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

1 comment:

  1. Great read! Thanks for posting--brought back memories for sure. I went to Brackenridge a number of times over the years!