs are now protected in a nature preserve called the Headwaters Sanctuary, established by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 2006. The Sanctuary consists of several acres surrounding The Blue Hole and about 50 additional acres of urban forest.

Water from The Blue Hole (above) issues from a large cavern and is now surrounded by an octagonal concrete and stone wall. Unlike the green shade that characterizes most waters from limestone aquifers, The Blue Hole does indeed sometimes have a blue tinge. After intense rainfalls, the springflows here can become very turbid and cloudy.

Early descriptions

Before Edwards wells were drilled, early explorers and travelers described The Blue Hole as a fountain spring, with water gushing many feet in the air. In 1857, Frederick Olmsted perceived the entire discharge of the Springs to come from The Blue Hole and he described the natural beauty of the site:

...The San Antonio Spring may be classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world.  The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth.  It has all the beautiful accompaniments of a smaller spring, moss, pebbles, seclusion, sparkling sunbeams, and dense overhanging luxuriant foliage.  The effect is overpowering.  It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.  You cannot believe your eyes, and almost shrink from sudden metamorphosis by invaded nymphdom.

Richard Everett provided an 1859 description of San Antonio Springs and also San Pedro springs, the other major natural discharge from the Edwards in San Antonio:

Two rivers wind through the city [San Antonio], flowing from the living springs only a short distance beyond the suburbs. One, the San Antonio, boils in a vast volume from a rocky basin, which, environed by mossy stones and overhanging foliage, seems devised for the especial dwelling-place of nymphs and naiads. The other, the San Pedro, runs from a little pond, formed by the outgushing of five sparkling springs, which bear the same name. This miniature lake, embowered in a grove of stately elm and pecan trees, is one of the most beautiful natural sheets of pure water in the Union - so clear, that even the delicate roots of the water-lilies and the smallest pebbles may be distinctly seen.

In the graphic above, only the Blue Hole and another spring on the grounds of the Episcopal Diocese are well-defined orifices. The others appear as patches on the ground that seep large amounts of water during wet times and sometimes appear green when all else is brown. Between the Blue Hole and Olmos Dam, there are literally thousands of small springs that sometimes appear as small openings along the riverbank.

There is no clear consensus on exactly where Olmos Creek ends and the San Antonio River begins. The Blue Hole has traditionally been thought of as the place where the River starts, probably because it is readily observable, and perhaps because many mistakenly believed the entire flow of the River to derive from that single spring. As noted above, Olmsted made that mistaken observation in 1857, and his account was part of a widely read best-selling travelogue that is still consulted by environmental historians.

Tradition and mistakes aside, official sources such as maps by the United States Geological Survey place the dividing line at Olmos Dam. An archaeological survey by Anne Fox in 1979 clearly regarded the area below Olmos Dam as part of the San Antonio River. However, other sources and archaeological reports place the dividing line at Hildebrand Avenue, and others indistinctly identify the start of the San Antonio River as where the Olmos Creek confluences with spring flow. But that begs the question of which confluence they are talking about, and none of them say - there is one confluence where the flow from springs on the Archdiocese complex enters, another where flow from The Blue Hole enters, and a third just below Hildebrand Avenue where flow from at least six springs enters.

If one were to insist on following normal naming conventions for streams, there is even a case to be made that the San Antonio River starts far upstream near Loop 1604 where the drainage channel we call Olmos Creek actually begins. It is certainly unusual to rename a drainage channel in mid-stream as happened here, and it is clearly the result of the drastic change in stream characteristics caused by the contribution of the numerous San Antonio Springs.

The upshot of all this is that many opinions on there the River starts are possible, and all of them can be refuted or supported.

In any case, in keeping with official government maps, I have labeled the stretch of drainage below Olmos Dam as the San Antonio River. If you were to ask me as a scientist, I would say the Dam is the logical hydrologic break point, because above that point there are no significant springs and the stream characteristics change enough to buck normal convention and justify a renaming. But as a local traditionalist, I would join the local chorus and say the River starts at The Blue Hole, just because we say so and tradition is important.

Most of the San Antonio River between the Blue Hole and Olmos Dam is completely inaccessible when wet; when dry, many small spring outlets are visible lining both banks (click on picture for a better look).

 

One of the thousands of small springs that flowed in 1992 when the Aquifer stood at a record high.


