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A 1968 brochure for the Aquarena Springs Resort — designed in a garish period-appropriate tie-dye motif — extolls the wonders of the storied amusement park. IMAGE VIA THE EDWARDS AQUIFER AUTHORITY
A 1968 brochure for the Aquarena Springs Resort — designed in a period-appropriate garish, psychedelic motif — extolls the wonders of the storied amusement park. IMAGE VIA THE EDWARDS AQUIFER AUTHORITY


PHOTOS AND ESSAY by ANDY HEATWOLE

I have colorful memories of visiting Aquarena Springs when I was child. I remember being mesmerized by mermaids performing choreographed underwater acrobatics in the submarine theater. And, of course, there was Ralph the swimming pig who became quite famous with his diving and swimming antics.

On the surface, the park’s attractions seemed almost random. Where else could you visit a replica Spanish mission, cruise the skies in a European-style gondola, play tic-tac-toe with a chicken, watch a pig swim and gaze upon the underwater beauty of Spring Lake in a glass bottom boat?

It worked somehow. It worked for many years.

At its peak, the park hosted more than 250,000 visitors annually and was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Texas. But times change and, starting in the 1980s, increasing competition from other theme parks contributed to a sharp decline in visitors. Aquarena — and its “renowned 1950s kitsch” — just couldn’t compete with roller coasters and killer whales.

In 1994, the park and adjacent properties were sold to Texas State University, then Southwest Texas State. In the two decades since, the university has worked to restore the park to a more natural state.

Most of the old buildings have been removed concluding with removal of the submarine theater, the Sky Spiral and the last vestiges of the Sky Tram in 2012.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the first tourist attraction at Spring Lake is also the only one left. The Springlake Hotel, opened in 1928 by San Marcos furniture store and funeral home owner A.B. Rogers, is now headquarters for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. And 86 years after the first one was launched, a fleet of glass-bottom boats operated by the university still offer visitors a glimpse of the lake’s aquatic wonder.

Walking along the peaceful, grassy shores of Spring Lake, it’s hard to image this was once a loud bustling theme park. Looking at the hill across the lake you can still see a few decaying structures. Conspicuously absent is the 220-foot-tall Sky Spiral tower, once a defining part of the San Marcos skyline. Hidden from view are crumbling sidewalks, fallen trees and the few decaying remnants of the park.

 

On that hill are the ruins of Aquarena.

As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to abandoned places. There’s often a palpable silence that hangs over them. That silence is present here too. Among the ruins and even along Spring Lake it seems oddly quiet. The stillness adds to the strange feeling you get when you’re here. Perhaps it’s just the memory of what it used to be juxtaposed with its current state. Still, there’s beauty here. It’s a humbling reminder that everything changes and I’m compelled to capture what remains before it passes completely into memory.


San Marcos native ANDY HEATWOLE has worked for the last decade to capture and share the beauty of his hometown and Central Texas. Earlier this year, he launched his newest project, SMTX Photos, which has rapidly picked up a passionate following through Twitter and Facebook.

