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An engineer, clad in blue- and white-striped overalls and cap, punches the tickets of passengers boarding The Mary Bartlett miniature train in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park. After sliding onto a bench seat, a grandfather croons to his young granddaughter, “Giddy up, train” and reminisces about past visits to the park. Ready to embark on an excursion through the historic park, the driver makes the final call: “All aboard!”
Miniature trains have been looping around these three-plus miles of track in the 344-acre park since 1956. That’s quite a legacy, but it is only about half the life of Brackenridge Park—under review this year to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and a mere blink in the history of humans’ presence in the area. The cool waters of the San Antonio River, shaded forests and limestone outcroppings have yielded rest and recreation to visitors for generations. Native Americans camped here roughly 11,000 years ago, and centuries later, settlers designated the property as a getaway spot.
Starting near North St. Mary’s Street, the train runs on acreage donated to the city for public use in 1899 by businessman George W. Brackenridge. His private waterworks company bequeathed the land after new technology made his water system obsolete. Additional donations almost doubled the size of the park, named in Brackenridge’s honor when it opened in 1901.
Although modern amenities, including pavilions, picnic tables and playscapes, now dot the property, not all the parkland is modernized. In a forest, trees clothed with vines stand like columns holding up a canopy, and last year’s leaves cover the ground with a brown blanket. As The Mary Bartlett chugs along, ringing its bell at nature trail crossings, white cattle egrets shift in their treetop rookeries.
After passing through a 150-foot-long tunnel, the train pauses at a platform behind The Witte Museum, an 85-year-old museum of natural science, history and culture. On this ride, everyone opts to stay aboard, and The Mary Bartlett treks toward the Brackenridge Park Golf Course. There, golfers swing their clubs at San Antonio’s oldest municipal course, which opened in 1916. Now encompassing about a third of the park, the 18-hole course features a driving range that was once a polo field.
The train slows to another stop: the Japanese Tea Garden. A kiln marks the site where the Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company processed lime- and clay-rich limestone into cement from 1880 to 1908. After mining ceased, the city transformed the quarry into a garden with water features and exotic plants. Today, water tumbles down a bluff into a pool, where koi, or Japanese carp, flick the water’s surface with their tails. Wisteria and moss cascade down the rock, which, at ground level, has been chiseled into paths and smoothed by the feet of tourists since the garden opened around 1918. Nearby, the Sunken Garden Theater is nestled in an old quarry. The outdoor amphitheater has been used as a special-events venue since the 1930s.
After stopping near the gardens, the train pulls back into the depot, and passengers bound out the gate, off to explore another feature of Brackenridge Park: the San Antonio Zoo.
The zoo, established in 1914, incorporates the river water and quarry walls left behind by the cement company. The estimated 1 million visitors per year see some of the more than 3,500 animals housed there. At one of the first exhibits, a teenage boy roars at the North American black bear lounging indifferently in the shade. In the Africa Live! exhibit, spectators stare through a glass slab to look eye level at a pair of hippopotamuses. The mammals—whose heads alone are bigger than the children watching them—swim back and forth in the gargantuan aquarium with a school of rainbow-colored fish in tow. Outside, a 7-foot-long Sumatran tiger shakes its head and paces, and a woman lifts her young girl so she can better see the big cat. “Ooh la le, tiger,” the mother says, and the girl repeats the phrase with wonder.
As the shadows of oak and pecan trees stretch over Brackenridge Park, families exit the zoo through a turnstile and trudge past the train depot toward the parking lot. A fresh round of passengers pile onto the miniature train. Just as the generations before, they’ll tour the park whose legacy is recreation and whose resources have long provided rest. “All aboard!”
Suzanne Haberman, communications specialist