Native American uses

The Olmos Basin and its springs were a place among places for native tribes from near and far. Archaeologists tell us there were many hundreds of occupational episodes involving untold thousands of people. Paleo-Indian projectile points over 11,000 years old have been found, along with burned rock middens and other lithic debris. 

Most of the artifacts speak to everyday activities - people who visited or lived here hunted and gathered, built fires, cooked their foods, made tools, and carried out countless other ordinary daily-life activities.

On a social level, this was a gathering place where diverse groups speaking different dialects and languages came together for feasts, special celebrations, courtship, trade, and negotiations.

On a sacred level, it was a place where special rituals took place such as the burial of the dead. In the late 1970s, an excavation carried out in association with renovations of Olmos Dam documented 13 burials including eight adults and five children. Unlike most other burial sites in the region, most of these burials included elaborate grave offerings such as shell ornaments, bone artifacts, and a large number of white-tailed deer antlers (Lukowski, 1988). Today we see these things as unusual objects that came from afar or required special craftsmanship, and we conjecture they must have had great spiritual and personal meanings to those whose loved ones had died.

Much of the evidence for prehistoric occupation comes from the work of Charles David Orchard, an avocational archaeologist who worked on the Olmos Dam project and collected artifacts from the Olmos Basin for over 50 years, beginning in the 1920s.  He systematically documented his discoveries and also recorded his meetings with transient Indian groups who were still camping there in the late 1920s (Orchard, 1954). He collaborated with various archaeologists and archaeological groups to report some of what he learned and found.

Recently, some ethnographers and archaeologists have offered interpretations of ancient rock art sites in the lower Pecos region as portraying elements of native American ceremonial pilgrimages to the peyote fields of south Texas by way of San Antonio Springs. According to archaeologist Carolyn Boyd and members of today's tribes, drawings up to 8,000 years old can be linked to the present day peyote ceremonies of the Huichol Indians of western Mexico.

One interpretation focuses on the White Shaman panel, which some natives believe depicts a sacred geography that is south Texas and includes The Blue Hole and three other fountain springs of the Edwards. Natives report that traveling in a circle to 16 springs in central Texas is part of a purification ceremony, deeply rooted in native culture and origin myths. The ceremony is a brilliant tradition that ties together water and geography, but also an act of desperation.

Natives are reluctant to disclose their complete interpretation of the White Shaman panel or the details of the central Texas sacred geography. They told me “The things we don’t share empower us to be who we are.” 

Some scholars contend that it is irresponsible and impossible to ascribe present-day cultural relevance to drawings that are 4,000 to 8,000 years old. They contend that since cultures changed very quickly and were supplanted by new tribes and new belief systems many times over, it is wholly impossible to interpret present day cultures in terms of the ancient drawings. On the other hand, the descendants of those ancient people say it is so.


Panther Cave

Panther Cave in Seminole Canyon on the Lower Pecos, photo taken about 1988. The panther's paws are obviously focused on a seep in the face of the rock shelter. It seems clear that natural water features were an important aspect of native cultures.


European discovery

For over 100 years, many historians and scholars believed it likely that Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to encounter the San Antonio Springs in the 1530s. During the nine years that he spent in the region wandering "lost and miserable over many remote lands", he was a trader and faith healer and could apparently travel freely among tribes. However, in his account La Relácion, he never described any springs or terrain resembling the Balcones Escarpment or Edwards Plateau. Some have suggested he passed through the area while making his exit in 1535 to the colonized lands of New Spain, but recent research has provided strong support for the notion that most of de Vaca's escape route from Texas was through Mexico, not Central Texas (Chipman, 1987 and Olson et al, 1997).

The first Europeans known to have visited the Springs were members of a 1691 expedition led by Domingo Terán de los Rios and Father Damian Massanet.  On June 13 of that year they pitched camp alongside a group of friendly Payaya Indians at the River's headwaters.  It happened to be the day of Saint Anthony of Padua, and they named the spot San Antonio de Padua.

The area came to be known as the Head of the River, and it was apparently an important route in and out of San Antonio.  Sketch maps by David Orchard show a deeply worn old buffalo trail that descended into the Olmos Basin near the east end of the dam, and the Camino Real from Mexico to east Texas entered San Antonio here (Stothert, 1989).

