History of the San Antonio River Walk
Your Unofficial Guide to San Antonio's Best-Loved Attraction
While the narrow river bed of the San Antonio River appears tame, Mother Nature sometimes calls attention to herself dramatically. In 1921, raging floodwaters claimed the lives of 50 San Antonians. After much hand-wringing and arguing, the city finally completed a proper dam and a bypass channel – the deep-walled section separating Biga on the Banks from Main Plaza – in 1929. This channel protected the downtown river bend, setting the stage for beautification.
Architect Robert H. H. Hugman envisioned creating a park-like setting a world apart from the city’s bustling streets above. Hugman said:
I called on a public official in 1929 who was a very smart businessman, but had little formal education. I told him of my dreams for developing the river called Shops of Aragon and Romula (for lack of a better name, and it did sound romantic), and I mentioned gondolas quietly gliding on the water as a part of an imaginary setting. He thought the entire idea was fine, but then he said, “Oh, we won’t need to buy many gondolas; we can get a pair and raise our own.”
– from A Dream Come True: Robert Hugman and
San Antonio’s River Walk by Vernon Zunker
Barges – mass transit San Antonio-style - have replaced the few early gondolas, and today pedestrians wander the sidewalks enjoying the lush plantings and exploring shops and restaurants tucked along the way. While the gondolas were unable to reproduce, water birds and ducks do so in abundance, so much so that the San Antonio River Authority requests people refrain from the temptation to share their bread and tortillas with the wildlife.
The romance Hugman envisioned is ever-present. Countless proposals have been made and accepted and numerous weddings held at Biga on the Banks. Just a block away, Bowen’s Landing has become known as Wedding Island. Last year alone, more than 250 couples chose that spot in the river to tie their knots.
When wandering the river’s banks, rely on the riverside signage en route. Pass under the Hyatt Regency, and find yourself right smack in front of the “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” the Alamo itself. While the Spanish missionaries did not build it in the middle of a downtown, the city has grown up around it.
As the river’s course loops and winds, it passes under several streets multiple times. Biga is adjacent to the St. Mary’s Street Bridge, but there is more than one St. Mary’s Street Bridge. And, in the past several years, Hugman’s dream has been extended miles northward through the Brewers’ Bend of the river to Pearl Brewery and southward through the King William Historic District toward the former Lone Star Brewery. To compensate for the change in elevation as the river flows southward, a set of two locks and a dam was constructed to raise barges 15 feet – an engineering feat - to travel from downtown to Pearl, passing right under Donald Lipski’s giant illuminated school of sunfish suspended from under the interstate.
Construction and environmental restoration continues, and, within the next year or two, pedestrians and bicylists will be able to travel riverside from the Witte Museum to Mission Espada. The city’s new downtown B-Cycle stations make it easy to check out bikes to cover the distance.
More than a century ago, the writer O. Henry observed San Antonio was a spirited city, comparing life here to “Mardi Gras on the austere brink of Lent.” People claim the city parties “at the drop of a hat,” with festivals virtually every weekend throughout the year. Our largest celebration, Fiesta San Antonio, runs ten days in April, right smack through the middle of Lent. Kings and queens abound, and friends, laughing hysterically, send showers of confetti from cracked cascarones (eggshells) over each other’s heads.
The river lies at the heart of many of these exuberant events, drawing thousands to its banks for the Holiday River Parade, the Texas Cavaliers’ River Parade, parades when the Spurs win championships and even a Mud Parade when the river is drained briefly for maintenance. Thousands of lights cascade from the tall cypresses and flickering candles – luminarias – line the river’s banks for much of the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
Do people ever fall into our river? Amazingly, very rarely. Except in the bypass channel, though, an adult need only stand on two feet to avoid swimming a stroke. (Not sure you want this section: Back in the 1970s, the waiters at the old Kangaroo Court would throw each other and regulars into the river on their birthdays, but only when the Park Rangers weren’t looking. Then, the sidewalks often were devoid of humans. To drum up media interest in the winter, a staff member of the Paseo del Rio Association once sweet-talked a zookeeper into bringing a hibernating alligator to ride a barge with Wendy and Captain Hook. But it was a San Antonio-style winter day. Sun warmed the alligator’s back; his tail began to twitch, then flail. Wendy shrieked and leapt from the barge; no gangplank needed.)
Countless cities around the world have tried to duplicate Paseo del Rio, but failed. While some ridicule our river, calling it a stream or a ditch, the width of it is what makes the urban space intimate. You wave to people on barges only a few feet away or call out to a friend on the opposite bank.
No cookie-cutter plan was applied. The 31 stairways Hugman designed are all different; even sidewalk textures vary. The architecture represents layers of development from San Antonio’s earliest days to the contemporary, and buildings reflect the individual dreams and eccentricities of their owners through the years. The magic of Paseo del Rio cannot be copied.
We invite you to wander our river’s banks, to explore, get lost and fall in love with our river again and again.