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My Updated, and Expanded, Walking Tour of the Alamo, Part 2: Beyond the Alamo

San Fernando Cathedral
Ron Current

In most of the movies depicting the Battle of the Alamo, the fort is shown off in the distance, far away from any town. But in reality, this is far from accurate.

We must remember that the Alamo was first a mission and a church, serving not only the Indians within its walls but also the communities that grew around it. At the time of the battle there were three communities near the Alamo: Pueblo de Valero, La Villita and Bexar. Bexar was the largest and sat just across the San Antonio River; in fact the town’s Main Plaza was only about 400 yards from the fort. La Villita, was on the same side of the river as the Alamo, just a little further to the south. La Villita was close enough that two Mexican artillery batteries were placed there. Pueblo de Velero was the closes and the smallest of the three. It was but a collection of “jacales” (thatched hut) huddled near the Alamo’s main gate. So close were these jacales to the Alamo that they were in the very shadow of the fort’s walls.

So, to experience the complete story of the Alamo we must journey beyond its walls, and explore more of the city for its other historic sites.

The Menger Hotel

The Historic Menger Hotel
Photo from Wikipedia

Before we leave Alamo Plaza there’s another stop we need to make, and that’s to the historic Menger Hotel (See map #1). The Menger Hotel isn’t hard to miss; it’s located on the east side of Alamo plaza, directly across Crockett Street from the Alamo, on the corner.

Even though the Menger Hotel isn’t part of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, it’s still a major historical site. The Menger opened on January 31, 1859, by German immigrant William Menger. Today the Menger holds the title as being the oldest continually operated hotel west of the Mississippi River. In its day the Menger was one of the most renowned hotels in the country; as it hosted a wide array of famous guests, including twelve U.S. Presidents. Another title that the Menger holds is that it’s also called “the most haunted hotel in Texas.”

There’s one section of the hotel that’s a must to visit, and that’s the Menger’s Bar (See map #2). You enter the bar on the hotel’s north side, just around the corner.

The Menger’s Bar
The north entrance to the Menger Bar
Photo by author

In 1887 the hotel’s manager, Hermann Kampmann, constructed a new bar for the hotel. The design was a replica of the taproom in the House of Lords Club in London England. Outfitted with a solid cherry wood bar, cherry paneled ceilings, French mirrors, and gold-plated spittoons, it was the perfect expression of Victorian era male design.

This ornate bar would be the site of two outstanding historical events: the forming of the most famous regiment of the Spanish-American War, and the appearance of the most infamous representative of the U.S. temperance movement.  

The Rough Riders
Teddy and his Rough Riders
Photo from Wikipedia

Future President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt had returned to San Antonio in May of 1898, after a six year absence. War had broken out in April between the United States and Spain, and he had come to Texas to recruit hard fighting and hard riding Texans for the war.

It was in the Menger’s Bar where Roosevelt had gathered to recruit men for his First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. This regiment at first was famously knick-named “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” then to just “the Rough Riders.” The bar still pays tribute to this event with displays of Roosevelt’s uniform and other memorabilia.

Carrie Nation
Carrie Nation, with her hatch and Bible
Photo from Wikipedia

The other event was not so welcoming. Long before prohibition there was an anti-alcohol-drinking drive known as the temperance movement. The most active group in this movement was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. This organizations most radical member was a woman by the name of Carrie Nation.

Nation’s mission was to raid drinking establishments, tearing up the barrooms, and destroying their stocks of beer and whiskey. Often she would be accompanied by a group of women, who would sing hymns and pray, while Nation would use a hatchet in doing her work; the term she used was “Hatchetation.”

It was only inevitable that Nation would arrived at the well know Menger Bar. Evidence of her visit can still be seen today. Near the corner of the bar is a section of mismatched wood; it’s there that they say Carrie Nation had buried her hatchet.

Plaza de Velero and Pueblo de Velero

This area of Alamo Plaza was once Plaza de Velero. Looking north toward the Alamo.
Photo by author

We’ll now leave the Menger Hotel, and go back onto Alamo Plaza. The southern section of the plaza was originally called Plaza de Valero (See map #3). Plaza de Valero encompassed the open area that was in front of the Alamo’s main gate.

Surrounding the plaza were the jacales that made up the Pueblo de Velero (See map #4). During the 1836 siege, because of the closeness these huts were to the Alamo, a small group of defenders, including David Crockett, had tried to burn them down to remove cover for the Mexican soldiers.

After the ruined Low Barrack was removed in 1871, the Plaza de Velero and Alamo Plaza were joined, creating one large and open plaza.

We’re now going to walk south along Alamo Plaza Street, leaving the Alamo and Alamo Plaza behind.