Camp of the Lipans by Theodore Gentilz, 1840's

One of the earliest known descriptions of the Indians who fished and hunted in the area was written in 1716 by Franciscan missionary Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura:

They dress themselves in tanned deerskins, and the women the same, although they are covered to the feet.
The men spend little concern on their dress, as some of them go about naked.

They take part in mitotes, or dances, when they wish to go to war or when they have attained some victory over their enemies. They do this dance as if gripped by the hands by which they suffer various abuses, and these dances are causes of the murders which they commit on each other...


Their languages are different; only by means of signs are they understood among all the nations. They are governed, and conduct their trade, with signs.

Their customs are generally the same. Some are more spirited than others. They are very warlike among themselves, and they kill one another with ease, for things of little consequence, as they steal horses or women from each other.

Yet their presence is agreeable. They are of smiling countenance and are accommodating to the padres and Spaniards. When they come to their rancherieas they freely give them what they have to eat.

They are very fond of Spanish dress. Soldiers often give them a hat, cloak, trousers, or other garment in pay for the work they do....

Learning is easy for them, and they acquire use of the Spanish language with facility.

After the Spanish established missions in Bexar, they quickly set about devising an irrigation and water supply system using spring water.  The first canal dug at the San Antonio Springs was the Alamo Madre in 1745, and it diverted water from the east side of the headwaters just below the Springs, in present-day Brackenridge Park. Until 1761 the Spanish missions utilized Spring water exclusively for all purposes.  In that year a well was dug at the Alamo as a precautionary measure against having access to the river cut off by hostile Indians.  Around 1776 a dam was built to divert springflows into a second canal, the Upper Labor ditch, which formed an interconnection with San Pedro Springs.

By the late 18th century, the Olmos Basin was surveyed and most tracts passed from Spanish to Anglo ownership.  During the period of the Texas Republic (1836-1845), the headwaters area was still wild and uninhabited, and there was considerable fear of Comanche Indians, who frequently staged raids into San Antonio and surrounding settlements.  In her memoirs, Mary Maverick provided a description of some adventurous young couples who took a joyride into hostile territory:

...ladies and all were armed with pistols and Bowie knives.  I rode with this party and some others around the Head of the San Antonio River.  We galloped up the west side, and paused at and above the head of the river long enough to view admire the lovely valley of the San Antonio.  The leaves had mostly fallen from the trees, and left the view open to the Missions below town.  We galloped home, down the east side, and doubted not that Indians watched us from the heavy timbers of the river bottom (Green, 1921).

Conflicts with Indians and fears of a Mexican re-invasion of Texas brought soldiers to town, and the headwaters was a preferred camping area.  William F. Wilson and his men camped here in 1839 (Pierce, 1969), and in 1840 William C. Cooke established "Camp Cooke" at San Antonio Springs and positioned some of his 1,200 men there (Dunn, 1975).  In the mid 1840s another camp, Camp Olmos, was home to local mounted militia and Texas Rangers attached to the U.S. Army under General Zachary Taylor, who were preparing for war with Mexico.  In 1849, some of the troops that had fought with William Jennings Worth in Mexico camped around springs in San Antonio during a cholera epidemic in which Worth and 600 others died.  The campsite came to be known as "Worth's Spring", possibly referring to what many believe is the large spring at the northeast end of Olmos Dam (see the FAQ on Worth's Spring).


The lost town of Avoca

In 1840 an immigrant's guide to the new Republic of Texas advertised that:

Avoca is the name of a new town, laid out at the head springs of the San Antonio River.  The position of the town, the chrystalline and cool waters and the scenery, are declared to be beyond anything known, even in Texas (Press, 1840).

Avoca was a dream of William E. Howth, who settled in Texas in 1830 and received two-thirds of a league from the President of the Republic of Texas in 1838 as his "headright."  He was an active San Antonio businessman who bought and subdivided many properties as developments.  A 1936 newspaper article reported the town of Avoca was a forerunner of Alamo Heights, was founded in 1830 by "a small band of American settlers who found life in San Antonio burdened with the older Spanish settlers here at that time", and that Howth may have led the exodus. The article said that according to local tradition, Avoca was "a very select residential neighborhood, that also had a clubhouse, where historic persons frequently visited."  However, a 1972 article questioned the 1930 establishment date and asserted that most of Avoca was on the present-day Incarnate Word College property, with only a small portion in Alamo Heights.  Since two-thirds of a league is a very large area, and there are records of land transactions mentioning Avoca that stretch from Milam and Travis streets to downtown San Antonio, the true location has proven difficult to pin down.  Whether or not Avoca was actually occuped by a small group of Anglos escaping the Hispanic backdrop of San Antonio has not been conclusively determined (Furman, 1978).

