A limestone well structure was built around the Blue Hole in the 1980s. Credit: Courtesy / Howard Homan.

The source spring of the San Antonio River, also known as the Blue Hole, is a sacred place in Alamo Heights that is overlooked by most San Antonians.

The free month-long exhibitionArt of the Sacred Texas Springs, aims to introduce residents and visitors alike to this integral part of San Antonio’s history. The head of the San Antonio River, located in the Headwaters Sanctuary, is the first of five sites in a pilgrimage honoring the springs of South Central Texas.

A sacred pilgrimage site for indigenous peoples for thousands of years, the Blue Hole is a central figure in several cultures’ creation stories. The spring rests on the Camino Real, or King’s Road, that connected spiritually, ecologically, and economically important sites from present-day Northern Texas and Mexico. The Blue Hole is located in the Headwaters Sanctuary, the last 53 undeveloped acres of the old George W. Brackenridge estate in Alamo Heights.

The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word have owned the property since 1897. By the time of the Sisters’ purchase, the once geyser-like Blue Hole was an echo of its former self of 12,000 years prior to Spanish occupation. Documents from the 17th through 19th centuries note a geyser up to 20 feet high. In 1849, a reporter called the springs “without doubt one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, places in Texas, its woodland grace and park-like beauty so heightened by the perpetual mystery of its profound and noble springs.”

The Blue Hole goes by several names: the San Antonio spring, Ojo de Agua (or watering hole), and Yanaguana. In the language of the Payaya people of the Coahuiltecan Indians, Yanaguana is believed to mean spirit waters. In the creation story of many Coahuiltecan groups, humanity was birthed of droplets from the Blue Hole. All life emerged from this spring. The Payaya were the Native Americans here at the time of colonization, though many groups of people had long pilgrimaged to find respite at the spring. The Payaya and other tribes became the Mission Indians, and the Blue Hole evolved from a largely communal and spiritual space to a way the dominating Spanish could irrigate the Missions.

A 1764 Spanish map shows an acequia was built close to the Blue Hole, feeding the Alamo. In 1890, historian William Corner called the spring “the key to the whole situation, the Ojo de Agua, the birthright of the city.” But it did not take long for the Spanish-colonial Missions to overshadow the very source that gave life to their gardens and pasture lands.

As San Antonio grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, artesian wells dug into the Edwards Aquifer depleted the spring flow and had a devastating effect on the San Antonio River. Brackenridge is said to have written to a friend, “I have seen this bold, bubbling, laughing river dwindle and fade away…this river is my child and it is dying and I cannot stay here to see its last gasps…I must go.”

A statue of George Brackenridge along Broadway Street.
A statue of George Brackenridge along Broadway Street near the San Antonio River. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

And so he went, entrusting the headwaters to the Sisters who came to San Antonio with the express purpose of nursing those stricken with cholera and yellow fever. They treated people dying of water-borne diseases that emerged as the city expanded without proper waste management; they healed the people here as the Blue Hole itself grew sick and dwindled.

There have been several years that the San Antonio Spring did not run at all and the river was fed by smaller springs in the Olmos Basin. The Blue Hole is now protected by Headwaters at Incarnate Word, an independent nonprofit adjacent to but separate from the University of the Incarnate Word.

The Blue Hole joins the Comal, San Marcos, and Barton springs as one of the four sacred fountain springs of Texas. Together with San Pedro Springs, these five issue from a common source, the Edwards Aquifer, each giving rise to the rivers that have sustained human communities in South Central Texas for more than 12,000 years.

The Art of the Sacred Texas Springs exhibition, is coordinated by Headwaters at Incarnate Word and a group of professional artists. It serves a way to recognize these five precious springs, with each location hosting an exhibition celebrating its space. There is desperate need for water conservation in our region to maintain not simply Yanaguana, but also our diverse ecological and spiritual communities.

The artists of this exhibition recognize art as a medium through which people can access the cultural significance of sacred environments, and, therefore, used water as inspiration in creating works that celebrate the connection between local people and the natural world. The exhibit and accompanying events invite the public to experience these essential springs through various artistic mediums.

The installation is housed in the Semmes & Condos Galleries in the Kelso Art Center at the University of the Incarnate Word and is free and open to the public. Half of the proceeds of the art sold come back to Headwaters to keep educational programming free to all.

The special events accompanying the exhibit are free but require registration to secure seating. The exhibition runs through Sunday, April 8, with three more events on its slate: Musical Bridges Around the World offers two piano recitals on March 29 and April 4, respectively; Voices of the Waters: Poetry & Prose Readings, a National Poetry Month event, will take place on on April 8; and the Tehuan Band of Mission Indians will close the exhibition with a traditional blessing.

The exhibition is an official Tricentennial initiative.

Alex Scott Antram is an environmental anthropologist and executive director of Headwaters at Incarnate Word. She has a unique background in cultural and natural resource management and interpretation that...