Do you Know the Way to San Antonio? March 3-10, 2011

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or
the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

The trip northwest to San Antonio was uneventful. It was nice to be underway again. The campground was about ten miles south of town; it was large and divided into everyday and the elite sections by a pretty lake. Comfortable, and great, inexpensive dinners and breakfasts served on selective days, but nothing else to write home about.

The Missions

The biggest must-see in town, of course, was The Alamo. Saturday the 5th was the start of a week-long commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the historic battle. We gave it a shot on the 5th, but the crowds were overwhelming.

So we opted instead to head south down Mission Road along the San Antonio River to take in the wonder of the other remaining missions built in the same era. Four of these five originated in East Texas in the second half of the 17th century, where New Spain was eager to offset the spread of influence by the Louisiana French. In the San Antonio region, the Franciscans offered comfort, security and conversion to the Indians who sought the protection of the mission and renounced their existing religion and customs to do so. The missions’ population consisted of numerous small bands of hunter/gatherers collectively called Coahuiltecans, Coahuila being a Mexican state that borders today’s Texas. They united here, stopped their migratory ways, worked the land and river, husbanded animals, learned trades and supported the central good while learning the Catholic faith. The missions had populations that ranged from about 100 to 300. Outlying the church and its essential components were the homes of the protected, and small contingents of soldiers were barracked there. By the end of the 18th century, they had lost their influence and were secularized.

The first was Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción. The last stones for the church were laid 45 years before the forefathers in Washington declared their independence. The Spanish architecture has a strong Moorish influence, designed by qualified Spanish builders but executed by the Indians who became its inhabitants.

We had a special treat at Concepción: a series of performances by high school choral groups in the main sanctuary. It was apparently a rehearsal, with friendly exchanges between group members and their choral masters.

Heading south, Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo is considered the Queen of the missions. Governor of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas from 1719 to 1722 The Marquis de San Miguel de Aguayo is credited with reclaiming Eastern Texas from France by negotiation and with significantly expanding the number of missions and presidios. It is especially renowned for its magnificent stone sculptures surrounding the entrance to the church. Unfortunately for us, it was under major reconstruction and inaccessible. But these pictures of the exterior and grounds should help display its grandeur.

Mission San Juan Capistrano – not to be confused with its California namesake, was moved from East Texas in 1731. With typical mission life taking place within its walls, its real claim to fame were the fertile farming and grazing lands surrounding it, leading it to become a produce and livestock supplier for the entire region. It had herds of sheep and cattle numbering over 3,000 head each.

Tableaux highlighted multiple features. Left to right they translate as Lifeways in Transition, An Enduring Community, River of Life, and Community Labor Transforms the Land.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada was also relocated from East Texas in 1731. It taught many vocations to establish self-sufficiency, and it was the only mission to make bricks. The region around Espada is noted for the complex and efficient aqueduct system. The Espada Dam was completed in 1745 and controlled water flow not only for farming but also for powering mill wheels.

The decline of the missions came about for multiple factors, including diseases brought by the colonists and the indefensibility of the land outside the mission walls. Yet the churches in them still hold services today. And the region is determined to continue their preservation as symbols of their origin.

And now The Alamo. We arrived in town the following day at 7 AM to take in the first showing of cinematic story of the famous battle at the Imax theatre in the retail center across the street.

Mission San Antonio de Valero was opened in 1718, the first mission on the River. It was originally the San Francisco Solano Mission on the Rio Grande. The existing church – the Shrine – was built in the 1750’s and had several precedents. The mission itself was approximately three acres; some of it today has given way to “progress.” The only remaining 1836 structure is the Shrine (church), the Long Barracks and a wall connecting them. Because of the weakness of the neighboring garrison, fortifying walls eight feet thick helped it protect itself. They, too, are gone, replaced by ceremonial walls around the surviving site erected in the 1920’s.

The mission declined as the victim of smallpox, Apache raids, and new orders from the Spanish viceroy confiscating its resources. It was secularized in 1893 and the land distributed. The core served many purposes in subsequent years; from 1810 to 1865, it changed hands more than 16 times, held variously by Spanish, Mexican, Texas, Union, and Confederate armies.

