Brackenridge Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Texas State Antiquities Landmark (click here to view National Register Nomination). The Japanese Tea Garden, a footbridge and other works by artist Dionicio Rodriguez, and the Water Works Pump House No. 1 are individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

“The place…is one of the loveliest pieces of land in Texas and for beauty, unrivaled…”
- San Antonio Light, December 1899

The casual visitor to Brackenridge Park is totally unaware that the 349-acre park, with its picnic areas, ball fields, museum, zoo, and golf course, occupies some of the most historically rich land in the City of San Antonio. Traffic and pavement abound, urban congestion and noise intrude, and interpretation is virtually nil. Nothing tells the visitor that the park represents a long timeline reaching back at least 12,000 years. It is a rich tapestry of history linked by the San Antonio River that rises from springs above and in the park and flows through the park on its southerly course.

Without the springs and river, Native Americans and Spanish explorers would not have camped here, and the presidio, mission, and village that grew to become San Antonio would never have been established. It can be argued that Brackenridge Park and the nearby headwaters are where the story of the city begins.

The park’s history began thousands of years before it was ever envisioned. Its story began in the pre-historic and early historic eras, progressed to Spanish Colonial exploration and settlement, and continued through the years of the Republic of Texas, early statehood, and the Civil War. The river that attracted Native Americans became the backbone of a complex Spanish irrigation system, and still later, the water source for pump houses that sustained the growing city.

All of this took place in today’s park long before its modern history began in 1899. It was then that George Brackenridge donated 199 acres of land adjoining the east bank of the San Antonio River for public parkland. In the years that followed, bequests of property on the west side of the river were merged with city-owned land to create the park as we know it today.

Under the guidance of Parks Commissioners Ludwig Mahncke and Ray Lambert, the rural landscape was transformed first into a tranquil retreat for city dwellers and later into an active recreational destination. As the park evolved throughout the 20th century, layers of the land’s pre-park history were forgotten―buried, demolished, or remodeled, and a new layer was added as the park landscape was modified during the City Beautiful and Playground Movements and the Great Depression.

Water is perhaps the park’s most compelling story. The San Antonio River is formed by springs both in the park’s upper reach and to the north on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word, the area commonly called “the headwaters.” The river ran swiftly and unimpeded for thousands of years, slowed only by drought which periodically dried the springs. The area was an oasis for Native Americans who found water, food, and shelter here. Archaeological investigations in and near the park have revealed evidence of human visitation and occupation extending back at least 21,000 years into the late Paleoindian era.

In 1691, Spanish soldiers and priests arrived at a nearby Payaya Indian village named Yanaguana, and because it was the feast day of St. Anthony, they called the place San Antonio de Padua, the name later given to the river as well. The first permanent settlement comprised of Mission San Antonio de Valero and the Villa de Bexar, established in 1718, is thought to have been initially established west of Brackenridge Park, possibly nearer to the San Pedro Springs. In 1731, a permanent municipality was founded several miles south of the park at the site of today’s Main Plaza. As the community grew, residents competed for control of land and water―issues that ultimately shaped the area that eventually became known as Brackenridge Park.

The Spanish began to construct an elaborate system of hand-dug ditches or acequias to carry water from the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek for domestic and agricultural use. Two of these―the Alamo and Upper Labor acequias―flowed from the river in today’s Brackenridge Park. The Alamo acequia, begun in 1719, originated on the river’s east bank just above today’s Witte Museum, and the Upper Labor acequia, built between 1776 and 1778, branched from the river to the west just below Hildebrand Avenue. On the river’s west bank, the Upper Labor dam is not visible, but the acequia itself remains an important park feature. Within the confines of the Zoo, the acequia is incorporated as part of the waterfowl exhibit.

The river in Brackenridge Park continued to be critical to the city’s water supply throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Until the mid-to-late 1800s, dairy farms, gardens, and orchards on both sides of the river within today’s park were sustained by the river and acequias. Though the majority of the land on either side of the river was used for agricultural purposes, the river within the park was also the source of power for small industrial enterprises.

