In San Antonio, a few miles northwest of the Alamo, Texas’ oldest public park enchants visitors with a spring-fed pool, broad expanses of tree-shaded land, and an archeological history that predates Spanish colonization of the New World.
In his 1709 diary chronicling an expedition into the northern frontier of New Spain, Franciscan padre Isidro Felix de Espinoza wrote, “Crossing a broad plain, we entered a growth of mesquite with some mottes of live oaks in it. We came upon an irrigation ditch full of water and very well wooded, which was sufficient for a town, and all along it were places to tap the water, for the ditch was on high ground, and the land was sloping. We called it the Waters of San Pedro.”
Not only did Espinoza describe the area where the Villa de San Fernando de Béxar—known to-day as the city of San Antonio—would soon be established, but he also observed an important factor in its founding: the abundant, spring-fed “Waters of San Pedro.”
Archeological evidence found here—including weapons and vessels for carrying water and food—suggest that humans have gathered at these springs for more than 12,000 years.
Today, the 46 acres surrounding the springs still welcome visitors as San Pedro Springs Park, the oldest park in Texas and one of the oldest in the country. Current patrons of Espinoza’s “broad plain” enjoy not only a community swimming pool, but also tennis courts, a children’s playground, a theater for live performances, and a public library. Moreover, amblers, daydreamers, and sky-gazers find in the open green space a restorative oasis amid the busy urban swirl. Some of the giant oaks in the park seem old enough to have been there to greet the padre. Some, known by children and adults alike as “climbing trees,” fell long ago and have re-rooted. Hector J. Cardenas, president of the Friends of San Pedro Springs Park, points out the variety: oak, elm, cypress, palm, anaqua, and mesquite.
For history buffs, a San Pedro stroll offers a hands-on experience of San Antonio’s storied past.
Nearly a decade after Franciscan missionaries named the springs in 1709, the first San Antonio mission and presidio were established nearby. “These soldiers and their families were the first European settlers in San Antonio,” explains Cardenas. The garrison moved to Military Plaza in 1722, and the mission, San Antonio de Valero, was moved to a site on the San Antonio River in 1724. In time, it included the iconic structure known the world over as the Alamo.
The king of Spain proclaimed San Pedro Springs and surrounding acreage to be an ejido, or public land, in 1729. “Two years later,” explains environmental scientist Gregg Eckhardt, a San Pedro Springs enthusiast who has collected more than 50 vintage postcards of the park, “the ejido was used for the first time in the public interest when the commander of the Royal Presidio designated it the temporary farming land of immigrants sent by Spanish authorities from the Canary Islands. As such, the land around the springs was also the site of San Antonio’s first permanent settlement by European civilians.” The islanders’ permanent homes were south, clustered around Main Plaza, and the springs remained an outpost outside the settlement. In 1731, the Spaniards constructed an acequia to furnish water for irrigation and household use. “It took more than a century for the area around the springs to take on the appearance of a modern-day park,” adds Eckhardt.
'San Pedro Springs is one of the most important places in the entire Southwest. Without these springs, the seventh largest city in the country might not even exist.'
During the decade of the Republic of Texas, Texas Rangers held horsemanship contests at the springs with Mexican vaqueros and Comanche warriors. The City of San Antonio declared the site a public park in 1852. Throughout the rest of the 19th Century and for the first two decades of the 20th, San Pedro remained the city’s prime destination for recreation. Celebrations of Juneteenth, Diez y Seis, the Fourth of July, and Columbus Day brought crowds to San Pedro Springs Park during these years. And year round, San Antonians took trolley cars to the springs, where they enjoyed music and dining at a beer garden, glided in swan boats on small lakes, ascended in hot air balloons, and marveled at a zoological collection that became the genesis of the San Antonio Zoo. A natural history museum here, opened by Hungarian naturalist Gustave Jermy, was a forerunner of today’s Witte Museum.
Sam Houston addressed a throng at the park in 1860, imploring his fellow Texans not to forsake the Union. Later, as the Civil War raged on, the site held a prisoner of war camp for captured Yankees. After the war, the Union’s newly formed black regiments, the Buffalo Soldiers, camped and trained at the springs before deployment to West Texas.
Markers describe the park’s location on the Camino Real and other historically important features. A camel figure in the children’s playground area recalls the U.S. Army’s experiments using camels in the 1850s as beasts of burden and military transport. Other enigmatic structures evoke San Pedro legends and mysteries. Gregg Eckhardt points out that a small stone building, known as the Block House, is believed by some archeologists to be the oldest Spanish Colonial structure in the state; it does seem possible that the building’s vertical gun ports could have been used to fight off would-be attackers. A star-shaped stone structure, once topped by an elaborate water fountain, is a remnant of the formal landscaping found here during the early 20th Century.
Springwater still cascades down a tall, moss-and-fern-covered, cone-shaped grotto. But the flow of the park’s 10 or more springs began decreasing due to drought and pumping from the Edwards Aquifer as early as the 1890s. In the 1940s, the pool closed for a decade, then reopened as a smaller pool filled with city water. Heavy rains and conservation brought the spring flow back, in-ter-mittently, in the early 1990s. Today, when conditions are favorable, springwater fills several smaller, emerald-green ponds before continuing on to San Pedro Creek.
Distinctive architecture graces the San Pedro Playhouse and the San Pedro Park Branch Library, both of which opened
on park grounds in 1930. The Greek Revival design of the playhouse, which recently featured a season of all-Texas plays, was based on the facade of the demolished 1850s Market House. The park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Overshadowed since the 1920s by the much larger Brackenridge Park, San Pedro today is enjoying a revival, thanks to recent restoration work by the San Antonio Parks Foundation and the nonprofit Friends of San Pedro Springs Park. A restoration in the 1990s increased green space and redesigned the pool to resemble the natural lake and spring-fed pool. The Friends of San Pedro Springs Park continue working to preserve and interpret the park. “San Pedro Springs is one of the most important places in the entire Southwest,” says Gregg Eckhardt. “Without these springs, the seventh largest city in the country might not even exist.”