Ruins 01
Gen. Edward Burleson, a founder of San Marcos who served as vice president of the Republic of Texas, built a log cabin overlooking the San Marcos springs in 1848. The next year, Burleson built a dam and gristmill downstream of the river’s headwaters, forming what we now call Spring Lake. The remains of Burleson’s cabin were toppled by a storm in 1917 but a replica of the historic structure was built in 1964 using salvaged building materials from the original cabin. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 02
For 30 years, the Burleson cabin replica was one of the eclectic collection of attractions that made up the Aquarena Springs Resort amusement park. After Southwest Texas State University bought the Aquarena Springs property in 1994, the replica cabin fell into disrepair until it was consumed by a fire in 2006. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 03
The San Xavier Missions, the first of which was built in 1746, inspired the Aquarena’s homage to early Spanish inhabitants of Texas. Originally built within a presidio on the San Gabriel River in modern day Milam County, the San Xavier Mission was relocated to a site on the San Marcos River in 1755. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 04
At the Mission Tower “prayerful quiet[ness] and the remembered and sound of a soft Angelus bell … mark the discovery of Aquarena Springs by Franciscan Monks in 1773,” according to a 1968 brochure. The claim was historically inaccurate on several counts. The San Marcos River — and its springs — were apparently christened by Franciscans in 1755 looking for a suitable site to relocate San Xavier. But Europeans likely first laid eyes on the springs in 1709, nearly fifty years earlier, during an expedition led by Isidro Félix de Espinosa, Antonio de San Buenaventura Olivares and Pedro de Aguirre. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 06
The cabin of the Sky Spiral rusted at the base of the tower for years before it was eventually removed from the park. Purchased in 1978 from drive-through zoo near Atlanta, the Sky Spiral took visitors more than 200 feet in the air for panoramic views of San Marcos and the Hill Country beyond. It was decommissioned in 1996, two years after the university purchased the former resort. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 07
A turnstile marks the entrance to the upper boarding area of the Sky Tram, which ferried passengers in a futuristic glass sphere between the lake’s edge to the hilltop above. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 08
A restored water wheel from a century-old gristmill encouraged mid-20th century visitors to consider the lives led by their fore bearers. The pioneer-themed Texana Village — and much of the rest of the park — was submerged under five feet of water during a flood in May 1970. During the deluge, 21 alligators escaped from their pond in an exciting episode still recalled fondly by San Marcos residents who survived the incursion. The resort announced its reopening just days after the flood with newspaper advertisements that proclaimed, “Anyway, we’re used to working underwater.” PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS

Ruins 09
For more than four decades, way-finding signs like these guided as many as 250,000 visitors a year around the park’s 80-plus acres. Long after the hordes of tourists were a distant memories, the signage remained, pointing to attractions that existed only as decaying reminders of the resort’s glory days. PHOTO by ANDY HEATWOLE, © 2014, SAN MARCOS PHOTOS



The San Marcos Mercury’s BEHOLD blog showcases the work of Texas artists and photographers. For information, send us a note.

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    7 thoughts on “Behold: The beautiful, heartbreaking ruins of Aquarena Springs

    1. This made me sad. However. there is a local effort to have the Burleson cabin rebuilt, The is a State Centennial Marker placed there in 1936 and a Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Moon-McGehee Chapter, monument that was dedicated there June 30, 1932.
      The General Edward Burleson cabin was built on the hill in 1848.

    2. As a child, my parents took my brother and I here many a time!!! Also visited Aquarena Springs with almost all my family in Texas as well as family from Michigan!!! In 1977 I married and we spent our Honeymoon at the hotel there!!! It was a Beautiful Place with Beautiful Memories!!! We have been there multiple times since, and it time a little part of it was closed!!! SAD INDEED!!! Our last visit in 2012, we watched as they removed the last remains of the submarine theater! A sad feeling came over me like a death and I thought “this place here will NEVER be the same” ever!! However, no one can take away my memories or the feeling in my heart for Aquarena Springs!!!

    3. 7/3/14
      Grandparents had their honeymoon at the hotel in 1936, I visited several times as a kid in the 1970’s, worked their as a SWT student in the 1990’s and then as a archeologist. Sad that the university’s idea of preserving Aquarena Springs entails tearing it all down and running off Ralph the Swimming Pig.
      Tearful to loose a Texas tradition.

    4. Yes these pictures are amazing, but sad. This property should not be so off limits. It is owned by the State and should be made public. We hosted our wedding reception at the Aquarena Springs restaurant and took our wedding photo’s with beautiful fall color of the hill behind us. To explore today could bring about a charge of criminal trespass and time in jail. Yes sad.

    5. I think its sinful what the university did to the cabin and other old structures on the property. They shouldn’t have bought it if they were just going to leave everything to fall into disrepair. That they let that cabin burn down boggles my mind. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of career educators, those who’ve never been in the real world, running things. Shameful

    6. I think it’s not only sinful what the university did to the cabin and other old structures on the property but what they’ve done to all of San Marcos. Only those of us who remember what this town was like before they took over know what I’m talking about. Very sad…

    7. The Hotel had the best pool and diving board in all of San Marcos. The hidden stairs behind the hotel took you to the hilltop attractions without having to pay admission!

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