The East Commerce Street Bridge

The East Commerce Street Bridge as it is today. Note the plaque in the lower left.
Photo by the author

When you get to the intersections of Losoya, Alamo and East Commerce Streets you’ll find the East Commerce Street Bridge (See map #5). In 1836, there was a small bridge at that location that joined Portreo Street, on the west side of the river, with Alameda Road on the east side. This small bridge was the only connector between the town of Bexar, and Pueblo de Velero, La Villita and the Alamo. This bridge had an important role in the early days of the Alamo’s 13 day siege. 

On the afternoon of February 23rd 1836, the first day of the siege, the defenders and their families used this bridge to flee Bexar to take refuge in the Alamo. However, this bridge was also the site of an even bigger encounter that day.

The historical plaque at the south east corner of the bridge.
Photo by author

Later that same afternoon Santa Anna ordered the blood-red banner of “no quarter” to be raised from the San Fernando church’s bell tower. Seeing this, Travis ordered a shot fired from the fort’s big 18-pound cannon.

Fearing that Travis may have been a little too hasty, James Bowie sent Green B. Jameson to meet with Mexican Colonel Juan Almonte on that bridge. The purpose was to see if Santa Anna would be willing to have a parley. Hearing what Bowie had done, Travis then sent his own representatives. Both groups were given the same answer from Colonel Almonte; surrender at Santa Anna’s discretion, or be put to the sword. Hearing this Travis answered with another cannon shot, and the battle of the Alamo had begun.

When you cross over to the south side of Commerce Street you’ll find a historical plaque (See map #6) that gives the full history of what took place there.

Site of the Alamo Defender’s Funeral Pyres

The low stone wall on the south side of East Commerce Street, east of Alamo Plaza Street. Note the 1918 marble plaque sticking out above the bushes on the left side of the photo.
Photo by author

As the sun finally rose over the smoking Alamo on March 6th, it revealed devastation and carnage that sickened those who witnessed it. Collectively, over 800 bodies of both defenders and attackers lay scattered around its walled compound; many still locked together in their final fighting embrace.

Now the question that faced the victors, what to do with all the dead? Santa Anna ordered that his soldiers be honored with a Christian burial. But he saw the defenders as pirates, deserving nothing more than to be burned like the dogs that they were. 

Author paying his respects near the site of the Alamo defenders pyres.

According to eyewitness Francisco Antonio Ruiz, Bexar’s Alcalda (Mayor), that at around 3 o’clock, the day after the Alamo fell, Santa Anna ordered his men, along with some towns’ people, to gather up the bodies of the defenders and cart them to the Alameda Road. There they stacked the bodies with layers of wood, constructing two pyres: one on the north side and the other on the south side of the road. At around 5 o’clock that afternoon the pyres were set ablaze. This became the fate of the Alamo’s martyr’s remains.

On March 6th 1918, historian, and preserver of the Alamo, Adina De Zavala placed two marble tablets at what was believed to be the sites of those pyres. Those tablets read as follows:

The 1918 Marble plaque.
Photo by author

ON THIS SPOT BODIES OF HEROES SLAIN AT THE ALAMO WERE BURNED ON A FUNERAL PYRE. FRAGMENTS OF THE BODIES WERE AFTERWARD BURIED HERE. THIS TABLET IS THE GIFT OF RELATIVES OF GREEM B JEMISON AND OF OTHER FRIENDS.

DE ZAVALA CHAPTER TEXAS LANDMARKS ASSN

Sadly, the original locations of these tablets have long been built over; In fact one of the tablets has been lost. However, the other tablet was saved, and in 1955 it was placed on a stone wall further west from what is believed to be its original location. There’s also a bronze plaque mounted next to this tablet that explains the move (See photo).

The bronze plaque by the marble one.
Photo by author

The actual location of those funeral pyres is another of the Alamo’s mysteries. In a future post I’ll dig deeper in to the facts, the myths and legends of what became of the remains of the Alamo’s fallen.

To see these markers we need to cross over South Alamo Street and walk east along the south side of East Commerce Street. When you’ve passed the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce you’ll see the low stone wall up ahead; and there at the opening that goes to the River Walk you’ll find the markers (See map #7).

To get to our next site, we need to go back the way we came, crossing to the west side of South Alamo Street and then turning left.

The Cos House

The historic Cos House in La Villita
Photo by author

Our next stop is the site of a major event that took place in the early days of the Texas Revolution.

Shortly after the “Come and Take It” Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835, Texas erupted into open revolution. On October 12th close to 600 Texan Revolutionaries surrounded the town of San Antonio de Bexar. There they had trapped Mexican General Martin Perfecto de Cos and his 1,200 men in the town and Alamo.

On December 5, the Texan’s launched a surprise attack on the town and Alamo. For five days the Texan rebels and Mexican soldiers fought a fierce house to house battle. Finally on December 9, General Cos called for terms of surrender, coming to an agreement on December 10th. The agreement was that Cos and his troops would be paroled back across the Rio Grande, and to never again raise arms against Texas. Cos and his men never made it back before they met Santa Anna and his army heading north. There they were turned around, and took part in the Battle of the Alamo.

