Answers to Go with Susan Smith

The San Antonio River Walk

Q. I love the old River Walk in San Antonio and its quiet extension. Was it a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression?

A. Last Sunday, I covered the early history of the River Walk with information from The Texas State Historical Association’s authoritative “New Handbook of Texas” which is available both online and in a six-volume print edition at the library.  This week, we’ll go to the same source to learn about 85 years of San Antonio River planning– through the Great Depression, World War II, the 1950s, HemisFair and the 21st century.

Let’s set the stage by introducing the two key characters we met earlier.  First, we have the young San Antonio-born architect, Robert H. H. Hugman, whose River Walk vision included parks, bridges, shops and restaurants with designs based on the city’s Spanish heritage and a nod to the canals of Venice.

His competition was Harland Bartholomew, a St. Louis city planner, who favored keeping River Park as a natural area.  Bartholomew’s plan was adopted in 1933.

Hugman was down, but not out. He found a supporter in hotelier Jack White. White noted the success of the 1936 Texas Centennial River Parade and saw potential for developing new business at his swank Plaza Hotel.

With White as an advocate, Hugman’s project won city assistance and additional federal funding from the Works Progress Administration (NOT the Civil Conservation Corps) and ground was broken in 1939.

Hugman’s plan used curving limestone block walls to mimic a natural stream. Nearly 12,000 trees and shrubs were readied for planting.

Leaders of the Conservation Society were dismayed at Hugman’s lavish use of fanciful stonework for walks, retaining walls and bridges. They were instrumental in getting Hugman fired halfway through the project, though the key elements of his plan were already in place.

The newly-completed River Walk was dedicated in April 1941 with the first of the annual Fiesta river parades still sponsored by San Antonio’s Texas Cavaliers.

Wartime brought a shift in priorities. After the war, the River Walk was little more than a narrow landscaped canyon between the unsightly backs of buildings.   The River Walk, seldom visited, became sufficiently unsafe to be declared off-limits for the city’s military personnel.

In 1959, the chamber of commerce hired Marco Engineering, the designer of Disneyland, to solve the River Walk’s problems. The amusement park qualities of the design horrified chamber members and it was immediately shelved. San Antonio’s Chapter of the American Institute of Architects provided sketches of recommended facades for river-side buildings. 

Plans for San Antonio’s world’s fair, HemisFair ’68, drew attention to the area. Fair visitors and convention goers could follow the River Walk to the first major hotels built in San Antonio since the Great Depression. At last, the River Walk had pedestrian traffic sufficient to sustain commercial development

Renewed concerns about flooding led to construction of a flood control tunnel beneath all of downtown.  Improved flood control facilitated extension of the River Walk far beyond Hugman’s original project.

By 2009, river boats passed through a lock and northward along a two-mile stretch bordered by River Walk-inspired gentrification. Cruises end at the renovated Pearl Brewery complex at Grayson Street, but improvements and trails extend nearly to the San Antonio River’s source on the University of the Incarnate Word campus.

To the south, River Walk improvements through the King William Historic District were completed in 1968. More recently, landscaped hiking and biking trails were extended to the farthest Spanish mission.

The broad paved flood channel was replaced by a narrow winding channel, like the river’s original course. Native trees and grasses are now planted along the river.

While Robert Hugman and Harland Bartholomew offered very different visions, elements of both plans can be seen in today’s San Antonio River Walk.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666