Brackenridge Park in San Antonio didn’t have a miniature train until 1957. In my mind, it had always had one. Riding it with my sisters is one of my earliest memories.
The City of San Antonio started the park in 1899 with 200 inherited acres, but the land at the headwaters of the San Antonio River had been a campgrounds since 9,200 B.C. The Confederacy operated a tannery to process leather for use in the war and Alamo Cement operated a quarry out of the park area in the 1880’s.
But near the turn of the century, park development began. The Witte Museum, on the edge of the park, stands on 13 acres acquired in 1908 at a price of $4,569. In 1915 the City added a public golf course with a swimming hole for players to use after a round of golf. By 1917 a lily pond constructed in part by prison labor decorated the flooded quarry. The area later became the Sunken Garden. In 1925, a section of the river was concrete lined to permit swimming and a playground added near what is now the Joske Pavilion.
An unemployed herpetologist, Bill Bevin, who was doing odd jobs at the Witte Museum built the Reptile Garden in the early 30’s. Rattlesnakes were purchased for 15 cents a pound; alligators were bought for $0.50 a foot. Admission was 10 cents a person, but the garden was partially funded by weekly rattlesnake fries, snake milking and turtle races. The garden closed in 1975.
Construction on our miniature train started in 1956 using full-sized Missouri Pacific railroaders. G. L. Smith paid $60,000 to build the tracks and $90,000 to buy three locomotives with 15 cars each from RMI Railworks. The first riders left the station on June 14, 1957. By fall of 1958, the millionth passenger had ridden the train which operated from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Hours were shortened and security tightened after a 1970 train heist by 2 Fort Sam Houston soldiers who ended up in prison for 10 years for a robbery that netted less than $500.
We spent part of a chilly Saturday at the park and ended up riding the train to celebrate my 2-year-old grandson, Travis’ birthday. Listening to Thomas the Train and The Polar Express makes his shout of “All Aboard” crystal clear. He was excited over the cake that GE had made, but a little tentative about the train itself. He stayed watchful as the train rounded the bend and crossed the river on an old bridge.
I posted pictures of the birthday party on Facebook and got a message from my older sister: Brings back so many memories…how many times did we ride the train? I answered her that it must be about a hundred times and that might even be close. It is a rare trip to San Antonio that doesn’t include the train. I added that it’s still a magical experience. Being transported back in time as I watch first time riders on the train was amazing. Just as amazing that the about a 100th time is just as wonderful!