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Exploring the Depths

Ralph the pig, clowns and Aquamaids are gone. But at Aquarena, life springs eternal

The young girl’s megaphone-esque announcement jolted us upright on the glass-bottom boat.

“A shark!” she joyfully shrieked, peering through the glass and into the depths of Spring Lake at the Aquarena Center in San Marcos.

All the adults onboard laughed, of course, some of us remembering our first wide-eyed rides on the magical glass-bottom boats at what was then called Aquarena Springs. And then, entertaining the notion that there really might be something scary down there, we again rested our forearms on the wooden handrail and gazed down, down, down into the cold, crystal-clear water, our imaginations set ablaze by the fanciful thinking of a child.

There are, of course, no sharks—there have been alligators, though, and everybody knows about Ralph the swimming pig—in the freshwater San Marcos Springs that bubble up out of the Edwards Aquifer, forming Spring Lake and the headwaters of the San Marcos River. But when you look deep—really deep—into the history of these springs, what emerges is evolution at its best: It’s a spellbinding story of prehistoric discovery, archaeological recovery, environmental awakenings and breathtaking entertainment courtesy of an aquatic theme park that was years ahead of its time.

Here, it’s what’s beneath the surface that counts, from the remains of two old submarine theaters to the eight endangered or threatened aquatic species sheltered in the river and springs. And even though the Aquarena Springs theme park no longer exists, a master plan being developed for this 90-acre property on the Texas State University (TSU) campus is so grand in scope it would make any nature-based entity green with envy.

But don’t wait for the makeover: There’s plenty to do and see now at the Aquarena Center, an environmental education division of the River Systems Institute at TSU. Through the bottom of the boats, you’ll see springs so violently active they look like a sandstorm underwater. You might spy spotted gar or moss-covered turtles that seem to wear green backpacks. You can study skulking Yellow-crowned Night Herons and other wading birds from the wetlands boardwalk. Or, you can check out the aquarium and endangered species exhibit that showcases such rarities as the Texas blind salamander—the most advanced troglobitic, or cave-dwelling, salamander known in the world today.

Heck, you can even paddle your own glass-bottom kayak. You get the picture: There’s plenty here now for visitors to grab hold of—like the kayak paddles that even beginners can learn to gracefully dip into the water.

“There is so much for them to see and do,” said Lennie Archer, the center’s glass-bottom kayak coordinator. “We know even more about it now.”

What researchers know about Spring Lake, a federally declared critical habitat, is that it and the river are home to other sensitive species, such as the San Marcos salamander, which is found nowhere else in the world. They know that the springs have never stopped flowing in recorded history. And based on archaeological findings, including bones from extinct species, many researchers believe this is the oldest continually inhabited site in North America.

In 1978, archaeologist Joel Shiner began a decade-long excavation of the site. The volume of his findings and the superb condition of the artifacts, such as artfully made spear points, indicate that early Native Americans, or Paleo-Indians, weren’t just nomadic tribes passing through some 12,000 years ago. Instead, seduced by the spring-fed waters of the San Marcos River, they established permanent communities along its banks.

Now, as part of a wetlands restoration project, a different set of bones will be extracted: those of the old theme park, including the two submarine theaters, built in 1950 and 1972; and the Swiss Sky Ride and Sky Spiral, which went up in 1963 and 1979. The glass-bottom boats and the historic hotel that houses the Texas Rivers Center, home of the River Systems Institute, will stay put.

Five of the original 10 handmade wooden boats remain; one now runs on solar power, and there are plans to install solar panels on the other battery-powered boats as well. But it’s expensive to maintain the aging fleet. To that end, author Doni Weber is dedicating all sales money from her book Images of America: Aquarena Springs (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) to a glass-bottom boat endowment.

In the book, Weber tells the story of her great-grandfather, Arthur Birch (A.B.) Rogers, and his son, Paul Rogers, the visionaries of a water wonderland. Aquarena traces its beginnings to 1929 when the elder Rogers opened a resort hotel overlooking Spring Lake—the hotel that now houses the Texas Rivers Center. Now, with Weber’s fitting gesture, the family is still watching over this magical place, helping keep its signature attractions afloat.

Meanwhile, the demolition of the old park, under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could be completed by spring 2011, with restoration possibly taking another two years. Ultimately, city, university and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials envision a world-class aquatic environmental education center with hiking trails, a state-of-the-art visitor center and a 500-acre nature preserve.

