Park History

San Pedro Springs Park—San Antonio’s oldest designated park— is located on land reserved for public use by the Spanish government in the 18th century. Only one public park in America is older— Boston Common, which dates to 1630.

People have gathered around the springs and creek that originate here for some 12,000 years. Hunter-gatherers found water, food, and rock to fashion weapons, and Spanish explorers first established their camps here in the late 17th century. In 1709, Fathers Antonio de San Buenaventura de Olivares and Isidro Felix de Espinosa named the waters "San Pedro springs." Historians agree that San Antonio’s earliest permanent settlement, a presidio and mission, were founded in 1718 near San Pedro springs, though its exact location is unproven. When the settlement was moved farther south in the 1720s, the springs continued to provide water to the new community. In 1731-34, the Spanish constructed an acequia to carry water to town for irrigation and household use.

The springs, surrounded by spreading trees, were a virtual oasis for residents and a popular recreational destination. In 1852, the City Council officially established a reserve around the springs and then leased the area to John Jacob Duerler who built pavilions where visitors enjoyed food, drink and entertainment. In 1856, the United States Army, experimenting with the use of camels, temporarily stabled the animals in San Pedro Springs Park. Sam Houston spoke to a political rally here in 1860, and during the Civil War, prisoners were held in the park.

These intense uses damaged the springs and park, and in 1863, the City Council prohibited military encampments and livestock in the reserve. J.J. Duerler agreed to fence the park, plant trees and shrubs, and clean the springs. He created five fish ponds west of the lake, planted a flower garden, and constructed a speakers’ stand and exhibition building with ballroom and bar. Duerler also built a race track on the site of today’s baseball field, and opened a small zoo. When Duerler died in 1874, his son-in-law was unable to maintain the park to the City’s satisfaction. It was then leased to Frederick Kerbel from 1883 until 1890 when the City assumed its management. Like Duerler, Kerbel greatly improved the park, installing fencing, planting trees, and maintaining the lake, ponds, and springs. In 1885, Gustave Jermy, a Hungarian naturalist, opened the Museum of Natural History, a forerunner of today’s Witte Museum.

Park conditions deteriorated in the 1890s as spring flow dwindled after San Antonio’s first artesian wells were drilled. This problem was compounded by a nationwide depression that left the City little money to maintain the park. However, in 1897, Mayor Bryan Callaghan was elected for a second term and took a great interest in the park’s renovation. The lake was cleaned and its stone walls repaired, the stagnant ponds were filled in, the old pavilion was demolished, and a new bandstand was constructed. Grass, tropical plants, caladium, and water lilies were added, and driveways and a boat landing were built. The "beautiful, rejuvenated San Pedro Springs" formally re-opened on August 11, 1899. Early 20th century postcards illustrate the formal landscape of San Pedro Springs Park including bridges, benches, planting beds, stone-lined pathways, and the lake inhabited by swans and ducks.

By the time the park was renovated in 1899, it was surrounded by San Antonio’s rapidly growing residential neighborhoods. Soon, further improvements transformed the park from a more passive to active recreational site. Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert directed a major renovation of the park that began in 1915 and extended through the 1920s. The zoo animals were moved to a new facility in Brackenridge Park, a swimming pool was built in the old lake bed, and tennis courts, a library and community theater were constructed. These facilities assured the park’s continued popularity and use into the late 20th century.

The 1998-2000 renovation of San Pedro Springs Park retained these historical uses and restored landscape and structural features that are important reminders of the park’s long and interesting history. San Pedro Springs Park was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

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