The San Antonio River Walk (or Paseo del Rio) is a linear park that winds for thirteen miles from Brackenridge Park through downtown San Antonio and south to the farthest of the city’s five eighteenth-century Spanish missions. The central section of approximately 3½ miles is navigable by tourist barges that stop along riverside walkways near hotels, restaurants, and shops concentrated around the Great Bend or Horseshoe Bend. Navigation northward beyond the original River Walk was made possible in 2009 by construction of the only river lock in the state of Texas. Access to the remainder of the River Walk is along hiking and biking trails. The River Walk draws several million tourists a year, is ranked as one of the top travel destinations in Texas, and has inspired riverside developments throughout the world.
The River Walk has its origins at the end of the nineteenth century, when the narrow San Antonio River was replaced as the source of the city’s water by a municipal system fed by artesian wells. The wells began lowering the water table and periodically caused the river, some twenty feet below downtown street level, to go dry. Proposals for new use of the river’s tree-lined course as a park gained momentum in 1904, when irate citizens went before city commissioners to protest overzealous clearing of overgrowth along the river. New civic use followed. The annual spring festival’s king had traditionally made his ceremonious entry at a railroad station, but in April 1905 the king arrived by boat as part of the first river parade. A second such parade was held two years later as part of a riverside Carnival of Venice. It had to be delayed when a temporary dam to raise the water to a level adequate for boats washed out in a storm, and no more river parades were held for nearly three decades. In 1911 a group of businessmen commissioned an engineering study that reported the dwindling flow could safely be carried through a proposed underground conduit beneath downtown. That would permit the surface riverbed to be filled in for development. Opposing businessmen formed the San Antonio River Improvement Association. After added opposition from the City Federation of Women’s Clubs, city commissioners took no action on the proposal. Election in 1912 of a reform mayor, Augustus H. Jones, led to a mile-long landscaping of downtown riverbanks as a River Park, one of several municipal improvements inspired by the national “City Beautiful” movement. It was dedicated in November 1914. Architectural Record praised the park by observing, in 1919, that “the average city council would have built an intercepting sewer, the stream would have disappeared from view and the city would have become as commonplace as any other good hustling, enterprising town.” In about 1920 The Coffee House, in a riverside basement below the Houston Street bridge, became the first business to open along what became the River Walk.
Even before its completion, the River Park was submerged by two floods that spilled into the streets above, in October and December 1913. Continued flooding led the city in 1920 to hire the Boston engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy to come up with a permanent solution. Its recommendations were adopted by San Antonio city commissioners that December. One recommendation called for building a dam two miles upstream to hold back flood runoff from the Olmos Creek watershed, the most serious cause of flooding downstream. Straightening six convoluted bends to speed passage of floodwaters was also approved. Not to be straightened was a seventh bend—the largest, a horseshoe-shaped meander in the heart of downtown. Instead, that bend and the rest of the riverbed were to be deepened and lined with steep masonry walls. The banks would be cleared of all trees and shrubs, which could impede floodwaters. The impact of that move did not register on citizens for another three months, when the Fiesta de San Jacinto Association made its customary application for a city permit to decorate trees beside the river for the next spring fiesta. This time, since there would soon be no trees, the permit was denied. A wave of protest arose from “men and women in all walks of life.” Officials about to face outraged citizens who had gathered at the Woman’s Club hastily decided the trees would remain.
