Historical photos show famed San Antonio River Walk in different light

A group of women, an architect and a flood all helped establish the historical River Walk

Photograph shows pleasure boat, owned by Casa Rio Restaurant, on river near Plaza Hotel.  Flood gate near W. Commerce Street in background. Photo circa 1960-1965. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections.
Photograph shows pleasure boat, owned by Casa Rio Restaurant, on river near Plaza Hotel. Flood gate near W. Commerce Street in background. Photo circa 1960-1965. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (San Antonio Development Agency)

SAN ANTONIO – What do a group of women, an architect and a flood have in common? They were all crucial to the establishment of the world-renowned San Antonio River Walk.

The origins of the famed San Antonio River Walk can be traced back to a flood that occurred in 1921 when roughly nine feet of water flooded the area around Houston Street, killing 50 people.

Following the floods, a plan was made to cement over the area, but a group of strong-willed women enlisted the help of San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman to help save and develop 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.

Fast forward to 1925 when a flood bypass channel was constructed to help divert the flow of water and avoid another flooding disaster like the one that occurred just four years earlier.

Texas Theater and Houston Street Bridge over the San Antonio River. Photograph shows view looking downstream on the river. Riverside Walk (left), connecting Travis and Houston Streets. Date estimated to be 1927-1931. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (Albert Schaal)

Then in 1929, according to the San Antonio River Walk Association, Hugman presented his plans for “The Shops of Romula and Aragon” to endorse the bypass channel with recommendations that there be “flood gates at the north end, a small dam at the south end, and a tainter gate in the channel to check the flow and create pools of water.”

Photograph shows view looking upstream (north) toward the Travis Street Bridge over the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (Albert Schaal)
Photograph shows night view of the river, looking upstream from area near the Houston Street Bridge. Riverside Walk above banana trees on right. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (Albert Schaal)

By 1939 the project officially broke ground with Hugman as the lead architect. The first restaurant at the River Walk, Casa Rio, opened years later in 1946 next to Hugman’s office.

Riverwalk dining area, Casa Rio Restaurant, San Antonio, Texas, ca. 1965. Photograph shows people dining at tables along the "Paseo del Rio." View from Commerce Street Bridge. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (San Antonio Development Agency)

The River Walk still wasn’t a major tourist destination until HemisFair in 1968 when 6.4 million people visited downtown San Antonio, according to WorldsFair68.com.

“HemisFair was the defining moment of bringing people and really gave it world recognition,” Thompson previously told KSAT. “They built the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, they built additional restaurants and businesses and the River Walk flourished after that.”

Photograph shows pleasure boat, owned by Casa Rio Restaurant, on river near Plaza Hotel. Flood gate near W. Commerce Street in background. Photo circa 1960-1965. Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections. (San Antonio Development Agency)

Thompson said the River Walk is now considered the No. 1 tourist attraction in Texas, bringing millions of visitors to the city each year which helps drive San Antonio’s economy. “It brings around 14 million visitors including locals, which brings in about $3.5 billion of economic impact to the city.”

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