Market Street Pump Station in 1914. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
Market Street Pump Station in 1914. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

THE SAN ANTONIO MARKET STREET PUMP STATION IN TEXAS HELPED OPEN THE WEST TO DEVELOPMENT IN 1891 AND CONTINUES OPERATIONS TO THIS DAY.

When tourists stroll along San Antonio’s famous River Walk in Texas, lots of them will remember the Alamo, but few will recall the historical importance of the little pump station that sits among high-rise hotels in the hustle and bustle of America’s seventh largest city. Except for the Alamo itself, no other site in San Antonio approaches the importance of the Market Street Pump Station in shaping the development and history of South Texas. In the 19th century, artesian wells at the site were a catalyst that set the stage for modernization in the West – they contributed fresh, clear water that shaped a dusty little Texas town into the modern city it is today.

THE EARLY YEARS

The Market Street Pump Station in San Antonio, Texas, has been in continuous service since 1891, but the site’s vital and strategic connection to water predates the pump station by 170 years. The story starts about four miles upstream, where early 18th century Spanish missionaries and explorers found gushing natural fountain springs that burst from the vast Edwards Aquifer and gave rise to the San Antonio River. From its source, the river twisted and turned over the deep black soils of the Gulf coastal plain, causing natives to nickname the stream “drunken old man going home at night.” Or in Texan parlance, it’s “a skillet full of snakes.”

Where the Market Street station now sits, a prominent U-shaped bend formed a natural corral surrounded on three sides by water. This was el potrero, the pasture, common grazing lands for the Alamo mission and early European settlers. Across the river, an ingenious system of aqueducts diverted springflows from the stream and brought forth lush crops from the rich soil. A little frontier outpost took hold.

In those early years, the site also had military and cultural importance. Some accounts of the famous 1836 Alamo battle tell of a cannon emplacement at the Market Street site that launched cannon balls at Texian rebels holed up in the mission, who counted among themselves such illustrious combatants as David Crockett and Jim Bowie.

In 1854, San Antonio’s first social club and theater, the Casino Club, was chartered on the site. Leading actors and entertainers performed there, and during the Civil War both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant signed the guest book (San Antonio Express 1924).

An administrative office building was constructed on the Market Street site to house the Water Works offices. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
An administrative office building was constructed on the Market Street site to house the Water Works offices. Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

GROWING WATER NEEDS

As the young city grew in the decades after the Civil War, supplying the populace with plentiful, high-quality water became a main concern of Colonel George W. Brackenridge, the financial and engineering force behind the privately held San Antonio Water Supply Co. From his observations of springflows at the headwaters above town, Brackenridge believed it might be possible that a vast supply of pure underground water could be delivered to the surface by artesian pressure, if only one could drill deep enough.

The Market Street pumps (c.1914). Photos courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
The Market Street pumps (c.1914). Photos courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

In February 1891, residents were stunned by the appearance of a spectacular geyser at Market Street that erupted when drillers hired by Brackenridge reached a depth of 890 feet. There was so much artesian pressure that it blew out pieces of rock “as large as a man’s head” (McLean 1924). This was a signal achievement – it was the first large well drilled into the Edwards Aquifer for municipal supply, erasing any doubt that San Antonio had sufficient water to support extensive commercial development.

The Water Company’s success touched off a boom in deep well drilling, with hotels, office buildings, and industry drilling their own secure water supplies. The repercussions extended far from San Antonio, as residents throughout the entire Edwards Aquifer region realized that an assured water supply was underneath their feet. As this region encompasses more than 3,600 square miles in a 180-mile arc through South Central Texas, the impact of the Market Street well was profound.

At Market Street, additional wells were soon drilled, and a pumphouse was built to house a 500-volt electric motor that operated six belt-driven pumps. In 1895 the electric motor was replaced with a steam boiler and a new Worthington steam pump (Newcomb 1955). As the new century approached, the Water Company realized the need for even more pumping and well capacity. In 1902 a new contract was signed with the City, and plans were made to build a new pumphouse for two Allis-Chalmers triple expansion plunger pumps and new steam boilers to operate each. More wells were drilled, and the steam boiler’s tall smokestacks ruled the downtown skyline (Newcomb 1955).

In 1905 Brackenridge sold his holdings in the Water Supply Co. to the Mississippi Valley Trust Co. of St. Louis, Mo., which managed the City’s water supply system on behalf of a Belgian syndicate between 1905 and 1920. An administrative office building was constructed on the Market Street site, and the water system was known as Compagnie des Eaux de San Antonio. In 1923, the water company purchased property from the Casino Club for additional well sites and buildings. In 1925, the City acquired the entire site when it purchased the Compagnie des Eaux and formed the City Water Board. The Water Board quickly outgrew the administrative building, and several more expansions were necessary to house meter readers, draftsmen, and technicians.

