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PEOPLE Brackenridge gave city more than park

December 27, 2018

San Antonians probably appreciate George Washington Brackenridge most for the gift of his estate to the city that is now known as Brackenridge Park.

But it is hardly your average citizen who is able or willing to donate an estate of nearly 200 acres — more than twice as large as the site downtown where HemisFair, the San Antonio World’s Fair, was built in 1968.

Indeed, Brackenridge was a major political power broker, banker, business leader and supporter of education whose accomplishments and legacy include schools, the first nationally chartered bank in Texas and the modern water system fed by artesian wells drilled deep into the Edwards Aquifer.

Along the way, Brackenridge also served as a director of the Express Publishing Co., as president of the San Antonio School Board and for more than 25 years was an activist member of the University of Texas system Board of Regents.

Brackenridge was born Jan. 14, 1832, in southwestern Indiana in Warrick County near Evansville. He attended Hanover College (in Madison north of Louisville), Indiana University and Harvard. He moved to Texas with his parents in 1853.

He served as surveyor of Jackson County from 1857 to 1860. While his three brothers went off to serve in the Confederate army, George became a profiteer in the cotton trade at Matamoros on the Mexico/Texas border.

In 1863, Brackenridge became a U.S. Treasury Department agent and went to New Orleans after that city was captured by Union forces.

After the war, Brackenridge moved to San Antonio and entered the banking business in partnership with one of his trading partners from his profiteering days, Charles Stillman of Brownsville.

Stillman had extensive financial and commercial holdings. He invested $200,000 with Brackenridge, who in 1866 founded the National Bank of San Antonio with the first federal charter granted in Texas under Reconstruction.

That was seen as a favor to Brackenridge for his Union sympathies that got him run out of Texas during the Civil War.

Brackenridge built a Moorish-style office on Commerce for his bank (later known as the First National Bank of San Antonio) and then opened San Antonio Loan & Trust in a five-story building next door.

The fourth floor of the loan and trust building had apartments where Brackenridge and his sister, Eleanor Brackenridge, could stay. The top floor had a grand ballroom with a shell-shaped bandstand and was the scene of dinners, balls and similar entertainment.

Neither George nor Eleanor Brackenridge ever married.

They lived together at Fernridge, a huge Victorian mansion near the headwaters of the San Antonio River on the Brackenridge estate. The house was on land sold to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for their motherhouse, chapel and school at what is now the University of the Incarnate Word.

George Brackenridge named the area around his house “Alamo Heights.”

Ironically, in 1985, Fernridge was in the final stages of a major restoration when varnish or stripper fumes touched off a fire that engulfed and nearly destroyed the mansion because of confusion over whether it is in San Antonio or Alamo Heights. The city limits runs through the middle of the house.

The Brackenridges’ brother, Robert Brackenridge, became a doctor in Austin and spearheaded a bond drive to build a new city hospital. The city later named the hospital in his memory.

George Brackenridge built four schools in San Antonio as well as “B Hall” at the University of Texas at Austin and University Hall for women medical students at UT Galveston, funded the school of home economics at UT-Austin and established a loan fund for women students studying architecture, law or medicine.

George and Eleanor Brackenridge crusaded tirelessly for women’s rights.

Eleanor Brackenridge became the first woman to register and vote in Bexar County and was one of the first women in the nation to serve on the board of directors of a financial institution — actually two, the bank and loan and trust owned by George Brackenridge.

George Brackenridge pushed his fellow regents to employ more women as instructors at UT-Austin.

He died in Dec. 28, 1920.

A longer version of this report by David Anthony Richelieu ran May 18, 1999.

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