The Acequia Madre de Valero, built between 1718 and 1744 and used until 1869, once carried water from San Pedro Springs to Mission San Antonio de Valero and on to the agricultural fields that are now Hemisfair Park. The original dirt ditch, later lined with limestone and masonry, was a lifeline for the Spanish and the town’s early inhabitants.
By the end of the 18th century, San Antonio’s acequias traveled in all directions and came to represent the most extensive waterworks system constructed by the Spaniards in Texas.
Segments of the Acequia Madre de Valero are still represented within Hemisfair Park with surface reconstruction of the original system, which now lies six to seven feet below the park’s surface. Construction projects over the last century – including the building and then demolition of HemisFair ’68 – long ago covered the unique irrigation canals. The acequias themselves were filled in with dirt and rubble in the late 19th Century once the city’s first waterworks system began distributing cleaner, safer water.
Phase One of the redevelopment of Hemisfair Park began in earnest this week with work on Yanaguana Garden, the four-acre recreational and play site on the park’s southwest corner. Once archaeologists had erected fences and brought in heavy equipment, it was time for them to dig a series of trenches to confirm the acequia’s historic path and presence. That work was completed Friday.
“We were looking for the Acequia Madre, and that is what we found,” said Kay Hindes, the City of San Antonio’s archaeologist. “We wanted to make sure that the acequia was still present after all the many years of construction. We want to preserve it in place. We want to highlight it, but we won’t restore it.”
The park’s master plan calls for limestone blocks to be placed along the acequia’s historic path so visitors will be able to understand its use and importance.
“The elevations today are dramatically different,” Hindes said. “There is some six to seven feet of fill there. I also want to emphasize that the city is following all applicable laws and is conducting the work under permit under the Texas Historical Commission.”
Some individuals have suggested that Yanaguana Park is being built on sacred indigenous burial grounds, but there is no evidence to support the claim. Trenches dug this past week by Prewitt and Associates, the Austin-based architectural consultants and field investigators, failed to turn up any evidence of indigenous activity. The location is too far from water sources to have served as a settlement area.
“That area was basically used as farm fields,” Hindes said. “The Acequia Madre was used by Mission San Antonio de Valero to water its crops.”
What the trenches did tell archaeologists this week is that remnants of the acequia are still in place, with much of the eastern wall of the canal still visible, while the western wall is less evident. A 1912 Sanborn’s map of the historic city shows the path of the Acequia Madre when the area was what Andrés Andujar, the CEO of the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, called a “megablock” that existed before HemisFair ’68 and the construction of Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
Longtime landowners that lived there enjoyed pumping rights from the acequia while others were required to haul in water.
What archaeologists uncovered this week was of historical interest, but they didn’t find an intact acequia buried in dirt and time. That’s no surprise since the limestone blocks used to line the acequias and construct the San Antonio Missions and its perimeter walls often were reused by people as the original structures fell into disrepair. More than one historic San Antonio home is built in part with cut limestone taken from colonial-era structures.
By noon on Friday, the open trenches were filled back in, the work documented. Much of the future Yanaguana Garden is now covered with blacktop and used for parking. Joeris General Contractors will begin removing the surface materials now and preparing the ground for eventual restoration into a green space. Each step of the way will require the presence of the archaeologists to document what lies below the surface before work can proceed.
“We’ll have a lot more work to do,” Hindes said. “Anytime they tear up the ground, we will investigate and monitor.”
The garden park will offer something for everyone: active playground equipment, a giant sandbox, water fountains to splash in and bikeways for the kids, and shade, benches and chairs and green space for adults to relax, read a book, or sunbathe.
Andujar and his team hope to hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies on the completed Yanaguana Garden before city elections in May.
*Featured/top image: Yanaguana Garden rendering. Image courtesy HPARC.