The plaque outside of the Cos House.
Photo by author

In La Villita, there’s a building known as the Cos House. Local lore says that it was there that General Cos signed the terms of surrender on December 11th.

To find the Cos House from East Commerce Street, we need to walk south along South Alamo Street. When you get to La Villita Street turn right; the Cos House (See map #8) is just a short distance in. While in historic La Villita, be sure to visit its many artisan shops.

We’re now going to take a little longer walk to one of my biggest, and most rewarding, new surprises, thanks to author Dean Kirkpatrick and his book, The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour.

Finding the San Fernando Church

In his book Kirkpatrick revealed an important piece of Alamo history that I had believed lost.  If I had only looked a little harder I would have found it years ago. To see what Kirkpatrick had pointed out we need to go to the city’s Main Plaza and the San Fernando Cathedral. To get there from La Villita we’ll walk back to East Commerce Street and turn west across the bridge. The cathedral is only a short four blocks from there.

Just a few blocks from the river you’ll pass the Drury Plaza Hotel (See map #9), it’s here that we’ll make a quick stop. Although this building isn’t part of the Alamo’s history, it is part of San Antonio’s.

Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk

Originally constructed in 1929, as the Alamo National Bank Building, it was an impressive 24 stories. At that height it’s still one of the tallest buildings in the city. Trimmed in granite, marble, molded plaster, embellished terra cotta, decorative bronze, and stained glass; it was a major showplace for the city. In 2005, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Drury Hotel chain opened it as the Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk in 2007.

The Alamo Church in Stained Glass
The Alamo Church in stained glass over the main entrance to the Drury Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk
Photo by author

When you walk inside, the 50-foot ceilings of the main lobby, with its original chandeliers, will amaze you. But what I want you to do is walk to the center of the lobby, turn, and look above the main door. There you’ll see the most beautiful stain glass depiction of the Alamo Church; it will take your breath away.

Now back to our quest in finding the original San Fernando Church. Leaving the hotel we’ll continue west along East Commerce for just a couple of blocks more. Soon you’ll come to a big open area; this is the Main Plaza (See map #10).

The Main Plaza

This plaza was created by Spanish Captain Juan Antonio Pérez de Almazán, when he laid out the streets of San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio’s original name) in July of 1731. He designed this plaza, which he named Plaza de les Yslas, as the center of the town, with its streets radiating out from it. This plaza also holds an important place in the Battle of the Alamo’s history. It was here on February 23, 1836, that Santa Anna made his grand entrance into the town on the first day of the siege.

On the west side of the plaza is the impressive twin-towered stone San Fernando Cathedral (See map #11). This is our destination.

The San Fernando Cathedral
The front of San Fernando Cathedral, designed by Francois Girand in 1868.
Photo by author

Construction on the San Fernando Church began in 1738. It was built to handle the religious needs of the ever expanding population of the town. The first mass in the church was held in 1750, years before the Mission San Antonio de Valero’s (the Alamo) church was even started.

The original church only had a single bell tower on its south side. In Alamo history, it was from that bell tower that Santa Anna’s troops were sighted approaching the town on February 23rd.  And it was also from this bell tower that Santa Anna flew his blood-red banner of “No Quarter.”

After the Battle of the Alamo, the church fell onto hard times, and by 1840 the building was in major disrepair due to its neglect. However, that same year the church’s new administration began an extensive program of repairing the building.

In 1868 the church began extensive renovation and expansion. Local architect Francois P. Giraud was contracted to redesign the structure. Giraud’s concept was a Gothic Revival: triple entrance doors, gable roof, buttresses, and twin bell towers. To accomplish this he removed most of the church’s original nave, and also its historic single bell tower. What you see today is Giraud’s renovations.

On my first visits to the San Fernando Cathedral, I had thought that all remanence of the church of 1836 had been lost forever. I had only entered the front doors of the cathedral to see the marble sarcophagus, believed to hold the ashes of Alamo defenders, in its side anteroom. Sadly, I had not gone into the cathedral itself, or even walk behind the building. By not doing this I missed a major historical aspect just sitting there.

Finding the Original San Fernando Church

Thanks to Dean Kirkpatrick’s book, I learned that Giraud hadn’t completely torn down all of the church’s original structure to build his cathedral. Giraud had retained the church’s original: chancel, apse, altar, and sacristy. Even the exterior was the same as it was when Santa Anna occupied the town during the battle.

Just walk around back to see what was saved of the old church from the 1700s.
Photo by author

To see what remains of the original church we need to simply walk around to the back. Just take the walkway on the north side of the cathedral to South Flores Street, and there it is. You can see where Giraud had married his additions to the original building (See map #12), which still stands much as it did in the 1700s, but most importantly, as it was in 1836.  Now, we’ll go back around to the front and go inside, where will discover even more.