“It’s an astonishing, globally significant site, and restoring it is an immense privilege,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute. “There’s no other campus in the world that has this kind of resource on it.”

And What a Dream It Was

Even though Aquarena Springs closed 14 years ago, two years after TSU bought the theme park property, its legend lives on. “People still walk in and say, ‘What time is Ralph swimming, and what time will the mermaids be dancing?’ ” Archer said.

It’s hard to let go of a theme park that created treasured memories for so many Texans (here’s betting many readers will remember the underwater wedding in 1954). And only those who have explored the depths of Spring Lake can fully appreciate its mysteries. Performers like the Aquamaids and clowns who swam in The Show—the reverent name for Aquarena Springs’ main event—and the pig trainers, who, even when Ralph refused to swim, had one mantra: The Show must go on. And it did, from October 3, 1950, to February 25, 1996. 

Describing The Show is like recalling the weirdest of dreams: Glurpo the clown and his assistants Bublio and Scrublio assisted beautiful women called Aquamaids who performed synchronized ballet, daintily consumed underwater picnics of celery and bottled soda pop and fed canned cat food to curious fish. Audiences watched the drama unfold through the windows of a submerged theater as the performers sipped air from underwater hoses that trailed down beside them like umbilical cords. Oh, and there’s this swimming pig …

Ethereal, yes. But a dream? No. Jeff Reynolds of Hotchkiss, Colorado, was a Seguin High School student when he swam at Aquarena Springs from 1970-71. He said his stories of casting spells as an underwater witch doctor, coaxing a young pig to swim across Spring Lake with a bottle of milk, and blowing air rings while lying on the bottom of the lake always draw the same response from slack-jawed listeners: “You’re kidding me.”

Because of the surreal nature of their work, Aquarena Springs performers formed unbreakable bonds. Understandably, emotions ran deep during the theme park’s first-ever reunion last November as Reynolds and other attendees pored over memorabilia and strolled the Aquarena Center grounds.

At a barbecue lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon, former employees stood as Aquarena Center Director Ron Coley called out their decade: 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s … finally, there was one person standing—80-year-old Aquamaid Peggy Sparks of Blanco, who swam from 1950-53.

Attendees turned the pages through the years, laughing, crying, swapping stories and proudly getting their books autographed by Weber and her mother, former Aquamaid Shirley Rogers. Her grandfather and father, who opened the theme park, could have simply created a family gathering place, Shirley said. Instead, they chose to share the beauty of the springs.

“It was for the love of the river, the love of San Marcos,” said Shirley, who’s pictured as a young Aquamaid on the book’s cover, her long hair dreamily floating underwater. “The river’s to share, and now it’s shared in a different way.”

 

Through the Looking Glass

Reunion attendees came to say hello to friends they hadn’t seen in decades. And they came to say goodbye to a theme park that soon will vanish from sight, but not memory.

Former Aquamaid Vergie Jurica, a 1968 Southwest Texas State University (now TSU) graduate who performed from 1960-73, traveled the farthest to San Marcos: almost 2,000 miles from Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

“I treasure every memory,” she said, choking back tears. “It makes me really sad because those were some of the best days of my life. I appreciate the fact that they want to do education—I just wish they could still do both.”

Gift shop manager Carole McCarley was 24 when she joined the theme park staff in 1976. Now, she’s the longest-tenured employee here. She’s grateful that the springs are being protected for generations to come. But she’s saddened that the old park will be torn down.

McCarley sat on a bench near the water, greeting old friends as they walked past. She drew a deep breath and started to cry. “It’ll just always be a part of my life,” she said. “Seeing everybody, it’s like when will I ever see these people again?”

All day, a glass-bottom boat slowly cruised Spring Lake, carrying tourists and former employees who introduced themselves by title: “I was a swimmer …” “I was a boat driver …”

But there’s nothing past tense about this place that more than 125,000 people, mostly schoolchildren, still visit every year. The biggest thrill, of course, is riding the glass-bottom boats. Now, thanks to the ongoing vision and generosity of the Rogers family, the boats will run for years to come, opening wide the portal into the deep, tantalizing mysteries of the San Marcos Springs.

 

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Camille Wheeler is staff writer for Texas Co-op Power.