A few months later came the greatest disaster San Antonio has faced in modern times. A twenty-three-hour downpour struck at 6:00 P.M. on September 9, 1921. A thousand acres of the city were flooded. A three-quarter square-mile area of downtown was covered by two to twelve feet of water. Despite at least 500 rescues, many by soldiers mobilized from nearby United States Army posts, more than fifty persons drowned, many of them in poor neighborhoods along San Pedro and Alazan creeks and their tributaries. It took nearly three more years for flood prevention plans to be finalized and for $2.8 million in municipal bonds to be approved so work could start. The city hired Samuel F. Crecelius, retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to supervise the overall project. Olmos Dam was finished in 1926. Downtown, floodwaters would be diverted into a straight path to avoid the politically sensitive Great Bend, also known as the Horseshoe Bend. Floodgates at both ends of the Great Bend would seal it from floodwaters. The bypass channel was completed in 1930. Protection of the Great Bend from high waters gave it unique potential for safe development close to the river level. The young San Antonio-born architect Robert H. H. Hugman, whose time in New Orleans had given him respect for that city’s awareness of its French heritage, believed the San Antonio River’s Great Bend could draw inspiration from San Antonio’s Spanish heritage. Hugman came up with an imaginary cross between Spain and Venice, a fanciful environment he conceived of as The Shops of Aragon and Romula. His Shops of Aragon would line a cobblestone lane descending from Houston Street to the river at the western end of the Great Bend. A bridge would cross into the bend. There, Romula, also accessed by stairways from the streets, would be lined with zones of shops, restaurants, and park-like areas. Narrow pedestrian bridges would arch the stream. Hugman envisioned gondolas poled “down the river on a balmy night, fanned by a gentle breeze carrying the delightful aroma of honeysuckle and sweet olive, [with] old-fashioned street lamps casting fantastic shadows on the surface of the water, strains of music in the air.”
In 1929 Robert Hugman took his plan to the San Antonio Conservation Society, an organization that was founded in 1924 in an unsuccessful effort to save the city’s unique market house and then concentrated on saving the Spanish San José Mission south of town. The society’s president sent him to San Antonio Mayor C. M. Chambers. The mayor quickly endorsed Hugman’s proposal as part of his overall cut-rate plan to counter the more costly city master plan proposed by Harland Bartholomew of St. Louis, one of the nation’s leading city planners. Bartholomew favored keeping the River Park as a natural area, with none of Hugman’s disruptions. Hugman failed to gain support from the San Antonio Conservation Society, a strong backer of Bartholomew. Society support was pivotal in the approval in 1933 of Bartholomew’s master plan, the city’s first. Robert Hugman, left to advocate his ideas on his own, finally found a supporter in hotelier Jack White. White had noted the success of the 1936 Texas Centennial River Parade, sponsored by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and saw potential for developing new business at his swank Plaza Hotel at the southern end of the Great Bend. He spearheaded organization of a local taxing district to help finance Hugman’s project. He gained both city assistance and additional federal funding from the Works Progress Administration with the aid of Congressman (and later mayor) Maury Maverick. Ground was broken in 1939. The channel walls of the old River Park had been of concrete and were equidistant between the river’s banks. Hugman replaced them with walls of limestone blocks that curved slightly irregularly to replicate the channel of a natural stream. Nearly 12,000 trees and shrubs were readied for planting, some of them temporarily removed from the riverside during construction. But leaders of the Conservation Society and others still loyal to the River Park were dismayed at the lavish amount of fanciful stonework Hugman insisted upon adding to the once sedate park for sidewalks, 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. Hugman was replaced by J. Fred Buenz, a landscape architect who tempered the use of additional stonework.
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. But the nation was turning its attention toward World War II. After the war the River Walk remained little more than a narrow landscaped canyon between the unsightly backs of buildings facing streets above. The succession of river-level restaurants near the Houston Street bridge was joined in 1946 by Casa Rio, at the Market Street bridge over the Great Bend, but no other commercial development soon occurred. The River Walk, seldom visited, became sufficiently unsafe to be declared off-limits for the city’s military personnel. In 1952 a group of businessmen so disregarded the integrity of Hugman’s concept that an automobile bridge crossing the river to a parking garage was proposed at a level only slightly higher than one of Hugman’s quaint arching bridges a stone’s throw away.