The original back of the San Fernando Church seen today.
Photo by author
Old drawing of the back of San Fernando Church.
Art from Pinterest

Inside, while standing at the back of the nave, you’re seeing what the Alamo heroes saw when they stood there, for the altar area has been preserved. In the center of the aisle, near the front pews, you’ll find a plaque in the floor. This marks the location of the front of the old church. When you pass this marker you are now standing in what was the original church. It’s here, in front of the altar, where James Bowie had married Ursula de Veramendi in 1831.

The saved alter area of the old church.
Photo by author

The cathedral offers tours of the building you can take. However, if there isn’t a mass being held, or another function, you’re more than welcome to walk around, and take in this historical masterpiece.

We have one last stop to visit with this post, the San Fernando Parish’s first Compo Santo.

Also before you leave, don’t forget to go into the small room at the back, on the right. It’s there where you’ll find the marble sarcophagus I spoke of earlier. I’ll be exploring more about this sarcophagus in my future post on what happened to the Alamo’s defenders remains.

Marker indicating were the front of the original church was.
Photo by author

To get to the site of the old Compo Santo, we’ll continue west on East Commerce Street. But before we head up Commerce, I want to point out another lost Alamo historic site.

The marble sarcophagus said to hold the ashes of Alamo heroes.
Photo by author
General Santa Anna’s Headquarters

When you get to the north side of the Main Plaza, look across the street. It was there, on the north east corner of Commerce and North Main Avenue, where the old Yturri house (See map #13) had stood. This long gone building was the headquarters of General Santa Anna during the Alamo battle. This site is not to be confused with the other historic Yturri-Endmunds House.

San Fernando Church’s Old Compo Santo
Milam Park, part of what was once the San Fernando Compo Santo.
Photo from the City of San Antonio Website

Continuing west on East Commerce Street we’ll soon see a large city park in front of us; this is Milam Park, and our last stop.

Author standing by the Ben Milam Statue and grave in Milam Park.

In my 2014 post I told how Milam Park, named after the Battle of Bexar hero Ben Milam, was the location of San Fernando Church’s first cemetery. At the far western side of the park is a statue of Ben Milam (See map #14), who’s buried under it.

On the eastern side of the park there’s a small monument (See map #15). This monument lists the names of those who were buried there when it was a cemetery. However, this list of names is very short, considering the numbers that were originally buried there.

Memorial to those buried in the old
Compo Santo at the eastern end of Milam Park. It lists just a few of what was hundreds laid to rest there.
Photo from Find-A-Grave

The cemetery had been actively in use from 1808, until 1860. However, the fast growing city had boxed in this graveyard, leaving little room for new graves. After 1860 the parish opened its new San Fernando Cemetery No. 1. Although all church burials were now taking place at the church’s new cemetery, relatives continued to visit the graves of their families in this old one. Then something unusual happened in the 1920s.

In a single 24-hour period, the graves at the old Compo Santo were hurriedly exhumed and reburied at Cemetery No. 1.  Because it was so sudden, this exhumation and transfer had caused many of those remains to be reburied in unmarked graves. In 2016 it was discovered that not all the remains had been moved. Workers digging in the garden of Children’s Hospital had uncovered human bones; there’s no doubt they were graves that had been missed during the relocation.

The old Compo Santo also extended onto the property now occupied by the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital.
Photo by author

This discovery has enlightened me to the fact that the old San Fernando Church’s Compo Santo was much larger than just Milam Park. In fact it also encompassed the grounds now occupied by the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of San Antonio (See map #16).

The old Compo Santo has a deep connection in the Battle of the Alamo’s history. It was at this Compo Santo where some of Santa Anna’s Soldiers had been buried, most likely in a mass grave. But also, it’s where the only Alamo defender not burned on the pyres was given a Christian burial.

Famous drawing of Esparza defending the Alamo.
Photo from the Esparza Elementary School website

Alamo defender Jose Gregorio Esparza had been a gunner killed in the Alamo church during the battle. His brother, Francisco Esparza, was a soldier in Santa Anna’s army. Francisco pleated with Santa Anna for his body. Santa Anna honored his request, making him the only defender not to be burned on the pyres.

Again, sadly, there are no records, yet found, that gives the original location in the old cemetery where the Mexican soldiers were buried. As for Jose Gregorio Esparza, it’s known that his family did visit his grave for years after. But what became of those remains during the move is unknown; it’s just another Alamo mystery.

The story of the old Compo Santo isn’t over yet, as proven by that discovery in the garden of Children’s Hospital. There still may be more graves to be discovered on the hospital’s grounds, or in Milam Park. 

This ends my tour of the Alamo and beyond; but there are still other sites around San Antonio to see: the Veramendi Palace, the Old Mill Ford, and the Yturri-Endmunds House historic site, just to mention a few.

If you missed the first post in this series be sure to read it: My Updated, and Expanded, Walking Tour of the Alamo, Part 1: Beyond the Alamo

Also, be sure to watch for my future post on what became of the fallen Alamo hero’s remains.

