San Antonio is home to many enigmas, and one of the most recent to emerge revolves around the placement of votive candles in the stone archways across from the Olmos Dam on East Olmos Drive.
Who is lighting these memorials on the outskirts of the forested Olmos Basin and, perhaps just as tantalizing, why?
Like the flowers and Cognac reverentially deposited at Edgar Allan Poe’s memorial in a Baltimore, Maryland, cemetery for decades by a mysterious figure, no one knows who’s been leaving the candles in one of San Antonio’s most ancient natural areas.
“I have seen those candles placed in some insets along the limestone walls at the Olmos Park and Alamo Heights ends of Olmos Drive,” said Alamo Heights Police Chief Richard Pruitt. “I do not know who is responsible for placing the candles.”
The Olmos Park Police Department echoed Pritt’s sentiments, saying the who and why of the candle placements remain a riddle.
Alamo Heights resident Paula Schechter said the candles have been there for years.
“I’ve lived in Alamo Heights since the 1980s and don’t remember them ever not being there and not being lit on Sundays,” she said. “Using votive candles, one would think it’s a religious motive.”
The candles are a reminder of the transcendent, she added.
“It is a beautiful way of expressing their feelings and I think it is a beautiful expression of their religious beliefs,” she said. “In today’s world, in which there is so much violence, it is nice to see things that are beautiful.”
The archways are carved into the limestone walls at two sites – just past Devine Road on East Olmos and near the East Olmos and Crescent Street intersection.
According to the San Antonio River Authority, the dam is nearly 2,000 feet long and reaches 58 feet high in some places. One of the most enduring public works in the area, the dam is anchored 20 feet below ground. SARA officials noted that without the Olmos Dam, built to keep downtown from being inundated by floods, the River Walk would not exist.
At one point, there was a road across the dam. But in 1981, security concerns led to moving the road below the dam, as an extension of Olmos Drive.
The dam is managed by San Antonio.
Joseph Arrington, a spokesman for the San Antonio Fire Department, said city rules allow the placement of religious candles if they do not pose a hazard.
“While I’m not familiar with this exact use of candles … we always caution folks to monitor any type of outdoor burning they may do,” he said.
The International Fire Code, as adopted by the city, permits the outdoor use of candles for religious purposes as long as they are not adjacent to combustible materials. The candles placed along Olmos Drive are above ground, in cement archways.
Some of the candles are in plain glass containers, with no markings. Others are colorful, with religious symbols painted on them. The number of candles per archway varies from a single votive to two or three. And some archways also have beads intertwined around the candles.
As to the identity of the person or persons setting the vigil lights in the archways, theories abound.
Some speculate it may be a religious individual or individuals honoring the 51 San Antonians who drowned in September 1921 in the deluge triggered by 23-plus inches of rain that fell north of the city. The enormous amount of precipitation resulted in a deadly flash flood that covered downtown San Antonio.
That tragedy helped convince community leaders to build the Olmos Dam to protect the city; construction was completed in 1928.
Others speculate the votive candles are placed in the archways by someone to remember the dearly departed or the untold number of Native Americans buried over the centuries in what became Olmos Basin Park. In the 1920s, according to local historians, Ponca Indians still visited the basin to make ritual offerings among the natural springs.
Human remains were discovered during construction of the dam, which is not far from the life-giving headwaters of the San Antonio River.
According to www.texasbeyondhistory.net, the burials were accompanied by grave offerings including shell ornaments, bone and stone artifacts, and large numbers of white-tail deer antler racks.
Radiocarbon tests suggest the cemetery dates from roughly 2,000-2,250 years ago. Long before the friars and conquistadores of the Spanish empire showed up, the area had been occupied from prehistory and is associated with the Clovis culture, from 11,500 to 11,000 years ago, archaeologists have noted.
“On a sacred level, it was a place where special rituals took place such as the burial of the dead. From the Late Archaic cemetery that was sampled, the people who were buried here were young and old, male and female and most of them were honored with offerings of what we see today as unusual things which came from afar, required special craftsmanship, and must have had great spiritual and personal meanings to those whose loved ones departed,” according to the website.
Schechter said perhaps the identity of those leaving the candles should continue to be a mystery.
“Somebody is magically doing this without wanting credit and I think it’s better that it remains a mystery,” she said.
Readers who wish to offer their thoughts can send an email to email@example.com or address a letter to the editor, 4204 Gardendale St., Suite 107, San Antonio, TX 78229.