Thousands of San Antonians pass by the historic pump house in Brackenridge Park without realizing it, but a new agreement involving the City of San Antonio and local conservationists will breathe new life into the building.

On Thursday, City Council approved a funding agreement with the San Antonio Conservation Society to restore the remnant of the city’s first water works system.

The Conservation Society will provide $300,000 over three years, with the remainder of the estimated $1 million restoration cost coming from the 2017 municipal bond, San Antonio Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Homer Garcia III said.

The Society’s Presidential Advisory Committee, made up of past presidents, chose to restore the pump house as its Tricentennial project to commemorate San Antonio’s 300th anniversary.

“They really wanted to put their money somewhere that would be lasting and that represents our heritage,” the Conservation Society’s current President Susan Beavin said. “Water is the history of everything in San Antonio.”

Much of that early history unfolded around Brackenridge Park, just downstream from the headwaters of the San Antonio River. Indigenous people camped at the park for thousands of years before European contact, and the site was at various times home to a swimming beach, Confederate Army tannery, and limestone quarry.

Stone from that quarry was used to build the pump house, likely one of the oldest intact industrial building in San Antonio and potentially in Texas, said Everett Fly, an architect, landscape architect, and historian who advises the Conservation Society.

A historic photo of Lambert Beach with a screen possibly for projecting film covering the pump house. Photo courtesy of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy.
A historic photo of Lambert Beach with a screen – possibly for projecting films – covering the pump house. Credit: Courtesy / Brackenridge Park Conservancy

While San Antonio is home to other old former industrial buildings like Berg’s Mill and the Menger Soap Works, those structures are either in ruins or have been significantly altered, Fly said.

“It would be hard, especially in a city the size of San Antonio, to go somewhere else to find an industrial structure that’s that much intact and clearly recognizable,” Fly said.

The structure dates back to 1877, when it was built by French immigrant and entrepreneur Jean Baptise LaCoste, according to historical research in Charles Porter Jr.’s Spanish Water, Anglo Water.

Since Spanish colonization, San Antonio had been relying on the river, local creeks, and its network of irrigation ditches, or acequias, for both drinking water and sewer needs, which led to multiple cholera outbreaks in the mid-1800s.

Wanting better sanitation and more water for firefighting and commerce, City Council in 1877 signed a 25-year-deal exclusive deal with Lacoste’s San Antonio Water Company.

After Lacoste struggled to make money on the system, banker and businessman George Brackenridge accumulated a controlling stake in the water works system in 1879, hoping to begin selling cleaner water to residents.

The pump house itself is a testament to the former power and reliability of the San Antonio River, fed by its once-prolific springs at what is now the Headwaters Preserve at Incarnate Word.

Unlike many rivers in Texas that slow to a trickle in dry times, water gushing up from the Edwards Aquifer could provide enough power to pump water uphill from Brackenridge Park to a reservoir at what is now the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Gravity would then cause water to flow back downhill to customers.

The first reservoir in San Antonio resides in the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
The first reservoir in San Antonio resides in the San Antonio Botanical Garden and now is used as a recreational field and giant chess board. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Today, after heavy pumping of the aquifer to provide for centuries of growth, the headwaters springs only flow during rainy periods. The San Antonio River’s reliable downtown flows come from recycled water treated at local wastewater plants.

Despite the technological advancement evident in this newly purchased water system, fewer than 100 people ever signed up for it, Porter’s book states. Most people at the time got their water from water vendors hauling large barrels or for free from local creeks, the river, and the acequias.

By the late 1880s and early 1890s, the city was growing too fast to be supplied by the river alone. A hugely productive well drilled near Market Street in 1888 that tapped the Edwards Aquifer directly was a sign of the pump house becoming obsolete.

Fly said its structural foundation needs to be stabilized and reinforced and its roof sealed from water leaks, among other priorities.

“Otherwise, the whole thing will crumble,” he said.

Garcia said the Parks department does not yet have a specific plan for how the pump house will be used after restoration, though he said the plan is to add electricity and water service.

The process will likely include one year of design, one year of construction, and a stakeholder outreach program involving the Conservation Society, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy and others, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to capture a piece of history and figure out how it applies to today,” Garcia said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.