Sources used:

Huffines, Alan C. Blood of Noble Men, The Alamo, Siege & Battle. First Edition, Eakin Press, 1999.

Kirkpatrick, Dean. The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour. First Edition, NDK Publications, 2013.

Ayala, Elaine. “Experts looking for remain from old cemetery in San Antonio.” Albuquerqueljournal, Albuquerque Journal/ San Antonio Express-News , 22 May 2017, http://www.abqjournal.com/1007131/experts-looking-for-remains-from-old-in-cemetery-in-san-antonio.html

“Carrie Nation.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 26 Nov. 2019, en.m.wkipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Nation

City of San Antonio. “Miam Park History.” City of San Antonio, Center City Development & Operations Department , http://www.sanantonio.gov/CCDO/parksplazas/milampark/milamparkhistory

Gobetz, Wally. “San Antonio-La Villita: Cos House.” Flicker, Flicker, http://www.flicker.com/photo/wallyg/42010385505

“History of Drury Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk.” Drury Hotels , Drury Hotels, druryhotels.com

“History of San Antonio.” History of San Antonio, Wikipedia, Sept. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_San_Antonio

La Villita. “La Villita History.” La Villita; Shops-Art-Dinning, City of San Antonio, lavillitasanantonio.com

“Menger Hotel.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Sept. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menger_Hotel

“Our History.” The Historic Menger Hotel, The Menger Hotel, mengerhotel.com

Reveley, Sarah. “Hallowed Ground: Site of Alamo Funeral Pyres Largely Lost to History.” Rivard Report, Rivard Report, 8 Jan. 2017, therivardreport.com/hallowed-ground-site-of-alamo-funeral-lost-to-history/

“Rough Riders.” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, 22 Nov. 2019, en.m,wikipedia.org/wiki/Rough_Riders

San Fernando Cathedral . “Our History.” San Fernando Cathedral, The Heart of San Antonio, San Fernando Catheral, sfcatheral.org

Scott, J.M. “Theodore Roosevelt arrives in San Antonio to lead the “Rough Riders” on this day in 1898.” MySA, San Antonio Express-News, 16 May 2016, http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/history-culture/article/Theodore-Roosevelt

“Siege of Bexar .” Siege of Bexar, Wikipedia, 19 Nov. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_B%C3%A9xar

“Spanish-American War.” Spanish-American War, Wikipedia, 27 Nov. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish%E2%80%93American_war

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My Updated, and Expanded, Walking Tour of the Alamo, Part 1: The Alamo Compound

The famous, and very recognizable, Alamo Church. This building was only a small part of the original Alamo. Photo by author.
Ron Current

In 2014 I wrote the post, “What happened, and where it happened, as it is today; a photo walking tour around the Alamo battlefield.” The purpose of that post was to help visitors to navigate around todays city surrounded Alamo, and to point out were some of the important events of that battle had taken place.

The information that I based that post on was my two pilgrimages to the Alamo, in 1986 and 2011, as well as books I had read about that famous battle. However in doing the research for my newest “History of the Alamo” series of posts, and a third visit in 2018, I realized that I had missed a lot, with many sites hidden in plain sight. Because I had missed so much in my first post I felt it was time to write a new and expanded updated version.

Besides those places that I had written about in 2014, I’ve added a couple of others that I hope will help expand your knowledge, and experience, when you visit this historic site and the City of San Antonio.

As I was writing the first draft I soon realized that as a single post it was way too long. So I decided to break it into two posts: the Alamo Compound and Beyond the Alamo. This post will cover the Alamo mission/fort grounds with sites of the battle. In the second post we’ll go outside the Alamo’s walls, pointing out places throughout the city that were also related to the battle.

Besides the new information I had uncovered while researching my history series there were three other sources which were extremely helpful in writing these posts: Dean Kirkpatrick’s “The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour,” Mark Lemon’s “The Illustrated Alamo 1836, A Photographic Journey and the Sons of the Republic of Texas (SRT) walking tour that I took in 2018.

So, let’s get started, and discover the hidden Alamo!

Finding the Alamo

The original boundaries of the Alamo over todays streets. The red lines mark the Alamo’s outer walls, the yellow is “Crockett’s Palisade” and inter walls.

Finding the Alamo can be a challenge for the casual visitor. In fact, when you’re on Alamo Plaza gazing at “The Alamo,” you’re already standing deep inside what was this historic fort. What most call the Alamo is in reality only its church. The original Alamo complex of walls and buildings covered nearly 3 acres, with only about 10% currently preserved. Since most of the Alamo has been engulfed by the growth of San Antonio over almost two centuries, I needed a visual aid to help identify where to find the different battle sites of the Alamo.

