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|Address:||3700 N. St. Mary's|
Brackenridge Park Conservancy
|Hours:||Sunday-Saturday: 5 a.m. – 11 p.m.
|Amenities:||3 pavilions (rentable)
Japanese Tea Garden
San Antonio Zoo
Sunken Garden Theatre
Tony "Skipper Martinez" softball field
Located just below the headwaters of the San Antonio River, Brackenridge Park and the surrounding area has been a gathering place since prehistoric times. There is evidence of human visitation and occupation extending back at least 11,000 years. Native American artifacts dating as early as 9200 B.C. have been found in the Olmos Basin and near Hildebrand Avenue.
Following the founding of San Antonio in 1718, early Spanish settlers used the San Antonio River as a source of water for hand-dug ditches that irrigated their fields. Two of these ditches—acequias- branched from the river in today's park. The Alamo Madre ditch was built in the 1720s and ran east, carrying water to Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo). This ditch left the river opposite the back to the Witte Museum. The Upper Labor ditch was built about 1776 and watered land west to San Pedro Creek. The dam that diverted water into the ditch was excavated in 1996 just below Hildebrand Avenue. Remnants of the Upper Labor acequia remain visible within the boundaries of the San Antonio Zoo.
This area of San Antonio remained largely undeveloped until the mid-19th century. An unsuccessful attempt was made in 1839 to found the town of Avoca in the area of today's Alamo Heights. It was not until 1852, when the City began disposing of its public lands, that construction began this far north of downtown. That year, the City sold the Headwaters of the San Antonio River to a City alderman, J.R. Sweet who built his home there. A short distance to the south, the City began leasing its hard rock quarry for commercial use. During the Civil War, the Confederacy used land in today's Koehler Park for a tannery to produce leather for military supplies.
The City's post-Civil War growth brought new residents and an increased demand for residential and business construction. A visitor to San Antonio, William Loyd, discovered that the rock quarry produced limestone needed to manufacture Portland Cement, a valuable building supply. Loyd entered into partnership with local chemist George Kalteyer to found Alamo Roman and Portland Cement Company. The company leased the City's quarry until 1908, building its manufacturing plant just west of the River. Nearby, a very different type of business operated—Ilka Nursery—one of San Antonio's early wholesale and retail outlets for plant materials.
In 1866, George W. Brackenridge moved to San Antonio from Austin, and three years later, his mother, Isabella Brackenridge, purchased the old Sweet property at the Head of the River. The City attempted to re-purchase the headwaters to protect its water supply, but a disagreement over price caused the deal to collapse. Brackenridge then began to purchase additional waterfront property and leased some of his land to J.B. LaCoste who developed a privately-owned waterworks to serve the growing population. Remnants of this early water system are still found in the park including the old pumphouse at Lambert Beach. LaCoste's operation was not financially successful, and by 1883, Brackenridge, who had accepted stock in lieu of rent, owned the waterworks. He extended the system, building a reservoir at the top of a hill to the east in today's Botanical Gardens, and constructing new raceways, pumping stations.
By the early 1890s, George Brackenridge succeeded in drilling artesian wells to meet the City's growing water needs. The old waterworks system became obsolete, the water table dropped and the springs that fed the River at Brackenridge's beloved home dried up. Though Brackenridge continued to own the waterworks until 1906, he donated 199 acres to the City in 1899 for use as a public park.
San Antonians were settling as far north as Alamo Heights by the turn-of-the 20th century and commuted to the area by a street railway system that ran up Broadway, then called River Avenue. On Sunday afternoons, city dwellers traveled to the Head of the River for relaxation and recreation. Brackenridge's gift of wooded land along the River attracted visitors almost immediately, though it did not officially open for over a year.
The City Parks Commissioner, Ludwig Mahncke, was given the task of improving the land, and he lost no time. As a close friend of Brackenridge, he enjoyed the donor's full cooperation and support. Mahncke designed a series of drives totaling seven miles that wound through the trees and along the river, converging at the north end of the 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. Though successful and popular, Mahncke resigned in 1906 after a political dispute with Mayor Bryan Callaghan, a bitter enemy of his friend George Brackenridge. Mahncke died within several months and was honored by his friends who dedicated a monument to him that stands today in Mahncke Park.
