Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Elizabeth Gavilanes
If places were able to speak, San Jacinto Plaza would have many stories to tell. San Jacinto Plaza has been known by many names throughout the years, including La Placita, La Plaza de los Largartos (alligators) and simply La Plaza. The Plaza has been the center of downtown El Paso for over 100 years – a source of entertainment, a center for public transportation and a place to rest from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
The city of El Paso acquired the property on which the Plaza is located in 1881 from William T. Smith. Smith had bought the land from the heirs of its early owner, Juan Maria Ponce de Leon, a prominent El Paso figure, who had owned the spot since 1827. The city cleared and cleaned the dry, sandy, mesquite-filled property located on the corner of Oregon and Mills and officially named the park in honor of the famous battle which Texas fought for its independence. It did not take long for San Jacinto Plaza to become the hub of downtown El Paso.
J. Fisher Satterwaite, El Paso Parks and Streets Commissioner, can be credited for the transformation of the Plaza from a desolate piece of property to a public square by 1883. He had trees planted, fountains built and alligators placed in the pond.
One story claims that the alligators were sent to a local miner from a friend in Louisiana as a joke. The miner then presented the alligators to Mayor C. R. Morehead, who had them placed in the park pond. Another story claims that Satterwaite brought the reptiles to El Paso in a box and kept them in a barrel of water at a local saloon until a pond could be built around the fountain in the Plaza.
Regardless of how they came to reside in San Jacinto Plaza, the alligators were the central attraction. At one time the pond contained as many as seven of the reptiles. Most visitors just rested on the wall surrounding the pond and watched the alligators.
Others actually had firsthand encounters with the reptiles. In 1952, an alligator named Oscar was hauled to Texas Western College and, as a prank, placed inside a professor’s office. Another time an alligator was found in the swimming pool at the college right before an intramural swim meet.
Sally, one of the first alligators placed in the pond, was the object of a weight-guessing contest. The lucky person won $100 and a trip to Mexico. In 1952, Minnie, a 54-year old female alligator, laid an egg in the pond and spectators were delighted when they were able to see protective Minnie spring to life and rush towards her egg when park employees cleaned the pond.
Not all anecdotes about the alligators are funny. In March 1953, Oscar was found dead at the bottom of the pond, the result of internal injuries after vandals removed him and threw him back in when police arrived. Seven months later, El Pasoan Myrtle Price donated two alligators named Jack and Jill to the Plaza to replace Oscar.
Despite their teeth and reputation for ferocity, the alligators were not as much a threat to humans as the humans were to the alligators. They were finally moved to the El Paso Zoo in 1965 after two were stoned to death and another had a spike driven through its left eye. The alligators were returned to the plaza in 1972 for two years only to be removed once more because of vandals.
Another distinctive feature of the Plaza in the 1950s was a statue known as “The Boy with the Leaking Boot.” This statue stood in City Hall Park for 50 years before it was moved to San Jacinto Plaza. There it was surrounded by a moat and guarded by alligators. The statue currently stands on the first floor of City Hall.
Another attraction at the Plaza has always been preachers who try to spread the gospel. In August 1952, a delegation of Baptist ministers held revivals there, attracting hundreds. The ministers said they picked San Jacinto Plaza as a revival site because of the need to cut down on evil, drunkenness and communism.
The traditional lighting of the city tree in the Plaza still officially begins the Christmas season in El Paso. In 1954, Mayor Fred Hervey pulled the switch, lighting thousands of multi-colored lights that covered the Christmas tree, fountains and nativity scenes. Thousands of El Pasoans watched this 20 minute ceremony which included music from the 62nd Army Band and featured Ted Bender as the Master of Ceremony.
San Jacinto Plaza has always served as a transportation terminal in El Paso. In 1907, horse drawn carriages lined up around the Plaza. Before buses existed, trolleys made their daily stop at the Plaza. In the 1950s, the Plaza became a major boarding site for city buses as well as a pick-up point for private transportation.
Laura Edularda, a frequent bus rider, was recently interviewed at the Plaza. “I am waiting for the bus just as I’ve done for over 40 years. I used to ride the bus when I would come downtown to do my shopping,” she says.
Sara Rivera, another park visitor, remembers that in 1959, “I rode the bus downtown on Fridays to pay the bills, and then I would wait at the Plaza for my husband to give me a ride home in the afternoon.”
When you visit San Jacinto Plaza today, you will not come across alligators or a statue of a boy with leaking boot. But the plaza is still a transportation center, and you will find many people sitting on benches, enjoying the El Paso weather and talking about the latest news. Friends still gather to eat and socialize. The pigeons remain to be fed leftovers you might have from lunch.
San Jacinto Plaza continues to be the heart of downtown El Paso, but like most public places, it has its share of problems. Beggars sometimes aggressively approach park goers, and pickpockets ply their trade. The park also attracts transients, peddlers, the poor and homeless, illegal immigrants and numerous “characters.” Fountains are dry, benches are warped, trash piles up quickly.
“I remember bringing my children to see the lights and the alligators and to just enjoy the park, Laura Edularda says. “Today, I no longer feel safe waiting for the bus. I have to be sure to leave before it gets dark.”
But occasionally there are noon time concerts, religion is still dispensed on a regular basis and no one can deny the beauty of San Jacinto Plaza during Christmas. And there will be other alligators: artist Luis Jimenez has completed a sculpture of the popular reptiles that is just waiting to be installed at the Plaza.