To try and accomplish this in my 2014 tour post I used a photo I had taken from the top of the Tower of the Americas, and though it did show how the City of San Antonio had closed in on the Alamo, it really wasn’t very helpful in identifying where the different battle sites were around Alamo Plaza.

For this post I used a Google satellite photo of the Alamo’s area and created an overlay of the original Alamo compound on it. With this resource we can now locate important sites, which mostly go unnoticed.

I’ve also enlarged different sections of my map, and numbered the different spots that I’ll be writing about, so you’ll be able to find them when you visit the Alamo.

Sites on the West Side of the Alamo Compound

We’ll begin are exploration at a small open area (See map #1) on the west side of Alamo Plaza Street, across from the Alamo church. It’s not hard to find this spot, because of the many odd shaped light brown brick walls that have been placed there.

The southwest corner of the fort. It was at this location were the 18-pounder cannon was placed. Photo by author.

This is the spot where the Alamo’s south and west walls met. And, this is where the fort’s largest cannon, the 18-pounder, was placed. On February 23rd, 1836, the first day of the siege, Alamo Commander Colonel William Travis, used this cannon to answer Santa Anna’s demands to surrender.

The odd stone walls represent the original walls and building foundations that archaeologists had discovered. Be sure to check out the glassed in display, where you can actually see one of those foundations.

The foundations of what were the blacksmith and artillery headquarters buildings marked with stone walls. In the background you can see the glass case where one of the original foundations can be viewed. Photo by author.

To better understand what buildings may have stood there, I referenced The Illustrated Alamo 1836, A Photographic Journey, by Mark Lemon. According to Lemon, the southernmost building would have been known as the Charli house. This building’s south end would have made the fort’s south and west corner. At the time of the battle this building had been filled with stone and dirt to construct the platform for the cannon. Two other buildings to the west are believed to have been used as the artillery command post and the blacksmith shop.

The Alamo’s West Wall
The buildings along what was the Alamo’s west wall. Photo by author.

A new piece of information I learned during my Sons of the Republic of Texas (SRT) tour was about the higher wall at the back of this site (See map #2). This wall runs parallel to Alamo Plaza Street, and ends at the Losoya walkway. What this wall indicates is where the Alamo’s outer wall stood. During the battle this wall was about 9 to 12 feet high, and 2 to 3 feet thick. But what really struck me was how far back from the street the wall actually was, and also how far inside the buildings it ran.

The location of the fort’s west wall, far back from today’s Alamo Plaza Street. Photo by author

We’re now going to leave the forts southern corner and head north toward Houston Street, along what was the Alamo’s west wall. As you walk along I just want you to realize, that even though you’re surrounded by the hustle and bustle, and the noise of the city, that you’re walking on one of the most historic battlefields in the world.   

As you’re walking notice the wide line of darker material running north and south embedded in the sidewalk. This line indicates the location of a dry ditch (See map #3) that ran outside the houses on the west wall.

The marking on the sidewalk showing where the dry ditch ran. Photo by author during SRT tour.

These street markings are another new discovery, thanks again to the guides of the SRT. Recognizing and knowing what these markers represent is extremely helpful in the understanding the original Alamo site. I’ll be pointing out more of these as we go along.

On the left is a series of three buildings that now occupy this section of the fort’s west wall: the Crockett, built in 1862, the Palace Theater, built in 1923, and the Woolworth, built in 1921. These buildings currently house the most controversial businesses on Alamo ground: Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, Guinness World Records and 3D Tomb Raider. In 2015, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) purchased these three buildings for $14.4 million, with the plans to convert them into a 100,000 square foot Alamo museum.  

Travis’s Headquarters
The general location of the Trevino House. Where Travis wrote his letter. Photo by author.

When you reach the entrance to Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, you are now at the general location where one of the Alamo’s most famous houses stood, the Trevino House (See map #4). The name may not mean anything to you, but it was the headquarters of William Travis, and where he wrote his famous February 24, 1836 letter for help, “To the people of Texas and all Americans in the world.”

The Castaneda House

When you reach the end of the block, look down at the pavement on Houston Street (See map #5). Once again you’ll see darker pavers. Until I took the SRT tour I thought these were pedestrian crosswalk markings, however I was wrong. What these markings really indicate is the foundations of what was most likely the Castaneda House. During the battle this house was already in ruin, and believed that it held a 6-pounder cannon placement.

The Hotel Gibbs
Pavers on Houston indicating where the Castaneda House most likely stood. Photo by author.

We’re going to continue north, crossing Houston Street. On the northwest corner is the small boutique Hotel Gibbs (See map #6). Hotel Gibbs now occupies what was originally the Gibbs Building. The Gibbs Building was constructed in 1909 by Colonel C C Gibbs. With its eight floors the Gibbs Building was the first high-rise in San Antonio.

There’s also other Alamo history at this spot. Col. Gibbs had built his office building on the site of the home of one of San Antonio’s most famous developers, Samuel Maverick. It was while Maverick was excavating for his house in 1852, that he discovered a trove of Alamo cannons buried there by the Mexican Army. These cannon have just been recently restored and are on display at the Alamo.