By this time, members of the San Antonio Conservation Society had recognized the appeal of Hugman’s design and mounted a full campaign against the proposed bridge. The society’s first president, Emily Edwards, who in 1924 authored a puppet show called “The Goose With the Golden Eggs” to promote the range of unique aspects in San Antonio, rewrote her original script to focus on the uniqueness of the river. Although Conservation Society efforts did not succeed and the bridge was built, broad attention had been brought to the plight of the River Walk. In 1959 appliance wholesaler David J. Straus encouraged the chamber of commerce to commission California’s Marco Engineering Company, designer of Disneyland, to come up with a way to fix the River Walk. Its plan, however, completed in 1961, horrified Straus and others with its similarity to an amusement park. The Marco proposal was immediately shelved. But the episode so unnerved San Antonio’s Chapter of the American Institute of Architects that it formed a committee, headed by Cyrus Wagner, to make renderings for careful renovations of facades of buildings visible from the river. Committee member Ignacio Torres translated River Walk into Paseo del Rio, a term favored for many years. David Straus lobbied building owners on the value of opening businesses at the river level. The efforts coalesced with planning for San Antonio’s world’s fair, HemisFair ’68, on a downtown site just beyond the easternmost leg of the Great Bend. An extension of the bend dug a third of a mile east ended as a lagoon beside the fair’s exhibition hall and theater. When the fair ended, the exhibition hall, theater, and nearby arena became a convention center that dramatically revitalized the city’s convention industry. Fair visitors and convention goers could follow the River Walk to the first major hotels built in San Antonio since the Great Depression. One, the Hilton Palacio del Rio, went up near the intersection of the Great Bend and its new extension. Around the bend to the northwest, the offending automobile bridge was taken down, and the parking garage it reached was replaced with a building of the new La Mansion del Rio hotel. The River Walk at last had pedestrian traffic sufficient to sustain commercial development.
In the decades since 1968, hotels, restaurants, and shops have multiplied along the River Walk, guided by a variety of agencies monitoring aspects from building setbacks to lighting to semitropical plantings to noise levels. The River Walk was first adorned in Christmas lights in 1975. At that time, Joske’s president William W. McCormick and other civic leaders were concerned with a decrease in downtown commerce. Working with the group Downtown Inc., McCormick suggested stringing Christmas lights in the trees along the San Antonio River Walk, in addition to normally decorated buildings. That first year, Joske’s and Sears supplied the lights, and city maintenance workers provided the labor. The project has grown into a major event and draws thousands of tourists to the River Walk during the Christmas season every year. The River Walk extension was itself extended in 1988 to form a lagoon around the glass-fronted Rivercenter Mall, which had more than 100 retail outlets on three levels. In 2001 yet another extension of the extension offered access deep into the newly-enlarged convention center complex. An eleven-year project for a three-mile flood control tunnel beneath all of downtown was completed by 1998, months before a storm that would earlier have caused major flooding outside the protected Great Bend. The improved flood control facilitated extension of the River Walk, a goal of Mayor Phil Hardberger, far beyond Hugman’s original project. In 2009 on Hardberger’s last day in office, the outgoing mayor, riding in a barge, opened the newly-landscaped riverbanks through a lock and cruised northward along a once derelict two-mile section through decaying neighborhoods, soon to undergo major River Walk-inspired gentrification. Navigation ends at the renovated Pearl Brewery complex at Grayson Street, but improvements and trails are extending on nearly to the San Antonio River’s source, now on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word. South of Hugman’s original project, navigation ends at a dam at Nueva Street, just below the southern end of the Great Bend. Beyond, improvements through the King William Historic District were completed by a San Antonio River Authority project in 1968. South of that, landscaping and hiking and biking trails to the farthest Spanish mission was completed in 2013. The broad paved flood channel that had replaced the river’s original winding course through that area decades earlier was replaced by a narrow channel winding again, like the river’s original course. Original native trees and grasses have been replanted along the way. Added to new sections of the River Walk were more than a dozen public art works and designs by noted artists funded by the private San Antonio River Foundation, formed in 2004.
Earlier, as the River Walk was approaching Robert H. H. Hugman’s original vision for its success, he at last received public acclaim for his rigid adherence to his dream. In 1978, two years before his death, the city feted Hugman as he struck one of the new bells hung near the stage of the 1939 Arneson River Theater, one of his signature architectural elements in a design that has evolved into a cornerstone of San Antonio’s tourism industry and a model for sensitive river development.