When I got off the train in San Antonio, and first walked through the streets, whenever a large vehicle passed by me, it would kick up this storm of dust which I would breathe in, unless I held my breath and hurried past it. I was wondering it I would have to deal with this during my entire stay in San Antonio.
Well, it turns out I did not. In the late morning, it started raining, and it has been raining on and off ever since. Even when it’s not raining, it’s wet enough that dust clouds are not a problem.
Instead, I had to navigate these giant puddles, some of which managed to submerge sidewalks. A few times, I had to walk in the middle of the street – where the cars are – because it was the only way to go in the direction I wanted to go. It was worse than Taoyuan City during a typhoon.
It turned out that the riverwalk – one of the most famous tourist attractions in San Antonio – is also one of the easiest places to navigate as a pedestrian. No need to walk around giant puddles!
It turns out that both dust and rain/water played an important role in shaping San Antonio.
The oldest buildings in San Antonio are the missions from the Spanish era. The most famous, of course, is the Alamo.
Some people told me to set my expectations for the Alamo low, so I was surprised by how much there was to see there. They indicated what each of the remaining rooms had been used for during the siege, and an overview of the battle.
Of course, there is much more to the history of the Alamo than the famous siege. For example, there was a struggle to preserve it from commercial development around the turn of the 19th/20th century. More recently, it’s been threatened with invasion by rodents. Obviously, the threat of rodents is not nearly as important or historic as the threat of Santa Anna’s army, but even so, the Alamo has a new defender.
The staff at the Alamo had a demonstration about the life of soldiers and militiamen in the 1830s and 1840s, but to be honest, the real star of the show, (dare I say the ‘lone’ star?) was this valiant new defender of the Alamo. The staff did say that, after this furry fighter took up residence 4-5 months ago, they have only seen a single rodent in the Alamo.
It was originally one of the missions set up by the Spanish along the San Antonio river to turn the indigenous people into Spanish subjects – including adopting Catholicism, Spanish culture, and the Spanish way of life. Why along the San Antonio river? Because it was the only reliable source of water in the region.
Anyway, if you’re at all familiar with California’s Spanish missions, you know that they tend to be dozens of miles away from each other – a day’s ride away. The San Antonio missions, by contrast, are only a couple or so miles from each other. Why? Because of the threat of Comanche/Kiowa/Apache attacks.
Obviously, the Comanche/Kiowa/Apache people had no interest in becoming Spanish subjects, and they used the horses and weapons they gained from trade with Europeans to raid others. The indigenous people of the area, who the Spanish called the ‘Coahuitecans’, were not interested in being victims of the Comanche/Kiowa/Apache warriors, and entering the missions seemed less bad. That is why most of them entered the missions willingly. A few ran away because they had to do too much hard work in the mission. The Spanish went out to force these people back into the mission.
This is Mission Conception, the best preserved of the missions. It has never been rebuilt or restored – everything is original to the Spanish era.
Why has Mission Conception survived much better than other missions? One reason is that it has a better design, but another reason is that it is built on limestone/bedrock. It is right next to the quarry where they got the limestone to built the missions.
Most of the soil is clay/silt – basically, the same stuff as the dust which gave me issues in the morning. It expands when it gets wet, and contracts when it dries out. This puts a lot of stress on the foundations of buildings. But because Mission Conception is built on rock, not soil, it does not have this problem.
By contrast, the roof of Mission San Jose collapsed in the late nineteenth century – though much of the mission which stands today is original, parts of it (such as the roof) only date back to major restoration which took place in the first half of the 20th century.
The Spanish were the first people to bring agriculture to this region. Most of the year, the land is so dry that it requires irrigation for agriculture to be successful. The Spanish brought their irrigation techniques, which has a legacy going back to ancient Rome.
Here is the Espada aqueduct, the only Spanish acqueduct in the United States which is still in use:
Below, you can see the ‘acqueia’ – the Spanish irrigation ditch – which crosses the aqueduct. These irrigation ditches are still being used to irrigate land.
The irrigation ditches were also used as a source of power for mills – this irrigation ditch passes through the old mill at Mission San Jose.
The European immigrants of later eras also made use of the San Antonio river as a source of energy to drive mills in the late nineteenth century.
Before San Antonio was developed, the river (and its tributary creeks) were a lush riparian environment.
However, the San Antonio river has a tendency to flood once in a while. There was a particularly devastating flood in 1921 which caused over 50 deaths and wrecked the town. After the 1921 flood, the city government decided to alter the river to make it safer. There was talk of diverting the entire river underground, but a group of citizens opposed the plan. Instead, the riverwalk – which was mentioned earlier in this post – was created in downtown.
In the 1990s, they built a great diversion tunnel for the river which takes overflowing water and moves it three miles downriver. Just months after the great tunnel was completed, there was another devastating flood, and it was believed that the tunnel saved downtown San Antonio from great damage. When it’s not flooding, the tunnel can also be used to pump water upriver and keep water recirculating through the downtown riverwalk.
So, in summary, San Antonio is a city defined by water and fine dust/silt/clay.