When the Spanish padres looked across the San Antonio River, they saw souls to save.
The priests were at the Mission San Antonio de Valero, and what they saw was the presidio at San Fernando de Bexar. The only thing that separated the soldiers from their salvation was the river – the presidio was on the west side, the mission on the east.
The padres needed a bridge, so they ordered six log beams placed across the river at the midpoint of a horseshoe bend. The year was 1736, and this was the first bridge across the San Antonio River. Today, it’s called the Commerce Street Bridge.
For more than two and a half centuries, a succession of logs, planks, iron trusses, and concrete slabs have stood at this point. Alamo defenders and Santa Anna’s soldiers have placed their footprints here, followed by presidents, future presidents, generals, heroes, peacemakers, warmakers, soldiers marching into battle, strolling lovers, photo-snapping tourists, and conventioneers.
An auto has plunged over the railing, a child killed falling through its rotten planking. A Texas state historical marker commemorates it, and the nation remembers it through a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Painters have painted it, postcards have captured it. So many poets and writers have memorialized it in poems, stories and travelogues that it is fondly called San Antonio’s “Literary Bridge.”
Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, while spending the winter of 1872-73 in San Antonio in faint hopes the dry air would cure his tuberculosis, admired “the green translucent stream flowing beneath” as he lingered on the bridge. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, paused on its wooden planks during his travels across Texas in the 1850s. He was struck by the “rich blue and pure as crystal” San Antonio River “flowing rapidly but noiselessly over pebbles and between reedy banks” beneath him. William Sydney Porter, huddled over his yellow legal pads in the lobby of the Menger Hotel, scribbled short stories as O. Henry placed a suicidal tuberculosis patient peering from the 19th-century iron truss at “the small tortuous river” in “A Fog in Santone.”
The late author Jerry Flemmons believed this is the same bridge that author Stephen Crane leapt from to save a drowning child.
Those first log beams even came to symbolize a struggle between church and state. The soldiers from the presidio reached the mission by crossing the logs, but they molested the Native American women there more than they attended services. The padres removed the logs, but the Spanish military governor ordered them replaced. And so on. The governor finally won the standoff, but the padres had the final word. They posted sentries at the bridge to keep the soldiers off. History does not record the disposition of their souls.
A narrow footbridge eventually replaced the wood beams. Texas soldiers crossed it to escape the arrival of Santa Anna’s army in San Antonio on Feb. 23, 1836. They retreated to their makeshift fort at the now-secularized San Antonio de Valero mission, otherwise known as the Alamo.
Later that day, Col. William B. Travis sent Capt. Albert Martin back to the bridge to parlay with Santa Anna’s adjutant, Col. Juan N. Almonte. The adjutant rejected Martin’s invitation to speak directly to Travis at the Alamo, instead offering only unconditional surrender. The offer was rejected. The 13-day siege was on. The next day, Martin slipped through the Mexican lines carrying Travis’s famous letter “To the People of Texas.” He delivered it to Gonzales and returned from there on March 1 with small reinforcements and martyrdom.
One night during the siege, Santa Anna ordered Col. Juan Bringas to charge across the bridge with a half dozen men. Gunfire from the Alamo burst to life, cutting down one Mexican soldier and sending the others in retreat. Bringas fell into the river, from where he emerged wet but unscathed. Mexican infantry undoubtedly crossed the bridge to encircle the compound for a final assault early on the morning of March 6.
After the carnage ended, Santa Anna had the bodies of the Alamo defenders burned, but he ordered hundreds of Mexican dead buried in the city cemetery – a distasteful task that fell to Mayor Francisco Antonio Ruiz. When the cemetery filled up and the grave diggers grew exhausted, Ruiz dumped the remaining bodies in the river. This created a congestion of bloated corpses floating around the bridge and turning the river into a red stream of blood. Vultures darkened the March sky and an overpowering stench penetrated the air before the river finally washed the decaying remains downstream.
These early bridges were suitable only for foot or light carriage traffic – horses and wagons crossed at a shallow ford farther downstream near present-day Navarro Street. The first structure sturdy enough to support heavier loads was built in 1841. But exposure to floods, rains, and ice storms meant that the Commerce Street bridge and other wooden bridges throughout San Antonio were forever washing away, rotting, or nearly collapsing. City funds never seemed sufficient to maintain them.
Damage from raging floodwaters in 1852 left the structure with rotting planking, broken banisters, and the ominous threat that the entire structure would give way. A lawsuit was even filed against the city in 1856 after 9-year-old Gottlieb Glaeser was killed when he fell through a rotten plank, but it still took four years before funds were finally appropriated to rebuild the dilapidated structure.
The wooden structure was replaced with an iron truss in 1880. This was the “little iron bridge” that O. Henry memorialized in his short story. In those days, sightseers on the bridge were treated to the spectacle of bath houses floating on the river below. The bath houses were canvas-covered platforms to provide shelter for bathers to change into swimsuits and slip into the cool water. The same scene today offers spectators the opportunity to enjoy fleets of gaily-decorated barges form long river parades to celebrate the city’s annual Fiesta, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day (when the river is dyed green), the holidays, and even to whoop it up when the San Antonio Spurs win a national basketball championship.
In 1914, today’s four-lane concrete span replaced the iron structure made famous by O. Henry, but “O. Henry’s Bridge” wasn’t scraped. It was hauled downriver as a pedestrian crossing on Johnson Street in the historic King William District. During the 1914 construction, the San Antonio Express paid $1,000 to commission sculptor Waldine Tauch to cast “The First Inhabitant,” a seven-foot tall concrete Indian on the south railing. The sculpture features the stoic Native American in a full, feathered headdress boarded by a backdrop of corn. Each hand holds a shallow bowl that once served as public water fountains but are now thankfully disconnected. Twin staircases at the northwest and northeast corners connect the roadway with the Paseo del Rio river park below. Casa Rio, the first restaurant along the River Walk, opened in 1946 at the southwest corner.
The Commerce Street Bridge is an unremarkable piece of design. It doesn’t soar to dizzying heights, and nothing distinguishes it as a masterpiece of structural engineering. In fact, it blends so well with the urban landscape that it’s hardly noticeable as a bridge at all. But stand here, follow the advice of Sidney Lanier and ponder the memories as they come “whispering down the current” of the San Antonio River. Close your eyes for a moment, shut off the hustle and bustle and traffic around you, and imagine all those who have stopped in this spot through history. Their presence, even in your imagination, envelops you in the spirit of San Antonio.
Primary sources for this story include “Wild West Frontier Town: A Walking Guide to Historic Downtown San Antonio” by Tom Woodley, “The History of Roads and Bridges in San Antonio and South Central Texas” by Hugh Hemphill, the Texas State Historical Marker on the Commerce Street Bridge, the online exhibit “Historic Bridges of San Antonio,” by the Office of the City Clerk, Municipal Records Facility Archives, “Plowboys, Cowboys and Slanted Pigs” by Jerry Flemmons, and the “Handbook of Texas Online.”
*Featured/top image: The Commerce Street Bridge over the River Walk in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Mike Patterson.