The North Wall

As we continue north toward the back of the hotel, I want you to keep your eye on the sidewalk. Near the back of the building you see a small marker in the sidewalk (See map #7). While not as large as the others we seen so far, it may be one of the most important in understanding how really big the Alamo fort really was.

Marker indicating where the north west corner of the fort was. Photo by author.

On this small metal marker has an angle line: one end pointing south, and the other to the east. It reads, ALAMO MISSION ORGINAL PROPERTY CORNER. This indicates were the Alamo’s west and north walls had met. However, this marker isn’t completely accurate; remember the west wall’s true location is still several feet west, inside the hotel. But it does show how far back from Alamo Plaza that the north wall really was. But there’s another marker that does show the true location of the Alamo’s north wall. To find this we’ll need to cross to the other side of N Alamo Street.

From the north wall it’s a long way back to Alamo Plaza. Photo by author.

On the east side of the street is the massive the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. Built in the mid-1930s, as part of the WPA program, it has a polygonal design and is constructed of Texas Pink granite and Texas Cream limestone. Not only does the Garcia building encompass an entire city block, it also occupies a good portion of were the Alamo’s north wall was.

Again, on the sidewalk just a few steps back from the building’s side entrance is another small metal marker (See map #8). This one has a line pointing east and west that reads, ALAMO MISSION ORIGINAL PROPERTY LINE. A very underwhelming description on what actually happened there. 

The boundary line of the north wall. Photo by author.

It was here, during Santa Anna’s pre-dawn attack on Sunday March 6, 1836, that the masses of Mexican soldiers finally overcoming the defenders, rolling over the north wall, and gaining the inside of the fort. It was also here were William Travis gave his life. And that’s how important the north wall is to Alamo history.

If you look back toward Alamo Plaza, you’ll see how far removed this famous and historical spot is from what is known as “the Alamo”

Now that we’ve been to the furthest northern location of the original Alamo’s grounds, it’s time to head back to Alamo Plaza and the Long Barrack building.

Alamo Plaza
Alamo Plaza, where heroes died. Photo by author.

Today Alamo Plaza (See map #9) is a large and active city park, but it was much, much, larger during the battle. Taking in to account all the way back from where we came at the north wall, and adding the portions inside the buildings along Alamo Plaza Street, the original measurements of the compound would have been around 462 feet long by 162 feet wide.

The modern Alamo Plaza was created by Samuel A. Maverick. Maverick bought up most of the Alamo’s land, and then subdivided it for his commercial and residential developments. Maverick created the plaza to be a gathering place for city residents and deeded it to the City of San Antonio. This plaza has seen it all: chili cook-offs, longhorn cattle, street preachers, political rallies, and loud protesters.

This usage of Alamo Plaza has been a hot topic of criticism by those who see this area as hallowed ground. And why passions run high, and rightly so, is because what happened there in the pre-dawn of March 6th 1836.

That morning, Mexican soldiers having breached the north wall, advanced across this space, causing the defenders to fall back into the Alamo’s Long Barrack and the houses along the west wall. It was on this open area where many men, both defenders and attackers, lost their lives; very much like Gettysburg’s Pickett’s Charge.

While it’s still owned by the City of San Antonio, the plaza is now part of a 50 year operational agreement with the State of Texas’s General Land Office (GLO). GLO now manages the Alamo’s two original buildings, as well as the newly purchased buildings on the old west wall. Under this agreement the GLO will be responsible for the total management and also reclamation of the Alamo’s historic battlefield. But this agreement has come under criticism.

There is one historic outcome from this agreement; this is the first time since the Catholic Church owned these grounds, that one entity has control over what was the original Alamo compound.

The Alamo Cenotaph
The Spirit of Sacrifice, also known as the Alamo Cenotaph. Photo from Wikipedia.

Near the center of Alamo Plaza stands the inspiring, 60 foot tall gray Texas granite, Spirit of Sacrifice monument (See map #10). Most commonly known as the Alamo Cenotaph (meaning empty tomb) it was constructed in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo in 1936. Dedicated on November 11, 1940, the Cenotaph features carvings of fallen Alamo defenders: William Travis, James Bowie, David Crockett, and James Bonham. It also has a listing of those defenders that were killed during that battle.

There’s a popular myth that says the cenotaph sits on the site of one of the funeral pyres of the Alamo defenders. However, this is most likely not accurate. I’ll go into more detail on this subject with my future post, “Where are the Remains of the Alamo’s Heroes?”

The Long Barrack
What remains of the oldest building of the mission, the Convento or Long Barrack. Photo by author.

The 192-foot long, yellowish-brown, single story stone building bordering the east side of Alamo Plaza is the Alamo’s Long Barrack (See map #11). The Long Barrack is one of the two remaining Alamo mission/fort buildings, the other being the church. The Long Barrack is also considered to be the older of the two; however, this also isn’t truly accurate.

