Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Riding the Miniature Rails

Brackenridge Park is a jewel of San Antonio Parks and Recreation for a number of reasons. It has one of the finest zoos in the nation, built on the site of a 19th-century quarry. The nearby Japanese Tea Gardens, locally known as the Sunken Gardens, charms with its walkways, stone arch bridges, pagoda-like pavilion, waterfall, islands among the lily pads, flowers, koi and tadpoles. Other park amenities include athletic fields, a municipal golf course, picnic tables and barbecue pits. The San Antonio River cuts through the park picturesquely.

The obscure sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez added a distinctive flavor to Brackenridge more than 60 years ago. Here and there in the park he created cement structures that look remarkably like aged wood -- which he called el trabajo rĂºstico -- such as the torii gate for the Sunken Gardens and a "log" bridge across the river (photos here, and more on Rodriguez here).

Narrow roads and walking trails also wind their way through the park. Despite being home to all those attractions, much of the park in fact looks like this.

August, unfortunately, isn't the best time to visit Brackenridge, but there was one thing I wanted to do there despite the heat, and Lilly and Ann readily agreed. Namely, ride the 3.5-mile miniature railroad that snakes through the park. So last Monday we rode it as early in the morning as we could, to avoid the full blast of the noonday sun. I call the train the Brackenridge Eagle, because that's what it was called when I rode it during the late '60s (when my grandmother took me) and early '70s (when my mother did), but that name doesn't seem to be in use any more.

Ah well, time flies, things change. The train is affiliated with the zoo these days, but its essential features are pretty much the same: a faux steam engine pulls shaded passenger cars along a track that crosses the San Antonio River a few times, cuts through undeveloped parkland, goes through a small tunnel, and makes some stops for passengers to get on or off. These days the stops are at the Witte Museum and the Sunken Gardens, though I vaguely remember that there used to be a few other small station stops besides. Price, still reasonable: $3 for adults, $2.50 for kids 3-11, tiny kids free.

In operation since 1956, the train used to be billed as the "world's longest miniature train," though I see that slogan has also fallen by the wayside. Maybe it was never actually true or maybe some little train in Guangdong Province is now longer. No matter. I'm still reminded of grandma (born Edna Henderson), gone nearly 40 years now, when I ride the Brackenridge Eagle. She'd probably be glad that her oldest daughter's youngest son is able to take two of her great-grandchildren on the train here in early 21st century.

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