In 1864, the Confederate government purchased a 75-acre tract of land west of the river to construct a tannery and sawmill. A stone-lined raceway was built to divert water to power the facility which reportedly produced 15,000 hides annually and had the capacity of 3,000 feet of lumber daily. When the tannery was advertised for sale after the war in 1867, the facility consisted of 12 stone lime vats, 52 wooden vats, seven stone pools, one steam sawmill, and one small stone building. The Confederate tannery, which is unknown to most San Antonians, remains perhaps the park’s most important undocumented feature.

George W. Brackenridge, a mercantile agent and financier who became wealthy during the Civil War, moved to San Antonio immediately after the war and, in 1869, purchased the land surrounding the river’s headwaters. The city had relinquished control of the river’s headwater springs in 1852 when the surrounding land was sold to raise money for the public treasury. In addition to the headwaters, Brackenridge purchased 200 acres on the east side of the river below his home in 1877, and it was this property that later comprised a major portion of today’s park.

At the time Brackenridge purchased the headwaters and other riverfront land, San Antonio had experienced a series of cholera epidemics, and there was a public outcry to establish a water delivery system for fire protection and household use. The city accepted Jean B. Lacoste’s proposal to build the system in 1877 with the agreement that the pump house would be located on city land within today’s park and that the system would be supplied with water from the river.

Brackenridge, who owned both the headwaters and land across from the pump house, was Lacoste’s major creditor, and by 1883, he had acquired the water supply system. He recapitalized the company and expanded the system, building a second raceway and pump house in the lower portion of park. Today. the two pump houses are among the park’s most iconic structures. The earthen raceway that supplied the upper pump house parallels the Upper Labor acequia channel in a unique historic juxtaposition. Today, within short walking distance, visitors can see these tangible remnants the city’s water supply system ranging 1719 until the late 19th century.

Brackenridge Park also tells another important story of the city’s industrial history. The rocky outcroppings west of and below the headwaters were city’s largest, most consistent source of high quality, hard limestone. The quarry was leased as early as the 1850s, and the stone was used to construct buildings throughout the city. Alamo Roman and Portland Cement Company operated the quarry from 1880 until 1908, producing Portland cement that was used in construction throughout the region.

The quarry was an abandoned eyesore in 1916 when Lambert transformed the deepest pit into an attraction that he called the Lily Pond. The Jingu family was invited to live at the Japanese Tea Garden or Sunken Garden as it became known. They operated a tearoom for visitors until in 1942 when they were evicted during the anti-Japanese backlash of World War II. Replaced by a Chinese family, the Jingus were invited back 40 years later for the garden’s rededication as the Japanese Tea Garden. The garden is an excellent example of a single resource telling a multi-faceted story.

Lambert also landscaped the adjoining portion of the quarry to create an attraction he called the Texas Star Garden (c. 1917) and built rustic stone cottages to create the Mexican Village (1920) where visitors dined on local dishes and purchased imported crafts.

In 1915, the park was consisted only of the Brackenridge bequest east of the river. Ludwig Mahncke, park commissioner and good friend of George Brackenridge, had designed the early park as a rural retreat for residents—“a driving park more than a picnic place.” Improvements were generally limited to seven miles of driveways that converged on the river at the north end of the park.

Ray Lambert was named Park Commissioner just as automobiles were becoming more commonplace and national trends including the Playground and City Beautiful movements were creating new expectations for public spaces. Residents clamored for active play spaces for their children and aesthetic enhancements of dilapidated public properties. Lambert was quick to respond. He demanded budget increases that he used to purchase more property, build new attractions and expand the park west of the river to encompass land already owned by the city. Additional bequests of property and money were also made, notably by Emma Koehler (1915), Brackenridge (1917), and Alfred Witte (1926).

