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College’s Amusement Park, a Texas Institution, Is at a Crossroads

chronicle News Editor (01/11/02)
By Malcolm G. Scully


Jerome H. Supple, president of Southwest Texas State University here, has an important message for colleagues who are or hope to become college presidents: Never buy a swimming pig.

It’s too late for him to do as he says, not as he does, however, and the university has been dealing with the consequences ever since. Ralph, the swimming pig (actually many Ralphs over the years) was one of the featured attractions at Aquarena Springs, an amusement park that Southwest Texas State purchased in 1994.

Johnny Weissmuller, the famed Olympic swimmer who later played Tarzan in the movies, helped open a hotel at Aquarena Springs in 1929 by diving from its balcony into Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

As it evolved from a hotel into a full-fledged amusement park, Aquarena Springs achieved folkloric status among generations of
exans and out-of-state tourists. By the 1960s, it was drawing 350,000 visitors a year, and in 1986, it was listed as one of the seven wonders of roadside America in a book on offbeat tourist attractions.

But even by the time it achieved that distinction, Aquarena was struggling -- the victim of changing tastes, spreading seediness (one observer described it as “cheesy and exploitative”), and the advent of more-sophisticated, Disney-style theme parks.

Its decline eventually led the park’s owners to offer the 90-acre site to the university, which after extended negotiations, agreed to purchase it for $7.5-million. Initially, the university intended to continue operating the park, which abuts the campus, in the short term while shifting its focus, over time, from entertainment to education.

However, as Ronald Coley, the director of what is now called the Aquaren a Center, notes, the park “was not generating positive cash flows.” Within two years of the purchase, the university decided to close the park, with the exception of the glass-bottom-boat tours. The plan is to use the tours as one part of an environmental-education program that, university officials hope, will eventually draw as many visitors as the swimming pigs and underwater extravaganzas of the amusement park once did.

The decision to shut down the attractions stirred passionate responses. Professional Texans, such as Molly Ivins and Dan Rather, waxed nostalgic about the kitschy romance of such roadside attractions. Supple received hundreds of complaints, including one e-mail message from the “Chicago Friends of Ralph.” City officials in San Marcos and operators of hotels, motels, and restaurants worried about the loss of revenues from the tourists. Alumni fumed: Many of them had been married at the park, a few in underwater ceremonies that guests could watch from a submerged theater -- the “aqua arena” that had given the park its name. Some of them had performed as mermaids and mermen in water shows.

Yet the rise and fall of thepark constitute only one narrative about the Aquarena -- a narrative redolent with nostalgiafor an era when the automobile and the open road shaped Americans’ imagination and aspirations. There are other narratives -- environmental, archaeological, hydrological, and historical -- about the site that are equally compelling.

The Aquarena Center is at an environmental, geological, and climatological crossroads, where the Texas Hill Country -- the southern edge of the Great Plains -- meets the coastal plain, which stretches some 150 miles to the southeast and the Gulf of Mexico. The site straddles the Balcones Escarpment, a limestone fault that runs some 250 miles, from Waco in the northeast to Del Rio in the southwest.

James F. Peterson, a professor of geography at Southwest Texas State, compares the escarpment, with its proliferation of freshwater springs, to the Fall Line in the East that separates the Atlantic coastal plain from the Piedmont.
In an essay in On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), he writes, “The Balcones Escarpment and its line of springs has been as important to the settlement of central Texas as the Fall Line was to settlement on the East Coast of the United States.”
Because of the freshwater springs, Aquarena has been the site of human habitation for some 12,000 years. Archaeologists from the university have found Paleo-Indian artifacts from the Clovis era and believe that the land around the headwaters of the San Marcos River may be the oldest continuously inhabited site in North America.

In more recent times, the springs attracted Spanish explorers and settlers from the east. The springs that give rise to the San Marcos River were named by Spanish explorers who came across them on St. Mark’s Day in 1689. The earthen dam that created Spring Lake was built in 1849 by Edward G. Burleson, one of the heroes of the Texas Revolution and vice president of the Republic of Texas. Burleson’s home, a cabin he built in 1848, stands on its original site at the center.
The site is also home to five species listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Among them is the Texas blind salamander, a cave-dwelling amphibian that grows to about five inches long and has two black spots that mark its vestigial eyes. The salamander is considered endemic to the limestone caves of the Edwards Plateau, but the only known population is the one found around San Marcos.

With all that going for it, the Aquarena Center could become, Coley and his colleagues believe, an educational and research center that draws schoolchildren, college students, and tourists. In 2000, the university and the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife agreed to create what they call the Texas River Center at the site.

The plans call for converting the hotel into office spaces and removing the amusement-park buildings, most of which are built on the flood plain of the San Marcos River. Much of the work remains to be done, although Coley expects to move into the remodeled hotel late this year or in early 2003. Plans call for much of the impermeable surfaces -- chiefly parking lots -- to be removed this year as well, as part of an effort to restore the site ’s riparian and aquatic ecosystems.

For the moment, the site has an eerie aura, as biologists, geographers, and archaeologists work among the abandoned remnants of the park, the faux storefronts of what was known as “Texana Village,” and the towers of the Alpine Sky Ride, which gave visitors an aerial view of the lake. Volunteer divers are removing invasive species from the waters of Spring Lake, and work is being completed on a wetlands boardwalk. Coley is planning new aquariums and exhibits on native flora and fauna and on the Edwards aquifer, which feeds the 200 or so local springs.

And while Supple, the university president, believes “we’re through the mad part” in terms of public reaction to the changes, Coley acknowledges that some visitors, who have fond memories of childhood visits to the amusement park, express disappointment with what it has become. That seems to be
especially the case, he says, for grandparents who have built up the expectations of their grandchildren but who find that the alligator ponds are gone and the sky ride has been closed down.

Those reactions, he believes, represent an inevitable part of the transition. Eventually, he and his colleagues hope that the new Aquarena Center will create a generation of constituents more interested in preserving blind salamanders than swimming pigs.