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Take Me to the River: How the SARA Records Offer Insight into the Growth and Development of San Antonio

August 8, 2016

This post was written by our San Antonio River Authority Records summer intern, Abra Schnur.

Before an archivist can begin to process a collection they must do a bit of background research on the subject.  For us, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) interns, that meant reviewing the existing finding aid of the collection, combing through SARA’s website, reading various articles on the agency, handling and reading many of the items we were about to process.

For me, Abra, it was also like taking a trip down memory lane. I grew up here in San Antonio, and the San Antonio River sets the scenery for many of the memories of my life before I moved away in 2008. That date is important because when I later visited what is now called the Museum Reach in 2013, I realized that San Antonio was changing, drastically.  

But it wasn’t until this summer and this internship that I realized just how much a river, and how one manages bodies of water, can influence a city, communities, and daily life. That I just now understand this as a 33 year old wasn’t lost on me. Though I think any environment that one is brought up in can simply become a backdrop to your routine, and isn’t noticed until it affects you directly. That’s on an individual level, but the River really has always influenced this land and the communities around it.

Before the river was a tourist attraction, it was one of the most basic resources for the indigenous people of the region. When the Spaniards arrived, they made the original inhabitants build acequias around the Missions (which they were also forced to erect). The area eventually became a city with buildings popping up along the River, making it a landmark for commerce. However, flooding had always been an issue and after the flood of 1946, SARA, then known as the San Antonio River Canal and Conservancy District, shifted its focus from canal building to flood control.

Flood control is one thing, which the authority has thankfully done plenty of with its San Antonio Channel Improvements Project (SACIP). However,  it’s pretty fascinating when you locate a possible founding document pushing SARA towards the “beautification” of the River.

In this 1962 document from City Manager, Jack Shelly, addressed to SARA manager H.V. Braunig, SARA is clearly getting the nudge from the city and “numerous civic groups” that a “combination of permanent beautification and flood control for downtown San Antonio could be achieved through a coordinated effort among the River Authority, the Army Engineers, and the City.”

In this 1962 document from City Manager, Jack Shelly, addressed to SARA manager H.V. Braunig, SARA is clearly getting the nudge from the city and “numerous civic groups” that a “combination of permanent beautification and flood control for downtown San Antonio could be achieved through a coordinated effort among the River Authority, the Army Engineers, and the City.”

The first of these downtown “betterments,” as they were known in SACIP, occurred in Unit 8, which focused on the River from the South Alamo Bridge to the Riverwalk. Constructions like walkways, landscape design, and the rechannelization of the river with a preservation mindset in the King William district were a focus in the 1960s. Further beautification efforts in the 1980s extended from King William with the likes of the Johnson St. Pedestrian Bridge up to the Riverwalk by replacing the existing walls between Commerce and Houston Streets with a U-shaped channel frame and landscaping and maintaining the original stone retaining walls of the 1920s and an access ramp other amenities behind what once was the Municipal Auditorium (now known as The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts).

The River land by the Missions area had the advantage of being part of the newly registered National Historic Park in the 1970s, but from South Alamo Street to Mission Concepcion (south of downtown), and North of Lexington Ave. to Hildebrand Ave. (north of downtown), the River did not receive treatment in the way of beautification. SACIP was winding down with its initial constructions by the end of the 20th century and SARA began to expand its efforts. But, the 13-mile stretch from Hildebrand to Mission Espada tempted The Authority, The City, and local interests with revitalization. This interest saw the creation of the San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP).

SARA_SARIP timeline 2004

This SARIP timeline from 2004 gives the projection of when various segments should be completed.