The mission was alternately held by Royalists, Rebels and Mexicans up to Texas Independence. In the early 19th century, the Spanish army stationed there renamed it Alamo de Parras, the name of their Coahuila home town. Alamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood. In December, 1835, a Tejano/Texian band forced Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cós and his soldiers to surrender. Enraged, President/General Santa Anna vowed to avenge the rout. He set upon the Alamo on February 23 with more than five times the defending forces and made his final assault on March 6, losing hundreds in the process but accomplishing his goal of annihilating the enemy. Women and children were spared; men were slaughtered and their corpses burned. Jim Bowie spent the battle and met his death in bed, laid low by typhoid pneumonia. Legend has it that David Crockett’s corpse was surround by 16 Spanish dead. But how would we know? No one survived to tell the tale. The quote of distinction, generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson Green and first used in a speech in 1842 by Edward Burleson, military leader and vice president of the republic : Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none. Of course, there were some – the women and children and Colonel Travis’ slave, Joe, were all spared.

While it is customary to look at the battle as a defeat for the forces of independence, many scholars view Santa Anna as the loser. His forces lost over 2o% of its soldiers. Some say it was an unnecessary encounter and vilify him as a leader. Six weeks later, the tide turned at San Jacinto, where over 800 of his troops were killed in the very brief battle and the remaining 700 surrendered to General Sam Houston. Less than a dozen of Houston’s vastly outnumbered forces were killed. The following day, President Santa Anna surrendered, and the door was opened for Texas independence.

Across the street from the mission, in a small storefront, was an animated model of the battle. It was perhaps 12 feet wide and 20 feet long. One entered, paid admission and walked down a dingy hall. Turning the corner, a section of transparent floor revealed a dig that uncovered part of the foundation of the original mission. Moving on into the model room, a recorded narrative led the guests through the battle in great detail, while lights on the surface chronicled the events step by step. But the real surprise was the name of the narrator, who was also the financier behind the project. It was Phil Collins, the Aussie who leads the band Genesis.

River Walk (and River Cruise)

San Antonio has taken full advantage of the River that runs through it. To a major extent, it was a matter of necessity, because frequent flooding wreaked havoc with development. The disastrous flood of 1921, which killed 50 citizens, however, was the last straw.

The city opted for a plan to create an upstream dam, pave over the bend in the river, and create a bypass channel with a downstream gate. Enter local architect Robert H.H. Hugman. In 1929, Hugman presented a proposal to the city endorsing the dam but recommending that the bend be retained, better controlled and built into a park with commercial development above it. He offered to build his office at the most vulnerable point. His plan was not well received, but ten years later, he was named architect and River Walk was underway. It stood – and passed — its first serious test in 1946. Prolific development has followed. In 1981, the Hyatt Regency built a connector that linked Alamo Plaza to the River Walk, creating the Paseo del Alamo, an urban park with waterfalls and an extension of the river running through its atrium. And the city has developed the river below the bend into a commercial area called the Reach.

As you can see, we actually did more cruising along the River Walk than walking. Rio San Antonio Cruises provides motorized, narrated tours with great frequency. One all day plan allows unlimited on-off.

The Tower of the Americas

The Alamo is just east of the River Walk. Just south of it is Rivecenter Mall, and then the Convention Center. Initially built as a crown jewel of HemisFair ’68, it has been significantly altered and expanded since then. (BTW, we didn’t realize that SA is the 7th largest city in the U.S. and the second fastest growing of the top ten (after Phoenix).

Standing on the Center’s grounds is the Tower of the Americas. Built for Hemisfair 68, it was the tallest observation tower in the United States until eclipsed in 1996 by the Las Vegas Stratosphere Tower. The elevator shaft is partly enclosed and partly open, making for a neat ride. There’s a Chart House restaurant at the observation level. There are both indoor and outdoor observation decks about 600 feet above the pavement. And there are guide maps to tell you what you’re looking at. But I didn’t think it was so great. Seeing the tops of buildings from an eagle’s perspective ain’t my cup of tea. On the other hand, there was a diorama that charted the history of this land showing the timing and extent to which it repeatedly changed hands in the process of becoming part of the Union.

Dot didn’t go; her acrophobia is worse than mine. And I didn’t spend much time on the outdoor deck! But like climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, you have to do it because it’s there!

The Institute of Texas Cultures

The Institute of Texas Cultures sits adjacent to the Tower. It is a fascinating exhibit, because it charts the history and influence of earliest settlers and the melting pot of immigration it became. Sections feature American Indians, British, French, Scandinavian, African American, Jewish, Lebanese Middle European and Asian cultures. Other 3d exhibits include a sharecroppers cabin and textile section, where we quickly learned the power of the cotton gin. A central dome displayed constantly changing images from 26 projectors around its circumference.

That’s what we did in San Antonio. But the week ended on a scary note. Teddy had another seizure.

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