San Antonio's San Pedro Springs eternal
San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio can still attract a crowd on a summer afternoon. In the shade of cypress and oak trees, the ringing of the ice cream vendor's bell mixes with the yells of children playing in the oldest public swimming pool in Texas.
Designated a public space by the Spanish Royal Crown in 1729, the area is often cited as the second oldest public park in America. Massachusetts' Boston Common, established in 1634, is the undisputed holder of the oldest title. The Trust for Public Land lists eight other parks older than San Pedro including Battery Park in New York City (1686) and Jackson Square in New Orleans (1718).
No matter where it falls on the oldest-park list, San Pedro Springs Park has a long and colorful history. Historic records describe the springs as emerging from the base of a limestone bluff and filling a small lake before running down a creek that empties into the San Antonio River. Bones of mastodons, prehistoric tigers, and other extinct animals have been found in the area. Evidence suggests that an ancient village once existed under the towering oaks.
Early Spanish explorers relied on the springs for water when they crossed the parched landscape. El Camino Real, or the King's Highway, passed the headwaters of San Pedro Creek on its path from Mexico City to Louisiana. A Franciscan missionary named the springs in 1709.
Misión San Antonio de Valero, or the Alamo, was originally established west of the springs in 1718. Floods destroyed the wooden hut used as a church in 1724, and the mission was moved to its present location in what became downtown San Antonio. Santa Ana's army camped at the springs during the siege of the Alamo more than 100 years later.
The first European settlers built homes around the park and used the land for public vegetable gardens. Some of the irrigation ditches that they built still carry a trickle of water filled with tadpoles, which children love to catch.
From the city's infancy, the residents used the park for recreation and for the grazing of their livestock. It wasn't until 1851 that the city actually took ownership of the property. The U.S. Army camped at the springs with camels destined for service in West Texas. Sam Houston spoke to a huge political rally in the park in 1860. O'Henry mentioned the park in his short story, "A Fog in Santone."
In 1852, the city leased the property to John Duerler, who turned the lake and grounds into a destination for residents and visitors. Over the years more amenities were added. Duerler created spring-fed fishing ponds, rented boats, added a ballroom and a bar, and built a horse-race track and a baseball field. Eventually, the park would house the precursors to the San Antonio Zoo and the Witte Museum. A trolley ran the four miles from Alamo Plaza in downtown to the park.
And of course there are many legends associated with the park. In a cave somewhere along the fault line, there are supposed to be several chests of silver and gold coins buried by a Canary Island immigrant in the 1730s. The porous limestone is also rumored to be the home of ghosts that reside under the old block house and in a tunnel that runs from the park to the Alamo.
By the early 1900s, the flow of the springs began to decline because of wells drilled into the Edwards Aquifer. The springs nearly went dry in 1940. By 1954, the natural swimming pool was replaced by a chlorinated pool. In 1991 and 1992, record rains brought forgotten springs back to life.
You can still see the springs percolating from cracks in the rocks at the north end of the pool. A 1998 renovation has turned the pool into a natural-looking lake shaded by giant cypress trees.
San Pedro Springs Park is on the north side of downtown San Antonio at 1315 San Pedro. The pool is open free of charge June 7-Aug. 10, Tuesday-Sunday, 1-7pm. For more information, call 210/732-5992.
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