In this early 20th century photo, military cadets Willard and Guy Simpson are climbing on ruins near the Olmos Dam that local legend says were one of the earliest houses in Avoca. 

19th century land transactions

By 1850, San Antonio had declared that its boundaries extended as far as the headwaters of the San Antonio River, and Howth's headright was revoked.  In 1852 the city encountered financial difficulty and sold the property to J.R. Sweet, himself a city alderman, for $1,475.  The transaction was described by Dunn (1975):

...the City of San Antonio at public auction sold a quantity of land that had been marked off in lots on the Giraud survey map of the same year. Lots 30 and 31 at the Head of the River (in Range 1, District 2) went to Alderman James R. Sweet. City Engineer Giraud urged the city not to sell this property, since Lot 31 allegedly embraced "the North Springs," the main source of San Antonio's water supply. Two years later Sweet was reimbursed $85 of his purchase price because Lot 31 did not contain the springs. In the meantime, however, in 1853 Sweet had purchased Lot 32 on the north side of his property, apparently acquiring the springs in this transaction. When he mortgaged the three lots in 1858 they were described as "Situated at the San Antonio Spring at the head of the San Antonio River".

Sweet built a stone house on Lot 31, now part of the Incarnate Word grounds, and it became known as the "Old Sweet Place." By 1859 his holdings grew to include five other lots for a total of 108 acres.  In 1869 the entire acreage was sold to Isabella H. Brackenridge, mother of George W. Brackenridge, for $4,500.

Shortly after Brackenridge's purchase, the question of who should own the Head of the River became a controversial and emotional one.  George W. Brackenridge was also a civic leader and philanthropist, and he believed the city should own the Springs. They had become contaminated by outhouses and garbage, typhoid fever and malaria were rampant in San Antonio, and there was a developing awareness of the link between sanitation and disease.  The year 1866 brought a devestating cholera epidemic, and the community realized it desperately needed a method of water distribution that would eliminate the possibility of contamination.  Many schemes were advanced, discussed and discarded.  Brackenridge offered 217 acres, including the Sweet property and adjoining acreage that he owned, to the city for $50,000, providing the city would "never again sell the headwaters." In 1873, while Brackenridge's proposal was in negotiations, a definitive attempt to organize a company and build a water works was made by George M. Maverick, but it failed. Brackenridge's proposal was abandoned in November 1874, after almost three years of negotiations, because the parties could not reconcile the sale price.  Another attempt to organize a water works was made in 1875 by H. B. Adams, but it too failed (McLean, 1924).

Finally, in 1877, the city gave a contract to J. B. LaCoste and his associates for supplying the city with water from the Head of the River.  The San Antonio Water Supply Company built a raceway and a pumphouse on Brackenridge's property a half-mile below the Blue Hole, and a reservoir was constructed near the western end of Mahncke Park. Water falling from the end of the raceway had sufficient force to operate a large turbine which was connected to plunger pumps, forcing water uphill to the reservoir, where it was distributed by gravity to taps in people's yards (at that time, there was no indoor plumbing). The pumphouse is still standing in Brackenridge Park.

Pumphouse #1 was built by the San Antonio Water Supply Company to move springflows to a reservoir near the western end of Mahncke Park.
A view of the Head of the River from about the time the first pumphouse was constructed. The image appeared in the San Antonio Guide and West Texas Directory for 1877, by Garza & McKernan Publishers of San Antonio. The only examples of this book I have seen are all marked 'Sample Copy', which suggests perhaps the book was never actually published and only a few copies were made as a marketing tool. From the surrounding terrain, it seems likely this is the discharge of the Blue Hole.

Whereas the Water Works developers had expected hundreds of people to sign up for service, the number was in the tens, and they disposed of their unprofitable assets to George W.  Brackenridge in 1883.  Under his direction and foresight, the struggling Water Works Company was built into a valuable property.  By 1885, Brackenridge foresaw the possibility of the original plant being insufficient to meet the city's growing needs, and he purchased property along the River about a mile downstream where he built a second raceway and pumping plant to move spring waters to the reservoir. In 1877 he constructed a second reservoir of much larger capacity where the Botanical Center is located today.

