SAN ANTONIO – The origins of the San Antonio River Walk date back to the 1920s, when disaster struck South Texas.
The San Antonio River flooded in 1921, taking numerous lives.
Plans were developed for flood control along the river, but those plans included cementing and covering the River Walk site.
A group of women and a visionary San Antonio architect came up with an idea to save the area.
“A group of female socialites marched on city hall and told them about a plan that a local architect Robert Hugman had to develop the River Walk and have stores and restaurants and hotels,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of the San Antonio River Walk Association.
Hugman's plan was initially not well-received. The area was considered to be dangerous and at one point, was even declared off-limits to military personnel.
But Hugman and his supporters were persistent. It paid off in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt, after the Great Depression, approved crucial funding to construct a network of walkways and bridges.
The first restaurant at the River Walk, Casa Rio, opened years later in 1946 next to Hugman’s office.
“We consider Robert Hugman to be the father of the River Walk,” Thompson said. “We now have a statue of him or his bust on the River Walk to commemorate him.”
Despite progress, the River Walk was not a heavily visited location and didn’t truly make its mark until another iconic San Antonio event.
“HemisFair was the defining moment of bringing people and really gave it world recognition,” Thompson said. “They built the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, they built additional restaurants and businesses and the River Walk flourished after that.”
Throughout the decades, the San Antonio River Walk Association, along with several key figures such as David Straus and Tom Frost, shaped the location. The association’s goal is to promote, preserve and protect River Walk.
“The arch bridges, some of them are named after David Straus. We have the Straus Bridge,” said Thompson. “Bob Buchanan owned one of the first restaurants on the River Walk, so these are iconic figures that we are really grateful for.”
Thompson said the River Walk is now considered to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state. It brings in millions of visitors and is a major economic driver for the city.
“It brings around 14 million visitors including locals, which brings in about $3.5 billion of economic impact to the city,” said Thompson.
There are more than two dozen free events at the River Walk yearly, most of which are free to attend.
The only ticketed event is the Ford Holiday River Parade, which lights up the area and is a beacon of a hidden San Antonio treasure, that almost did not exist.
“Other cities contact us all the time, they want to have a River Walk in their city,” Thompson said. “It’s such an iconic place. When I go somewhere and I say I’m from San Antonio, people always know what the River Walk is, so just the word River Walk, it means San Antonio.”