Top: The City Water Board, formed in 1925, quickly outgrew the original administrative building (1933). Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
Top: The City Water Board, formed in 1925, quickly outgrew the original administrative building (1933). Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

MODERNIZATION AND GROWTH

In the following decades, the pumphouse underwent several transformations, and a two-story cut stone building that appears in early photographs was replaced in 1956 by the current structure, giving the pumphouse a more streamlined, utilitarian look. By 1958, the station was electrically driven instead of steam-powered. Even today, well pumps often are not needed here; tremendous artesian pressure can fill an 880,000-gallon storage tank without assistance.

In front of the Market Street station, the Lady Justice statue was a San Antonio landmark for decades, until it was almost destroyed by vandals. The remains of the statue were presumed lost but had actually been moved by San Antonio Water System employees to a warehouse. The statue was recently restored and installed at San Antonio’s Main Plaza.

Next door to the pump station, an art-deco styled structure completed in 1903 was San Antonio’s first free public library. It was a gift from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and was the second of the many Carnegie libraries built across the country. The old library building was demolished in 1929 and replaced by the present structure, which served as the San Antonio Central Library and later housed the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum.

During World War II, the utility was asked to surrender pipe for the war effort, and 175 feet of 30-inch steel pipe was hurriedly flown to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to help rebuild the capabilities of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. As the war progressed, water system operations and new main extensions were hampered by an inability to procure pipe. After the war, the pipes were shipped to Market Street and installed in a tunnel that led from the pump station to a new wellhead 51 feet below ground.

The Market Street site served as headquarters for the City Water Board until 1959, when the administrative offices were moved to the City Hall Annex on Dolorosa Street (City Water Board 1969). The administrative buildings were demolished in 1962, and the site was extensively relandscaped to create a mall-styled entrance to the Paseo del Rio, the River Walk (City Water Board 1962).

By the mid 1960s, the City had more than 70 pumping facilities scattered throughout San Antonio, and remote control of pumps and valves by telemetry was an advancing science. An imposing but elegant panel of instruments and devices was installed at Market Street that made San Antonio’s water production facilities the nation’s first system to be brought totally under telemetric control. Magazines of the day published articles on San Antonio’s “push-button water supply,” and the station was featured on the cover of Public Works magazine in June 1968.

In 1966, more landscaping added a stone arbor and patio area in time for HemisFair, the 1968 World’s Fair (City Water Board 1967). The site served as a central portal to the River Walk for more than six million visitors.

PRESENT DAY

Currently the station has three active wells with a capacity of 43.2 million gallons per day. It is still a major water supply facility serving the downtown area. For decades, a water tank on the site impeded River Walk foot traffic, but recent construction now allows an uninterrupted flow of pedestrians past the station.

Other work recently completed at Market Street involved a renovation to bring a unique new attraction to downtown – part of the property is being leased to the Dolph and Janey Briscoe Western Art Museum, the new occupants of the old Central Library building. The museum offers unique opportunities for visitors of all ages and interests to learn about Western American art and history. The front yard of the pump station has become a sculpture garden and is available for events such as weddings and receptions. The World War II era tunnel was filled, and the pipes that served U.S. troops in Hawaii were left in place, forever encased in concrete underneath an extension of the museum. In San Antonio, history lies buried under almost every footstep.

In November 2013, the Market Street Pump Station was designated as an American Water Landmark. In 2014, as part of the new Briscoe Museum configuration, an art tile mural was installed, continuing San Antonio’s history as a center of artistic ceramic tile works. Public access is free, and the new mural offers an artistic interpretation that celebrates the site’s long connection to the history of water supply in San Antonio. So next time you are in San Antonio, take a moment to view the mural and ponder the site’s important history. It wasn’t oil that opened up the West, it was water, and this is the site that replaced a dusty frontier town with a booming modern metropolis.

Eckardt, G., 2016. San Antonio Water System Market Street Pump Station. Journal AWWA, 108:8:64. Reproduced with permission from the American Water Works Association, 2016.

 

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

 

Top image:Market Street Pump Station (1914).  Photo courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt. 

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Gregg Eckhardt

Gregg Eckhardt is an environmental scientist with 27 years of experience in environmental modeling and analysis, water resource planning and development, state and federal permitting, and water treatment....