The legacy of San Pedro Creek has often been overshadowed by the San Antonio River and its world renowned Paseo del Rio, but the creek has played a vital role in San Antonio’s history. For nearly two centuries both the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek sustained the civil settlement and growth of the city.
San Pedro Creek – Arroyo de San Pedro, was named by Fray Isidro Felix de Espinosa, the diarist of the 1709 Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition. On April 13, Espinosa recorded that the expedition arrived to a spring which was “bordered by many trees and with water enough to supply a town. It was full of taps or sluices of water, the earth being terraced.” To the chiefs, their people, and their prehistoric predecessors, the springs and creek had been a life-giving source beyond memory. Archaeological remains attest to the fact that the springs were a favored place of hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. For the Spanish, Saint Peter (the person, not the creek) was the rock upon which their faith was founded; patron saint for fisherman, boat builders, and those whose livelihood centered on water. Claiming the waters for church and crown was no less important than the claiming the land.
In 1718, Martin de Alarcón, the governor of the Province of Texas returned to the springs with the expressed desire to establish a mission nearby. The expedition arrived on May 5th, and it was during this trip that the first civil and religious settlements were founded near the springs and creek: the Villa de Béjar and the Presidio de Béjar. A bit downstream from the springs, Mission San Antonio de Valero was established. This was the historic founding of San Antonio. The presidio and mission would relocate downstream along opposite banks of the creek the next year. Mission San Antonio moved again nearer the San Antonio River but the presidio remained as the anchor for the fledgling Villa de Béjar and soon after the Villa de San Fernando. San Pedro Creek provided a reliable flow of water along the course of the stream and via a network of irrigation ditches that delivered water from the springs to households and fields.
These acequias were expertly engineered, laboriously dug, meticulously maintained, and operated by gravity. The first acequia originated at the eastern edge of the San Pedro Springs and coursed southeast approximately 1,308 feet, before entering the San Antonio River It is assumed that it was to water the fields of Mission San Antonio de Valero. A second irrigation ditch connected to san Pedro Creek, the so called San Pedro Acequia, was begun in 1732 and it was to water the fields of the civilian settlement, the Presidio and the Bario del Norte. The acequia flowed southward from the San Pedro Springs, between the river and the creek, and ended at the San Antonio River just before its confluence with San Pedro Creek.
In the mid-19th century San Antonio began to see an Anglo-North European influence on culture and commerce, and as San Antonio changed from an agricultural town to an industrialized city, so to did the use and treatment of the creek. In the mid-19th century, the use of the river, creeks, and acequias changed due to the ever growing population. The San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek were reserved for bathing and washing, whereas the acequia system provided the town’s drinking water supply. The misuse of the acequia system as a waste disposal location and several cholera epidemics led to the need to develop a more sanitary way of obtaining water. By the end of the 19th century, San Antonio had its first water works.
During the 20th century the porciones and house lots were redeveloped with greater urban intensity and loftier architectural styles. In the immediate downtown center, the creek was bracketed by the new City Hall at Military Plaza and the new Market House at Market Plaza. Two, three, four-story buildings rose near and along the banks of the creek in revival Italianate, Second Empire, and Neo Gothic designs. As the city expanded outward through the creek’s watershed the incidence and magnitude of flooding increased. San Pedro Creek was no a longer life-giving resource, but a life-threatening hazard.
Thus the creek was channeled, deepened, straightened, and in some places entirely covered over. Most of this work occurred in the first part of the 20th century with the most severe restructuring of the creek occurring south of downtown by the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad. The rail lines displaced and narrowed the stream from South Alamo Street to El Paso Street, where it was channeled with concrete box culverts under the rail yard. Through downtown most of the creek was left open with channel walls constructed of large roughly squared and coursed rubble limestone. North of downtown the creek was treated more as a linear parkway as Camaron and Laredo Streets converged parallel to its banks. The relatively ample width served as a both neighborhood park and motor parkway from Martin Street to Five-Points well into the 1950’s when West Side Expressway and ultimately IH 10 obliterated any sign of its existence.
The creek also acted as a convergence point of many paths into and out of San Antonio. Travelers followed along the routes of the Caminos Reales, the 18th century “royal highways” that converged on the city from all directions. The Five Points area along San Pedro Creek, at one time called the Pasito de los Apaches, saw much traffic by way of mule train, stage coach, freight lines, cattle drives, and later trolleys. The area was a convergence of commerce and culture. San Pedro Creek acted as a social, cultural, and economic barrier between Anglo and Hispanic San Antonio. This condition persisted through much of the 20th century and though it has been presently overcome by other means, it is still a living memory for many.
It is perhaps the unresolved and compounded negativity that has so affected the decline of San Pedro Creek. The cuop de gras was the construction of the flood bypass tunnel that necessarily eliminated the risk of catastrophic flood but also diverted the natural flow of the springs from the downtown reach of the creek. The tunnel is and will continue to be an essential and substantial asset in San Antonio’s water management infrastructure, but in downtown the creek is indeed little more than a drainage ditch.
Yet life clings to the smallest of the creek’s margins: aquatic plants, fish, turtles, birds. People pause at the bridges and look for its meaning. Its history is obscured, but not wholly forgotten and for the most part never fully investigated. However altered and constrained, San Pedro Creek still remains a significant and unrealized part of San Antonio’s urban and cultural landscape.