Pumphouse #2, also known as the Borglum House, still stands near the Brackenridge Park Golf Course clubhouse and has been nicely restored. After it was no longer used for pumping water, it was used for a time as an art studio. It is called the Borglum House because world famous sculptor Gutzon Borglum used it as his studio for 12 years - he completed his design and castings for Mount Rushmore here.


A map from 1908 showing the locations of both pumphouses, the long raceway from the River to pumphouse #2, and the two reservoirs.

In 1886 Brackenridge built a large three-story addition to the Sweet house that became known as Brackenridge Villa, and he called his estate Fernridge.  In 1890, William Corner's guide book to San Antonio declared:

...without doubt one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, places in Texas, its woodland grace and parklike beauty so heightened by the perpetual mystery of its profound and noble springs.  This is the Head of the River.  There are other fine properties in this neighborhood with exceptional water advantages and privileges, but this property was really the key to the situation, the Ojo de Agua, the birthright of the city (Corner, 1890).

Brackenridge Villa overlooks The Blue Hole and is now home to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.

In 1888, from his observations of the wildly fluctuating springflows, Brackenridge became convinced there was danger of complete failure of the Springs as a source of supply.  In 1891, he drilled large artesian wells into the Edwards Aquifer, the first large Edwards wells for municipal supply, and springflows became much less important as a water supply source.

In the Gay 90s, the area around the headwaters was best known as a park. A small dam was constructed, creating a wide and very long lake that was San Antonio's favorite Sunday afternoon rest spot. Francis Huff (1946) wrote:

The gayest memories of Alamo Heights in the 90s and the early 1900s seem to be associated with the park and lake at the Head of the River. A small rock dam had been thrown across the stream, which made a lake where the Halff barns now [1946] are. It reached from the 'big spring' to a point above the present dam, and was a hundred or so feet wide, and two or three feet in depth. Boating and picnicking - especially by moonlight - were favorite sports. It is interesting by the way to see pictures of lovely young girls capably negotiating the steep drop to the lakeside park in their frilly summer dresses. The "Head of the River' was San Antonio's Sunday-afternoon vacation land.

By the late 1890's, flows at San Antonio Springs had been drastically reduced by the drilling of numerous additional Edwards wells and a long drought. Brackenridge could not watch it happen, nor do anything about it, so he determined to dispose of his property. He wrote:

This river is my child, and it is dying and I cannot stay to see its last gasps.  It is probably caused by the sinking of many artesian wells.  I have paid thousands of dollars for legal opinions on the question of stopping boring of the wells, but they all say I have no remedy - and I must go (Williams, 1921).

Brackenridge sold 280 acres including the San Antonio Springs to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for $120,000, and in 1899 his Water Works Company donated 343.73 acres of land for the establishment of Brackenridge Park.

A group of young girls boating on campus near The Blue Hole, circa 1907.

 

This very rare postcard mailed in 1910 shows that flows at the Head of the River had been drastically reduced from prior decades when the site was San Antonio's Sunday-afternoon vacation land.

History failed to record what Fred Alter was expecting. On the back of the card, he wrote to his mother:

"Nothing doing" yet. Got fooled some way. Have expected it every day since the first. All as well as can be expected. Cold wave predicted for tonight. Funeral with 62 rigs just passed - pretty long. See you later.

 

This postcard mailed in 1913 appears to show the stream channel just downstream of the Blue Hole.

 

The Springs today

Brackenridge was right in his predictions about the headwaters.  Due to increasing withdrawals from the Edwards Aquifer, springflows became intermittent and meager. By the early 1940s, the springs had entered a dormancy that lasted 30 years.  In 1973, after months of drenching rains, excited news reports detailed how "the city's Sleeping Beauty, otherwise known as the San Antonio River, woke up" (San Antonio Light, July 25, 1977).  Many San Antonians got their first look at the outflows that were so important to San Antonio's first 200 years:

Like old, bearded Rip Van Winkle the once main headwaters of the San Antonio River have awakened from a deep sleep on the Incarnate Word College campus. And it's all happening to the disbelief of IWC administrators, students and longtime city residents. "Last week that pretty little river woke up to the delighted surprise of everyone here at the college," said public relations man Dick McCracken.