George Brackenridge continued to donate land to enlarge the park. His gifts included Mahncke Park, which he asked to be named in honor of his friend Ludwig, as well as property comprising the today's golf driving range (formerly the polo field). The park was further enlarged through the generosity of other donors. In 1915, Emma Koehler donated property west of the River where the Confederate tannery had been located. She dedicated the park to her deceased husband, Otto, who had owned the Pearl Brewery, and insisted that alcohol be permitted in the park. (By contrast, Brackenridge had prohibited consumption of alcohol in "his" park.) Two years later, Bexar County donated ten acres to the City to establish Davis Park just west of the river and south of Mulberry Street in honor of County Judge James R. Davis.
Mrs. Koehler's gift was made seven years after the Alamo Roman and Portland Cement Company vacated the old quarry, and it coincided with the appointment of Ray Lambert as City Parks Commissioner. Ray Lambert's appointment began a new era for Brackenridge Park. Lambert inherited a parks system that was underfunded and growing quickly. He immediately asked for almost a threefold increase in budget (to $60,000), and earmarked much of this increase for the further development of Brackenridge Park.
One of Lambert's earliest actions was to establish a zoological garden within the park. Twelve acres of the old tannery site were reserved for the Brackenridge Park Zoological Garden, and the Scientific Society of San Antonio developed plans for a facility that incorporated the River and old quarry walls. The zoo was immediately adjacent to the land that Emma Koehler gave to the City the following year.
Another of Lambert's early, major projects was the construction of a public golf course in the park. A public course had been advocated by golf enthusiasts for many years as a tourist attraction for the City. (There were three other courses in San Antonio at that time, all private.) In October 1915, within a year of Lambert taking office, it was reported that the 18-hole Brackenridge Park golf course was under construction. Noted course designer A.W. Tillinghast of Philadelphia laid out the Brackenridge course to take advantage of the meanders of the river, and though it was constructed on one side of the waterway, golfers crossed the river at several points. A clubhouse was also proposed, as well as a swimming hole "so that after the game the players may enjoy a plunge in the delightful waters of the San Antonio River."
Lambert continued to develop Brackenridge Park into the city's premier recreational area, and in November 1922, Commissioners advertised for bids to construct a clubhouse at the golf links designed by noted local architect Ralph Cameron. (Together with Emmett Jackson and George Willis, Cameron designed the Municipal Auditorium.) The building was completed in early 1923. The clubhouse replaced an earlier 2-story building on the site constructed as the Jockey Club. The club and its adjoining race track functioned in the 1890s into the early 20th century. Club members viewed bicycle and horse races from the building's broad verandas, and non-members sat in adjacent grandstands.
Shortly after construction of the golf course, the City Federation of Women's Clubs petitioned the City to purchase land west of the course along Broadway. The property had been retained by Brackenridge and was sold with his waterworks holdings in 1906 to out-of-town interests. In 1916, Ray Lambert prevailed on the City to purchase the land, and the local Lions Club constructed one of the city's early playgrounds on the site.
Lambert's vision for the park also included the Eleanor Brackenridge playground, named for George Brackenridge's sister, which he developed adjacent to today's Joske Pavilion. Across the River from the playground, Lambert developed a "swimming beach" with a gravel bottom where San Antonians sought relief from the heat. Nearby, the local Rotary Club conducted donkey rides that were popular with local children. The "donkey barn" was constructed to store hay that supplied both the donkeys and zoo animals.
Ray Lambert's greatest dream was to convert the 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. The surrounding buildings, remnants of the cement works' operations, were converted into a craft village. South of the Japanese garden, Lambert created the Texas Star Garden formed in the shape of the state emblem using rocks and flowers.
As the park became more popular, the Lambert's early swimming beach (today named in his honor) was reconstructed in 1924 as a concrete-lined pool with rustic stone dressing rooms. Lambert continued to beautify the area by relocating the old St. Mary's Street bridge to the park in 1925, and constructing the Joske Pavilion in 1926. These were Lambert's last accomplishments in the park. He died suddenly from pneumonia in 1927.
Ray Lambert had succeeded in making Brackenridge Park a leading attraction for residents and visitors, and after his death, new community facilities continued to be constructed in the park. The Witte Museum was built at the northeastern edge of the park in 1926, and in 1930, the San Antonio Civic Opera Company built an open air theater immediately south of the Japanese gardens. In 1949, the Tuesday Musical Club, the oldest women's music club in Texas, built its club house near the Japanese gardens.
