After a half-hour ride from Southtown last night, Something Monday cyclists were greeted by Brackenridge Park Conservancy Director Leilah Powell at the San Antonio Zoo’s station with a quick and lively history lesson of the grounds.
It was the startup group’s third outing after rides and visits to the San Antonio Mission Reach two weeks ago, and then a follow-up ride to Mission Concepción and Mission San José last week.
“Many people think that Brackenridge Park is this preserved oasis in town,” Powell said, who conveniently lives only a few minutes away from the park and cycled over to meet and guide the group of about 20 cyclists. “But this area is a historically industrial area … made up of patches and pieces from different donors and organizations.”
The story of Brackenridge Park and its 350 acres of relaxation and entertainment amenities reflects the story of San Antonio: industry, politics, and growth from Spanish colonial-era to modern times. And Powell easily shouts out information about donkey houses, the Civil War, and past mayors and machine politics sparring over control of the park, right down to its name, as she leads the group on her bike. She’s a wealth of knowledge and representative of the Conservancy’s function: to organize volunteers, stewards, sponsors, and advocates of the park to ensure that it’ll be around for future generations to enjoy.
The San Antonio Parks Foundation and the City’s Parks and Recreation Department play very large roles in the park’s day-to-day. Something Monday riders in 3013 should be able to feel the same sense of peace and/or entertainment when visiting the park if the Conservancy fulfills its mission.
Consistent with most of San Antonio’s history, the foundations of the park’s expanses are directly tied to water, the most precious of resources from the Spanish colonial era right through the present-day era. Intact dams from the Spanish colonial era have been found in addition to two acequias, the Acequia Madre or Alamo Acequia, which originally ran to Mission San Antonio de Valero a.k.a. the Alamo, and the Upper Labor Acequia, which ran west of the city’s original mission, are visible in remnant pieces and various states of disrepair. According to archaeologists, Powell said, there are no other sites on the San Antonio River where another intact dam could be uncovered in the future.
Only a few months ago, workers and archeologists working in the northern part of the park uncovered a nearly extant, buried 1700s-era dam built on what was one of two channels of the San Antonio River. The dam is the only one of its kind known to have survived over the centuries.
Quarries, a cement factory, factories and even a Civil War-era Confederate tannery have been operated with the park, and over the centuries, taken their toll on the San Antonio River. The modern-day river reclamation project is all the more amazing when none realizes for much of its contemporary history, the river has been a slowly flowing cesspool.
“By the 1890s, people knew there was a problem with the river,” Powell said. “For some time, sewage and effluent were the only things making the river actually flow.”
Evidence that we’ve certainly come a long way is obvious as one tours the grounds: expansive green lawns, native landscaping, play grounds, picnic areas, wooded areas, historically preserved structures. The river flow consists of actual river water – though it’s still unfit to swim in and has some serious quality issues including 1) The San Antonio Zoo continues to dump animal waste into the river while a long overdue, taxpayer-supported sanitation system is installed, 2) the migratory bird rookery/their subsequent droppings and 3) storm run-off or nonpoint source pollution. Howoever, much of the water in the San Antonio River as it flows through the park is recycled water pumped into the channel by SAWS, she said.
“The park proves that it’s not impossible to take a place that’s been heavily used – rode hard and put away wet – take it, and turn it into a treasure,” Powell said. There’s even talk of restoring the Ray Lambert swimming beach – but that seems a long way off:
All manner of creative games are played by children in the first public swimming pool’s rustic stone dressing rooms as they’ve since been converted into a curious playscape.
The grounds are also home to some of San Antonio’s oldest industrial structures including “Pump House No. 1,” our first stop on the tour, right next to the former swimming pool (which is also where people would bathe until the 1890s). The pump house brought the first running water to a community with a long history of typhoid, malaria, cholera epidemics and unstoppable fires.
“You can’t tear down or dig up anything without calling an archeologist or historian to make sure it’s okay,” Powell said. “It makes (progress a bit) slow, but it’s worth it.”
Most of the masonry work, however, was completed by the use of prison labor, Powell said. “Pardon my French, but prisoners don’t know shit about masonry – but it’s historic … so we have to go through this whole process. ”
Dramatic relations between mayors and donors to the park pushed and pulled funding and activity permissions around the park. The park’s namesake, George Brackenridge, built his home and started acquiring waterfront land and water works in 1866, donated 166 acres to the City to be public park land, but required that alcohol not be sold or consumed – much to the chagrin of Mayor Bryan Callahan. Not because Brackenridge didn’t drink, he just didn’t like public intoxication, Powell said. “Then Emma Koehler came along and donated alcohol-friendly land right next door.” A natural decision from the San Antonio Brewing Association/Pearl Brewing Company champion.
Our tour ended at the Japanese Tea Garden, a lush, blooming garden with a labyrinth of trails and coy ponds. Embarrassingly, there are still signs that call it the “Chinese” garden, remnants of American citizen and government protest of all things Japanese during WWII. The eviction, persecution, and internment of innocent immigrants in the U.S. reached all corners of our country, including San Antonio. Local Japanese-American artist Kimi Eizo Jingu was invited to live and maintain the garden in 1926 and after his passing, his family was evicted in 1941. The home is now a restaurant, Jingu House Cafe, named in their honor.
These pages from our history are a much-needed embarrassment, however. To remind and educate residents of our human history of cruelty and ignorance. “Never again,” of course.
“They had this really wishy washy attitude,” Powell said of park officials during that time. “They’d say, ‘Can’t we just call it the Asian Tea Gardens?’ ” Which may be misguided, but perhaps more accurate as the gardens are more of a melding of cultures, unlike any Japanese garden in the world. Dionicio Rodriguez, a Mexico-born faux bois (concrete wood imitation) artist whose work is visibly scattered throughout the park and San Antonio, designed the entrance to the gardens, a Japanese Torii gate.
There are countless more places and points within the park where Powell can summon the city’s past as it developed from a city of 5,000 at the mid-19th century to a city of 100,000 at the turn of the 19th century as industry, much of it alive in Brackenridge Park, made San Antonio the largest city in Texas — at least for an era. The sun had begun to sink below the city skyline and riders were ready for that long-awaited post-ride drink or living room.
A smaller group pedaled over to the Bombay Bicycle Club, just beyond the park’s grounds on North St. Mary’s Street. Thirsts were quenched. The last riders made their way back to Southtown, bike lights blinking in the night. So, how about it readers, where to next?