The newspapers asked residents to send in their remembrances of the old days when numerous springs flowed in the San Antonio River and Olmos Creek, and Seguin resident Lena Dittmar Buerger responded: 

My father, the late Herman Dittmar, was engineer for Col. Brackenridge.  We lived in the park near the upper pump.  My father used to take us to a big spring in back of Incarnate Word College that was known as 'the blue hole.' He had to measure the depth of the water and we were always warned not to go too near because it was bottomless.  Whenever there was a fire in San Antonio, a very large bell on our front porch rang.  Then one of us - father if he was there, mother or one of us kids - would take a telescope and watch the water level in the reservoir on Government Hill.  If it fell to a certain level, we had to start the auxiliary pumps.

Today, none of the San Antonio Springs flow except during periods of extreme rainfall. The River is kept alive mostly by discharges of recycled water in Brackenridge Park, and by one artesian Edwards well inside the San Antonio Zoo.

The Head of the River is still the home of the University of the Incarnate Word, managed by the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity. In 2008 they formed The Headwaters Coalition, a non-profit, sponsored ministry dedicated to spreading an ecological ethic and protecting one of the last undeveloped forests in San Antonio, 53 acres adjoining Olmos Creek, including the Blue Hole.

The Blue Hole is still revered as sacred. Dave Orchard reported that native peoples conducted ceremonies involving the placement of precious objects near the Springs or in the Springs themselves, and that tradition continues to this day.


San Antonio Springs Photo gallery

The Blue Hole, dry The Blue Hole, flowing

This is The Blue Hole, described by early explorers and travelers as a "fountain spring", gushing water many feet in the air. John Russell Bartlett described this chasm in 1850:

The water rises in a cavity some six or eight feet in diameter and twelve or fifteen feet deep, and rushes out in an immense volume. The water of these springs unite with Olmos Creek, forming a river.

The Blue Hole on June 14, 1992, the day the Aquifer stood at its recorded high level of 703.3 feet, as measured by the J17 index well.  On that record-setting day, The Blue Hole was a long way from being a "fountain spring". Discharge was still only a tiny fraction of what it must have been when Everett and Olmsted wrote their 19th century descriptions. Notice that you can see several feet below the surface to where the concrete wall ends.


Parking lot springs
During very rainy times, springs pop up all over the Incarnate Word campus, such as these two appearing from under pavement. The Blue Hole is immediately behind the fence in the background of the photo on the left. The photos were taken in the summer of 2007 after long, intense rains.

Koehler Pond under Hildebrand Ave.

In 1915 Mrs. Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery owner Otto Koehler, donated an 11-acre tract between the quarry and the San Antonio River to the City for a public park. San Antonians have never really considered it separate from Brackenridge Park, since they are adjacent and it's difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends. Hildebrand Ave. is the bridge in the background, where a flow augmentation well was located for many decades (see photo below).


Koehler Park

A circa 1910 postcard with a boat on the River in Koehler Park, also known as The Lily Pond.


Partial Upper Labor dam, 1996
In 1996, archaeologists uncovered remnants of the Spanish colonial dam at the swimming hole that diverted water to the Upper Labor acequia. The dam was built around 1776 to divert springwaters and streamflow from the San Antonio River to the acequia to irrigate San Antonio's early farmlands.  In the photo at right the head of the canal is in the upper right corner. The dam was re-covered and there is a picnic table over it now.

Complete Upper Labor dam, 2013

In 2013, archaeologists discovered the entire Upper Labor dam is still intact. The cut stone blocks at the top were added later by German stonemasons and the original Spanish Colonial construction is seen here beneath them.


Well beneath Hildebrand Ave.
For many decades, the entire dry-weather flow of the San Antonio River was derived from Edwards wells in Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Zoo.  This one was directly underneath the Hildebrand Ave. bridge, at the top of the pond pictured above. In June of 2000, the San Antonio Water System began discharging recycled water in Brackenridge Park so several Edwards well could be cut off, thereby conserving Edwards supplies and helping maintain springflows at Comal and San Marcos Springs. Although unused, this old well leaked when artesian pressure was high, so it was plugged in July of 2008.

Hildebrand well, plugged

The Hildebrand well on the day it was plugged in July of 2008. I sort of wanted to write my name in the wet concrete but I did not.