As Texas neared its Centennial year, various cities competed to host the State's official celebration. San Antonio organizers proposed that a grand fair be held just west of the open air theater. The proposed site was at the southwestern edge of Brackenridge Park in an area formerly known as San Jacinto Park. (This park, that was apparently never fully developed, encompassed the western portion of the rock quarry where Trinity University was later constructed.) Though San Antonio failed to win the right to hold the Centennial celebration, several local projects were funded. These included $62,000 to construct a memorial to improve the open air theater and designate it as a memorial to the "heroes of the Texas Revolution." Centennial funds were also used to construct Pioneer Hall adjacent to the Witte Museum as a museum to commemorate Texas' early trail drivers.
Depression-era programs were used to fund some of the projects not selected to commemorate the Centennial. One such project was a proposed public stadium. When federal funding became available through the Works Projects Administration, it was announced in 1939 that a "school athletic stadium" would be constructed using a combination of federal and school district funding. Depression-era programs also assured the completion of smaller projects in Brackenridge Park including erosion control, retaining walls along the river, and construction of various zoo buildings.
The only major changes to Brackenridge Park since 1940 are those brought about by the alignment of Highway 281 during the 1960s. The golf course was reconfigured at that time, and two small parcels were cut off from Park at its southwestern edge The San Antonio flood control tunnel inlet was constructed on one of those parcels. New concession facilities were built, the zoo expanded, and pavilions reconstructed. Commercial facilities were built at the edges of the park where it intersects major thoroughfares. Still, Brackenridge Park remains remarkably unchanged in layout and design, and retains a rich array of historical fabric to be preserved and interpreted for future generations.
History written by Maria Pfeiffer
Special Projects Officer
San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department
In 1915, Ray Lambert, San Antonio's newly elected Commissioner of Parks and Sanitation, focused his attention on improving the northern area of Brackenridge Park. Adjacent to the old Water Works pumphouse, Lambert built a playground and swimming beach. A corrugated iron bathhouse for women and children was constructed and the river bottom was improved by removing mud and laying gravel.
The bathing beach was an instant success and the newspaper reported that the daily dip is the thing. Lambert made plans to enlarge the beach and in 1925, permanent swimming pools for adults and babies were completed, along with dressing rooms designed by architect Emmett Jackson.
The beach area was further improved in the 1920s when the old iron truss bridge that crossed the river downtown at St. Mary's Street was moved to the park and Joske Memorial Pavilion was constructed (also designed by Emmett Jackson). Ray Lambert completed these projects shortly before his death in December 1927. Though the pool has been closed to swimmers for almost 50 years, it still carries Lambert's name as a reminder of his enduring vision for Brackenridge Park.
The Reptile Garden in Brackenridge Park was established in the early 1930s during the Depression. An unemployed herpetologist, W.C. "Bill" Bevan, arrived in San Antonio and found his way to the museum where he was retained to do odd jobs. On learning of his profession, the museum's director, Ellen Schulz Quillin, suggested that he give snake demonstrations in front of the museum in exchange for donations. He preferred, however, to construct a reptile garden.
Mrs. Quillin took the reptile garden proposal to the City of San Antonio which declined to finance the $750 project. Mayor C.K. Quin , however, gave permission to house snakes in Brackenridge Park in a "safe" enclosure. The all-woman Witte Museum board embraced the proposal, envisioning a money-making project that would sustain the museum during the Depression. Using donated materials and labor, the original reptile garden was constructed of wood planks, barbed wire, and old sheet metal roofing. The published history of the Witte Museum states that this was the first such facility in the United States.
The garden opened on June 8, 1933, and was stocked with rattlesnakes captured on surrounding ranches and bought for 15 cents a pound, alligators purchased at 50 cents a foot, and turtles. Opening night was sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor welcomed visitors. The following day, over 800 people paid 10 cents to view this new curiosity, and within one week, the garden had paid for itself.
Officially known as the Reptile Garden and Research Bureau, the facility attracted both a general family audience and scientists from throughout the world involved in snake bite research. A variety of events drew crowds to the garden including rattlesnake milking, turtle races, and weekly rattlesnake fries. These activities contributed revenue that kept the museum open throughout the Depression.
The reptile garden's success assured the construction in 1934 of a new, more permanent facility built of limestone with a red tile roof. In its first ten years of operation, Ellen Quillin estimated that 750,000 people visited the Reptile Garden. A drought in the late 1940s created a scarcity of snakes, and the garden's focus shifted to alligators. The last rattlesnake fry was held on September 14, 1950. The garden continued to be a popular attraction and was managed from 1952 until 1975 by George Kimbrell who collected and displayed alligators and crocodiles. The Reptile Garden closed when Kimbrell retired to Arkansas in 1975, taking his collection with him.<<BACK