Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Blue Hole

This post is not about an old building, it is about a natural feature, the Blue Hole, that pertains to the last post.  It is historically significant since water was vitally important to the early settlers, as it is to our community today.

This is the ampitheatre in the Botanical Garden.  During the years of the Water Works Company, this was the reservoir for the water pumped from the Upper Pump House which was located 1/2 mile below the Blue Hole, the official headwaters of the San Antonio River.

This is the Blue Hole as it looks today, bone dry.  A combination of drilling artesian wells and exteme drought took its toll on the spring.  It will begin to flow again when the Edwards Aquifer reaches a certain level; however, the Aquifer is currently far below that level.  In the 1940's the Blue Hole was dry, and did not begin to flow again until a significant rain in the early 1970's brought the water level up. When there is water flowing form the spring it has a bluish cast, thus the name.

It is thought that the first Spaniards to have visit the Springs were members of a 1691 expedition led by Domingo Teran de los Rios and Father Damian Massanet who were enroute to visit the missions in East Texas.   Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares would visit the site in 1709 and thought it would make an ideal location for a mission. He would return in 1718 to establish the first mission, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) in its first location two miles west of the Blue Hole.

Early descriptions of the head waters describe the water as gushing several feet in the area with lush vegetation surrounding the waters.  The Eurpoeans delighted in the water source that had drawn the native peoples to the area for centuries.  Each of the missions would build acequias to bring the fresh water from the river to the mission. 

This area is part of the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word and is a protected area of over 50 acres.  A plaque on the rock wall explains that George W. Brackenridge built the concrete surround to protect the spring; it goes down to within a few feet of the Edwards Aquifer.  The rock wall was added in later years as additional protection.In 2008 the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity formed The Headwaters Coalition, a non-profit, sponsored ministry dedicated to spreading an ecological ethic and protecting this forested area that includes the Blue Hole and Olmos Creek.

In the 1890's there was still enough water here to make this a popular spot to come on Sunday afternoons.  A small dam was constructed that created a long, wide lake.  I wanted very badly to hike down this dry river bed; only the signs that asked for respect for the protected area kept me out.

This volleyball court was once a spring fed pool!
George W. Brackenridge would build his beautiful home on this property and name it Fern Ridge.  Today the home sits just beyond the volleyball court and is known as Brackenridge Villa.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Upper Pump House

The Upper Pump House (AKA Pump House #1)

I have been in and out of Brackenridge Park for many years, yet I had never noticed this old rock structure with its twin tunnels until recently. Amazingly, I had driven by the street side of the building and never thought about what it was, or might have been. When I noticed the structure from across the river I was puzzled about it, especially since I had never noticed it before.  So I crossed the river to explore it and was even more intrigued. There was a plaque that I started reading, just skimming through until I realized that one of the pictures was the Amphitheatre in the Botanical Garden.  I realized that I needed to start over and re-read carefully! With a little more research I realized that this structure had an amazing past.

In 1877, the city of San Antonio gave a contract to J. B. LaCoste and his associates for supplying the city with water from the spring at the head of the San Antonio River. The San Antonio Water Supply Company built a raceway and a pump house a half-mile below the headwaters on the property of George W. Brackenridge. 

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,  located in what is today the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  From there it was distributed by gravity to taps in people's yards (at that time, there was no indoor plumbing).
The current drought-like conditions give a good view of the tunnels
A water works plant had been in discussion since 1869 when Brackenridge's mother bought the property; even before then there had been debate about the ownership of the headwaters, known then and now as the Blue Hole.   The springs had become contaminated by outhouses and garbage; typhoid fever and malaria were rampant in San Antonio.  In 1866 a devastating cholera epidemic caused the community to realize there was a link between sanitation and disease; it desperately needed a method of water distribution that would eliminate the possibility of contamination.

There was much discussion and many talks, but nothing could be agreed upon.  Government and politicians moved slowly then, just like now, and there were several failed attempts to start a water system.  Brackenridge was determined that the city should own the springs, and had even offered to sell them to the city provided that they never be sold again;  that offer would also fail because the price could not be negotiated.

LaCoste had expected hundreds of people to sign up for service, the number was in the tens, and the unprofitable water works was sold to Brackenridge in 1883. Under his direction and foresight, the struggling water works system was built into a valuable asset.  In 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. That structure is also still standing today.

This is the street-side view of the pump house

In 1888, from his observations of the wildly fluctuating spring flows, Brackenridge became convinced there was danger of complete failure of the springs as a source of water for the city. In 1889 and 1890, he drilled large artesian wells into the Edwards Aquifer, some of the first Edwards' wells. Spring flows became much less important as a water supply source.  Brackenridge's concerns were proved right when a long drought and the drilling of more Edwards' wells did impact the flows of the springs in the late 1890's.
Brackenridge was heartbroken and unable to watch the demise of his beloved springs.  He decided to sell 280 acres including the Blue Hole 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. In 1925 the Water Works Company was sold to the city of San Antonio, and operates today as the San Antonio Water System.

Next post:  The Blue Hole

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Decker UMC

I've gone to a facility near Austin several times in the last two years for dog shows.  The route to the facility takes me by this pictuersque little church and I always want to stop and read the marker, and of course, make pictures.  Yesterday I finally had a chance to stop and explore. 

The community of Decker is about 8 miles east of downtown Austin, Texas.  The first settlers in this area were Swedish immigrants who arrived around 1867.  They worshipped in churches in Austin until 1871 when the Reverend C.C. Charnquist began to preach in homes; a church would be built and dedicated on Pentecost Sunday, 1879. In 1884 the church was enlarged and a parsonage was built.  By this time there was also a public school in the community; by 1907 there were two teachers and sixty students in the school. There was a community cemetery, as well as the one next to the church.

The church's bell - I wonder if they still ring it on special occasions
The current building was built between 1901 and 1902 under the pastorate of Reverend C.O.Freeman, with the modern addition (on the right) being added in 1967.

This is the side of the church, looking somewhat northeast.  I'm not sure what happened with the siding, it appears to be storm damage, but it does reveal a layer of a prior type of siding.

Whether you are traveling north or south on Decker Lane the view of the church is charming. There has only been limited development around the church, so I feel like it still looks much like it did a hundred years ago.

As luck would have it, they were having a family reunion in the church so there were cars blocking the view for pictures, and I didn't want to explore around too much and intrude on the gathering. But the next time I go by I will stop again.  (Go to church's website to see a picture of the church without cars.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Arneson River Theatre

This stage is a well known landmark in San Antonio.  It is the stage for the Arneson River Theatre.  Thousands of plays and community events have been held here since its completion in 1940.  It is also a popular venue for weddings.  Each summer it is the host to Fiesta Noche Del Rio.  But where does the audience sit?

Answer:  On grassy steps across the river!  This allows unobstructed views of the stage and the river gives an acoustic boost to the performers.  It is a part of the La Villita Historic Arts Village (watch for a future post on this).

The Arneson River Theatre was built between 1938 and 1940 with funds from the New Deal.  It was built as a Works Progress Administration project.  I had read this somewhere, but wasn't sure until today.  As I walked through the arched gateway in the above picture there was the simple plaque.

In this picture the stage of the theatre is in the right foreground, seating is on the left.  The bridge is one of several along the Riverwalk that allow pedestrians to cross the river.  This bridge is known as "Rosita's Bridge" named after Rosita Fernandez, a popular local singer that performed frequently at the theatre until her retirement in 1982.