 
Well in Brackenridge Park
This well just east of Lambert Beach in Brackenridge Park was also shut off when the flow of recycled water to the River began in June 2000. It is now enclosed in a building and maintained in working order in case there is an emergency need to release water to the River. There is a third well in the San Antonio Zoo, the Hippo Well, that still flows because potable Edwards water is needed for the hippos and other animals. The Hippo Well historically contributed about three million gallons per day to flow in the San Antonio River, but in recent years water usage at the Zoo has come under scrutiny and flow from the well has been reduced by about half. In 2013 the Zoo pumped about 1.6 million gallons per day.
 
San Antonio River bed, dry
The bed of the San Antonio River as it usually looks. This photo was taken just a short distance downstream from The Blue Hole. The Olmos Basin in which the City of San Antonio grew up probably had as many springs as any place in the world. They are all almost always dry now, except during extremely wet years when they reassert themselves and flow up through the slabs of buildings and into basements.   

San Antonio River bed, flowing

The winter absence of tree foliage reveals the confluence of Olmos Creek and flows from The Blue Hole in February of '92, an especially wet time when many of the Springs flowed again. Flows from Olmos Creek are entering from the left. Notice the distinctly bluer shade of flows from The Blue Hole on the right of the channel where the two flows have not yet mixed.


Turbid springflows
Flows from San Antonio Springs can sometimes be very turbid and cloudy, such as seen here in the summer of 2007 when the Aquifer almost reached a record high.

Discharge of wells from Brackenridge Park
When it was taken in 1991, this photo represented the discharge of several Edwards wells in Brackenridge Park used to maintain flow in the downtown San Antonio River Walk. Today, most of the dry-weather flow of the River here is recycled water from the San Antonio Water System's Dos Rios plant

Olmos Dam
An old postcard showing another view of the Olmos Dam, about a mile above San Antonio Springs. It was constructed after a series of disastrous floods in 1917-1921 took many lives and caused widespread devastation in downtown San Antonio. Construction mostly destroyed what was probably the largest and most important Native American campground in Bexar county.

San Pedro Creek / San Antonio River confluence 
This is the confluence of San Pedro Creek (entering from the left) and the San Antonio River, the two streams vividly described by Richard Everett in 1859. Photo by William Hudson


The Acequia Madre


Historical marker

This is a remnant of the Acequia Madre canal in Hemisfair Park. The canal was used to divert San Antonio Spring water to agricultural fields belonging to the Alamo.

Historical marker at the canal.


Postcards from Brackenridge Park


One of the early scenic drives in Brackenridge Park
After George W. Brackenridge's donation of land to create the park, one of the first improvements was a series of drives totaling seven miles, designed by Parks Commissioner Ludwig Mahncke. Many postcards depicting the drives were produced, attesting to their popularity as a leisure destination.

Early scenic drive in Brackenridge Park
Cruising Brackenridge Park was a tradition that continued until the 1974 gas crisis. After that, cruising as a recreational activity never really made a comeback.

Early scenic drive in Brackenridge Park  
Another of the drives shown in an early postcard.

Early scenic drive in Brackenridge Park

Mailed on Feb. 7, 1907 to Mrs. A. J. Broomhall in Troy, Ohio.


Early scenic drive in Brackenridge Park

Never mailed.


Herd of elk in the San Antonio River at Brackenridge Park  
By 1902, there was a fenced deer preserve and enclosures for buffalo and elk. Animals were pastured along River Avenue near today’s Lions Field, and were fed with hay raised in an adjacent pasture.

The Deer Preserve in Brackenridge Park, 1909  
The sender must have been an incurable romantic. On Sep. 8 he wrote to Miss Louise Karath in Joliet, Illinois:

These are dear but you see they are not the right kind. You know there is only one kind for me. With love, G


Buffalos in Brackenridge Park, 1911  
The buffalo herd in Brackenridge Park.

1911 view of San Antonio River

A nice view of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park, mailed in 1911.


Seeings in Brackenridge Park, circa 1915

Not mailed or dated, but typical of the Divided Back Era of postcards that lasted from 1907 until 1915.


Lambert's Beach, circa 1915

For a long time this section of the Park was known as Lambert Beach, named after San Antonio's first Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert.


Swans in Breckenridge Park, circa 1915

The Dahrooge Company misspelled the Park's name in this view of the swans, circa 1915. The swans were a popular attraction and appear in many postcards.


San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park, around 1920
A tranquil scene in the Park around 1920.

View of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park

A colorful view of the River in Brackenridge Park, never mailed.