Among Lambert’s first projects was a swimming beach with rustic bathhouses at the old upper pump house. By the 1920s, the pool was lined with cement and a more elaborate, permanent bathhouse was constructed. Overlooking the “beach” he built a children’s playground (1915-16). West of the river, in the abandoned quarry just beyond the Tea Garden, Lambert built a zoological garden (1915) where visitors could view wild and exotic animals. Responding to the growing national appeal of golf courses, Lambert hired noted designer A.W. “Tilly” Tillinghast to create an 18-hole course in the wooded area in the south part of the park (1916). The course spanned the river, creating challenging water hazards and the opportunity for golfers to cool off with a quick dip—or perhaps to throw their clubs into the river. In 1925, a supervised children’s playground was built in cooperation with the Lion’s Club on land east of the golf course (purchased in 1917). Pavilions and concession areas were also added, and to serve the increasingly popular pastime of cross-country automobile touring, Lambert established a tourist camp (1919) that was described as “one of the best in the country.” To serve a more elite crowd, he allowed the San Antonio Polo Club to use George Brackenridge’s second bequest, a large flat expanse west of the river, for its polo matches. And finally, the year before his death, Lambert was quick to accommodate the wishes of Alfred Witte, who unexpectedly bequeathed $75,000 to the city to build a museum honoring his parents with the stipulation that it be built in Brackenridge Park.

Lambert tied all of these improvements together with a winding park road that followed the west bank of the river from the park’s southern boundary to the river near the zoo, and connected the west and east sides of the park using low water crossings. By the time Ray Lambert died in 1927, Brackenridge Park had been transformed from a passive, contemplative place, to a multi-use destination for locals and visitors alike.

Ray Lambert did not live to witness one of the park’s enduring stories—that of the Depression and Texas Centennial celebration that unfolded during the 1930s. It was a story he would have loved—it was well-funded. Brackenridge Park, like many public facilities throughout the country, benefited from Depression-era work programs carried out by the National Youth Administration (NYA) and Works Projects Administration (WPA). San Antonio’s representative from the twentieth congressional district, Maury Maverick, assured at least $90,000 for projects to improve the infrastructure of the park and zoo. After Maverick returned home from Washington and became the city’s mayor, he continued to advocate successfully for state and federal funding. WPA and NYA labor built river walls, entry gates, picnic tables and enclosures both at the zoo and reptile garden adjacent to the Witte Museum— all structures that can still be seen in the park today.

In addition to these Depression-era projects, the park benefited from the Texas Centennial celebration. An elaborate entry drive and stage structure were added to an outdoor theater built in 1930 on the site of Ray Lambert’s Texas Star Garden. Finally, Pioneer Hall was constructed north of the Witte Museum to honor Texas pioneers, trail drivers and rangers.

Today, with only a few exceptions, Brackenridge Park remains remarkably unchanged since the 1940s. It is only now, after many years of anonymity, that the history of Brackenridge Park may finally be interpreted. This is taking place on various levels.

Ongoing archaeological investigations are establishing a more comprehensive picture of the park’s history—both in the prehistoric and historic eras. Preliminary excavations of the Alamo acequia and dam were recently completed and further investigations are planned. Similar work will take place in the coming weeks at the site of the Upper Labor acequia and dam. Other recent investigations have expanded our understanding of George Brackenridge’s water system. The San Antonio River Improvements, which will eventually link Brackenridge Park with Mission Espada thirteen miles to the south, includes an interpretive signage component. The newly formed Brackenridge Park Conservancy is advocating for coordinated interpretation in conjunction with restoration of historic structures including the long-neglected upper pump house and Donkey Barn which overlooks the water features at the north end of the park. The San Antonio Golf Association, which leases the golf course and lower pump house, is planning exhibits interpreting both those facilities. A water center at the Witte Museum will tell the story of water in San Antonio and South Texas, incorporating outdoor displays at the riverside site. And interpretive signs and displays will relate the story of the Japanese Tea Garden, currently being restored by the San Antonio Parks Foundation.

So today, after many years of no interpretation, the challenge will be to avoid competing and confusing interpretation! The stories are as complex as the multiple institutions that occupy the publicly owned land and buildings that comprise the park. But it is encouraging to know that finally, there are many anxious story tellers waiting to write the next chapter.