When the Railway Came to Town

Choo choo ch’boogie

by Celia Hayes

From the earliest days, San Antonio was strategically located at the meeting of two major roads – the Camino Real, the roughly east-west road between Monclova and Mexico City and Natchitoches in Louisiana, and the Camino Del Norte, roughly a north/south route with many variations, but generally running between San Antonio and Laredo and points south. Strategic indeed, in the days of mule trains, ox-drawn freight wagons, horse-drawn stages and messengers on horseback, with goods and settlers arriving by sail and steam in coastal ports in Mexico, along the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast.

It took more than a decade after the end of the Civil War for San Antonio to be connected by steel rails to the rest of the country. The railway arrived in early 1877, much longed-for and received with much civic rejoicing. San Antonio was the very last major American city left un-served by a railway. The upper mid-west, east of the Mississippi-Missouri rivers had been thickly interconnected, even before the Civil War, the south less well so. Within four years after the war, the steel rails connected east and west, with the driving of the last spike at Promontory Point, Utah. From that year to the end of the century the railways ruled. Travel to far places in the west was made easier, faster, safer and cheaper. Goods and people flowed west – and the change which the railway brought to San Antonio is made clear to me in comparing a pair of city views of San Antonio in a style very popular at that time birds-eye views, half panorama and half city map. The Amon Carter museum has a good collection of such views of Texas cities. Artist and map-maker Agustus Koch made the first map of San Antonio in 1873; I have a copy of it hanging over my desk at this moment. In that year, the River City was what it had been for the previous two decades or so: a tight-packed cluster of Monopoly-shaped houses around Military and Main Plaza, lining a few blocks of Soledad and Flores, much of the length of Commerce street down to Alamo Plaza, where the Long Barracks and the old Alamo chapel are clearly identifiable. All the rest of town is a scattering of more small houses along straight-ruled avenues and open squares, rectangular and triangular plazas, all of them surrounded with gardens, orchards and open meadows. King William is marked out, to the south and east, and the first glimmerings of Southtown are clear; but the town unravels into rural within six or eight blocks in any direction from Commerce.

After the railroad arrived, Agustus Koch returned in 1886 to create an updated map. Those spaces which were gardens and relatively open fields were filled in; the streets presented an aspect of side-by side urban businesses and residences, taller and more imposing than the old single-story or two story structures that once had lined the city streets. A mule-drawn streetcar system connected the railway station on one side of town to the pleasure-grounds around the original San Pedro Springs on the other, shifted the business district north to Houston Street, and allowed residential neighborhoods to spread in every direction. The Army, finding that what remained of the historic presidio and the plaza before it was just too small for their needs, had decamped to a new establishment, Fort Sam Houston, on the low hills north of the city. The 1886 map shows the Quadrangle, and the parade grounds – and most clearly of all, the rail lines which had made all the difference between being a small and rather remote town, and a city of local and national significance.

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