The River Oversight Committee for was formed in 1998 to ensure public participation and representation for the development of the River under SARIP. The 22-member committee also helped with the planning and implementation. The downtown section, which extends from Houston St. to Lexington Ave., was completed in 2002 and included the restoration of some of the original Riverwalk. The Eagleland segment to the south is the area between the S. Alamo Street Bridge and Lone Star Boulevard and features paddling trails and an eco-restoration focus. The Mission Reach extends from there to Mission Espada and was completed in 2013.  It also has an ongoing eco-restoration focus. The Museum Reach has possibly garnered the most attention, extends northward from Lexington Ave. to Hildebrand Ave. with its urban segment being completed in 2009 and its park segment is just now nearing completion.  

Let’s take a look of some photos of what is now known as Museum Reach.

SARA_SAR at Lexington_1968SARA_SAR upstream from Lexington_1987

This shows the SAR at Lexington Ave, where the El Tropicano Hotel sits (you can see it on the left side of these photos)  In 1968 and 1987 there was no hardscape to the area.  Now you can walk down from the hotel and take the barge north to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), or to the downtown portion of the Riverwalk, as my husband and I did for brunch the day after our wedding in 2013.

SARA_SAR at McCullough Bridge_1968

SARA_SAR at McCullough_1987

Here is the McCullough Ave. Bridge in 1968 and 1987.  My family and I would park in the parking lot northwest of the bridge every year for the Battle of Flowers Parade in the 1990s.  No hardscape or trails at the time.  Is this area now part of your jogging route?

SARA_SAR at Jones_1988SARA_SAR at VFW_1988

These two photos show the River behind the VFW Post off Avenue B, and an adjacent view to the SAMA in 1988. I spent many nights at this intersection of Jones and Avenue B attending shows at a now demolished music venue (The Lounge, Reverb, and Rock Bottom were a few of its reincarnations). Imagine this being your view if you were enjoying a beer at the Post or dinner at the Luxury.

There are many reasons one could argue that the Museum Reach is possibly showcased a little more than the other areas. But as the River did in the south with the Missions, and as it did in the center with commerce and tourism, the northern part of the River is now attracting people and bringing in economic development.  Of course this doesn’t just happen on its own; people do the orchestration, but being the inherent, vital resource that water is, it is only natural for this ebb and flow to occur.

According to the River Oversight Committee, in the first five years of being operational, the urban segment of Mission Reach brought in over $250 million of private investment, or rather, new economic development along the River, (River Oversight Committee Fact Sheet, 2014).

SARA_Rio Perla letter 2005

Another document we came across was this one addressed to SARA from Rio Perla Properties L.P., the group behind the repurposed Pearl Brewery.  It is an example of the interconnectivity between natural resources, money, and development as it shows how, in their opinion, the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods is dependent on the beautification of the River.  Nowadays you can see the ripple effects that the beautification of the River has had on the surrounding area.

These are just some of the few documents that represent turning the idea of a multi-use, reimagined river into a reality.  In the collection there are countless more construction progress photos and correspondence about not only SARIP but all major SARA projects spanning from the early 1950’s to the 2000’s.  

That’s one of the great things about archives; it’s the ability to look at something that seems naturally occurring over time and to understand the steps and decisions that were made along the way to shape your environment. This example also shows that even though a collection may pertain to something very specific, such as the San Antonio River Authority, it can be used for various research endeavors, such as urban growth and economic development; environmental quality and water and soil conservation; San Antonio and Texas history; construction and engineering; to name a few.   

Working with this collection has given us an appreciation for the archival challenges that are posed by large living collections such as this one – what is the best way to process the accessions, and how should it be represented in the finding aid?  These are the questions that challenged us throughout the internship. Based on our research, time allotment, and organizational structure of the accessions, we feel confident that the physical and intellectual arrangement will be beneficial to the user and to the UTSA Special Collections department for future accessions.

Since these accessions are now processed, we invite you to make an appointment at the UTSA Special Collections reading room at the Institute of Texan Cultures for your own trip down memory lane and see how the River has changed over time.    

Content for this blog post comes from and Boxes 85, 121, 137, 141, 196, and 205 of The San Antonio River Authority Records, MS 331, The University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.


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