1906 postcard, San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park

Featuring the ever-popular swans. Mailed on November 9, 1906.


1906 postcard, hand-colored

The same Real Photo base image as above, this time very nicely hand colored.


Hand colored view of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park

A nice hand-colored German made postcard, never mailed.


Swans in Brackenridge Park
Mailed on April 26, 1911 to Miss Emma Kopjolin in Cibolo, Texas, the back of the postcard says:

Dear Emma: I don't know if I answered your last postal or not. Was you in town for the carnival? I had a pretty nice time at the carnival. Give my love to Eva. Love from Ella.

The 'carnival' probably refers to San Antonio's week-long Fiesta celebration, held during the latter part of April each year.


Home of the Swan, Brackenridge Park

Like I said, the swans were a very popular subject.


Swans, 1915

Yet another card featuring swans, mailed in 1915.


Lovers Lane footbridge in Brackenridge Park
Published by Paul Ebers in San Antonio and never mailed. Probably produced around 1920. The caption on the back says:

One of the seclusive spots which, with the lovers' lane, is known best to all park visitors.


Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park

Ray Lambert succeeded Ludwig Mahncke as Parks Commissioner, and his greatest dream was to convert an abandoned quarry on the western edge of the park into a lily pond. In 1917, he set out to accomplish his goal using prison labor and meager resources. Local residents donated exotic plants, and the "Japanese Garden" as the area was called, was hailed in national publications as a unique attraction.

In 2008 the Sunken Gardens reopened after a long hiatus. Volunteers worked thousands of hours to restore the Gardens to their former splendor.


Sunken Gardens Theatre in Brackenridge Park
The caption on the back says:

The Sunken Garden in Brackenridge Park is one of the show places of America.  It was an old abandoned rock quarry, but man and nature have made of it a beautiful sight.  A tea garden, managed by expert Japanese, is situated at the Garden so the visitor may refresh himself and view the beauties of the Garden at the same time.


Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park
In the 1960s, my family made several trips to San Antonio to visit family. The Sunken Gardens was considered a "must do". The caption on the back of the card says:

One of the prettiest sights in San Antonio. Visited by thousands of tourists annually.

 


Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park
This view of the pagoda was a very popular one. The back of the postcard says:

The Sunken Garden in Brackenridge Park is one of the show places of America.  It was an old abandoned rock quarry, but man and nature have made of it a beautiful sight.  A tea garden, managed by expert Japanese, is situated at the Garden so the visitor may refresh himself and view the beauties of the Garden at the same time.


Sunken Gardens in Brackenridge Park
Yet another view of the same scene by a fourth publisher. The caption says:

The Sunken Garden in Brackenridge Park can be reached over the Alpine Drive. Here one can see the Lily Pool, Japanese Tea Gardens and many varieties of flowers. This park was donated to the city by Col. George Brackenridge and contains 363 acres. It has Public Playgrounds, a Golf Course, Bathing Beach, Tennis Courts, a Zoological Gardens and many other things.


Brackenridge Park cement plant

A mid-1960s view of the ruins of the cement plant. It's no longer possible to photograph the same view today because tall trees now obscure the view.


Motorboat ride in Brackenridge Park

Up until the 1960s one could take a "Thrilling motorboat ride in the San Antonio River in beautiful Brackenridge Park near the famous San Antonio Zoo."

 


The San Antonio Zoo

At one end of Brackenridge Park is the San Antonio Zoo, one of the nation's finest. It houses more than 3,500 animals representing 600 species. Over a dozen exhibits cover 53 acres.


Edwards well in the San Antonio Zoo

The San Antonio Zoo relies on water from this large Edwards well. It is used to supply about three million gallons of water per day and forms a river that runs through many of the exhibits.


San Antonio Zoo exhibit

The well water flows through an astounding number and variety of exhibits that are home to hundreds of species.


San Antonio Zoo Cliffside Grottos

Edwards well water is used in the Cliffside Grottos, a habitat for cats of the world that was a gift from the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation.


San Antonio Zoo Africa Live! exhibit

In 2008 the Zoo opened the Africa Live! exhibit, where visitors are immersed in a setting that represents Africa three months after the seasonal rains. The theme of the exhibit is the importance of water in both abundance and scarcity, and visitors are encouraged to make comparisons to places like San Antonio, where it seems we are either water-rich or water-poor all the time.