You probably know that in 1967 King William was the first neighborhood to receive the Historic Neighborhood District in Texas designation. The history of many of the houses is recorded in Mary Burkholder’s books, one volume of which is appropriately named Down the Acequia Madre In the King William Historic District. But did you know that beneath the King William neighborhood lies a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, designated by the Society of Civil Engineers in 1968?
Part of the Spanish acequia system lies beneath portions of our neighborhood. Acequia Madre (or mother ditch), mentioned by Burkholder, is so named because its part of the primary ditch network. My late colleague I. Waynne Cox’s book The Spanish Acequias of San Antonio provides a good source of history and archaeology for anyone interested in following up The Alamo acequia (or Acequia Madre) began at Madre Dam, now in Brackenridge Park, flowing down the valley, behind the Alamo, down Alamo Street and eventually empting into the San Antonio River across from Blue Star. Diversion systems fed off of this acequia to water the fields supporting the early San Antonio settlement and missions. Wickes street today follows a feeder ditch extending from the Alamo acequia at South Alamo to the river at Eagleland. Another important ditch, Pajalache or the Concepcion Acequia, followed the path that is now S. St Mary’s Street, beginning at La Villita, extending down St. Mary’s to Roosevelt Park where it turns toward Mission Concepcion. But these are only part of the extensive acequia system which lies beneath the city of San Antonio.
The term acequia is derived from the Arabic word al-saqiya. Irrigation technology dates back at least 3,000 B.C. in western Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and this technology made its way to southern Europe through cultural exchange. The Spanish brought and spread this technology to the New World, although many American Indian cultures had invented their own centuries before the Spanish arrived. Governor Don Martin de Alarcon ordered the construction of the San Antonio acequias using conscript Indian labor. Construction of the acequias began in 1719 by diverting water from San Pedro springs. Eventually some 50 miles of ditches were dug, leading to a network of fields on both sides of the San Antonio River. The acequias served all of the mission settlements The ditches were used in the downtown area until a few years after 1870, when the first railroad reached San Antonio.
The Alamo acequia was used up to the early 1900s, and portions of the Espada acequia system continue to be used today. Just how these early engineers were able to follow the contours of the valley’s topog-raphy and what instruments they used is unknown, but this technology had been around thousands of years, and the Spanish may have copied that used by the Romans. I have documented three locations within King William and Lavaca by monitoring construction and gas line replacement. One is at the corner of South Alamo and Turner, where I recorded the profile of a well preserved segment of Acequia Madre that runs beneath the architecture office of Catherine Nored at 915 South Alamo. The walls of this acequia were constructed with cut limestone blocks and the ditch itself was filled with sticky mud. A segment of this ditch is shown on the front cover of Burkholder’s book, which shows the original front of the Eckenroth/Gaul house built in 1867, where Catherine lives. A branch of this acequia was documented across the street just south of Rosarios’ entrance.
Remnants of the acequia system can be seen in several locations within the city today. Remnants can be seen in HemisFair Park, and another segment has been restored behind the Alamo and downtown Hampton Inn. Acequia Park part of the Antonio Missions National Historic Park administered by the National Park Service, and the San Juan Acequia Trail along South Presa in south San Antonio are surviving segments of this extensive system of ancient ditches. So is the Mission Espada aqueduct, which is a National Historic Landmark.
Sources The Spanish Acequias of San Antonio (2005) by I. Waynne Cox. Maverick Publishing Co., San Antonio.
Down the Acequia Madre: In the King William Historic District (1976) by Mary V. Burkholder.