In my History of the Alamo post series I tell of the Long Barrack’s disastrous, or should I say destructive, history. From the U.S. Army, and through the varied store owners, the Long Barrack’s stone walls had been cut, removed or filled in. What I’ve learned is that only its outer west wall is somewhat original. The rest of the building is a reconstruction, using some of its original stones, but still a reconstruction. Even this west wall, that you see today, isn’t as it was during the battle. However, it’s not what remains of this building that’s important, it’s to remember what happened inside its walls.

The Long Barrack western wall, the only part of the building that’s somewhat original. Photo by author.

During the final battle the Alamo’s defenders used the Long Barrack as their second line of defense. From its doorways and holes dug into its walls, the defenders were able to train their rifles on the Mexican soldiers pouring into the plaza. It wasn’t until the Mexicans turned the Alamo’s own cannons on the doorways that the tide of the battle turned to the attackers. With the doorways now cleared, Santa Anna’s troops rushed in; and there, in the dark and smoke filled rooms, some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting took place.

So when you’re standing in front of the Long Barrack, or visiting the museum inside, remember those, both defenders and attackers, who paid so dearly there for what they believed in. 

Sites on the East Side of the Alamo Compound

The Mission’s Convento Courtyard
Today the Convento courtyard is a garden. Photo by author.

Around the south end of the Long Barrack you’ll see the Alamo church. But where not going to stop there now, we’ll come back to it later. Right now we’ll go through the gate to the left, and into the Mission’s Convento Courtyard (See map #12).

During the mission period the mission Indians would have worked in the rooms that surrounded this courtyard. They would have been doing such tasks as: spinning yarn, candle making, and other chores needed for the mission. At the time of the battle this area was in ruin, with most of its rooms gone. It’s believed that it was here that the Alamo garrison kept their horses; and it’s also thought that there was a small cannon placement at its north east corner.

The Big Tree
The Big Tree and the Mission’s Well in the background. Photo by author.

Today this courtyard is a peaceful garden. In the middle is a large Live Oak tree that visitors call, “the Big Tree.” This tree wasn’t there during the battle; it was brought and replanted there in 1912 by local resident Walter Whall. The tree was 40 years old, and already fairly big, when it was moved and replanted there. It took four mules to pull the cart with the tree from Whall’s property to the Alamo. The most difficult aspect of the move was avoiding the power and telegraph lines on its way to the Alamo.

The Mission’s Well

Next to the “Big Tree” is an old dry well. This is said to be a modern reconstruction of the Mission San Antonio De Valero’s well that was located there. But there’s some debate as to the authenticity of this well.  Some sources that I’ve read say that this is a non-historical feature, added much later. This theory is based on maps drawn by Alamo witnesses: Mexican Lieutenant Colonel José Juan Sánchez-Navarro and Alamo engineer Green B. Jameson, which don’t show a well at that location.  However, both of those maps were tactical battle maps, and showing a well would not have been needed. 

In Mark Lemon’s book, the Illustrated Alamo, he shows a well at that location. Lemon had done considerable research and must be confident that there was indeed a well there. But again, what would the Alamo be without a little more controversy.

Shigetaka Shiga Monument to the Alamo’s Heroes
Shigetaka Shiga’s Monument
Photo by Scott Huddleston, San Antonio Express-News

Off in a corner of this courtyard is an often overlooked monument to the Alamo’s fallen. This 4 foot tall gray granite stone has an inscription in Japanese, Chines and English that reads, “To the Memory of the Heroes of the Alamo”

Dedicated on November 6, 1914, it is the oldest monument to the Alamo’s heroes. Personally created and donated by Japanese scholar, Shigetaka Shiga, it features a poem by Shiga himself. The poem compares the bravery of the Alamo defenders with those of the 16th century Siege of Nagashino Castle, which was another battle where a few hundred badly outnumbered defenders fought against thousands.

The Monument to the Gonzales “Immortal Thirty-Two.”
The marker to the
“Immortal Thirty-Two”
Photo by author.

There’s another monument in this courtyard you need to see. This is to the Gonzales “Immortal Thirty-Two.” On the evening of March 1, 1836, thirty-two men from the town of Gonzales rode through the Mexican lines coming to the aid of their fellow Texans. This monument is located on the courtyards north side.

As you look at the Long Barrack on the courtyard side, remember that these walls are reconstructions of the originals. However, archaeologists have recently discovered that when those reconstructions took place they did use the original foundations.

At the south end of the Barrack is how you enter the current Alamo museum. When the new museum is completed at the west wall, you can only wonder what will occupy this historic structure.

We’re now going the leave the old Convento courtyard and go over to the fort’s other courtyard.

The Northern Courtyard
Today’s Northern Courtyard, with the Alamo gift shop in the background. Photo by author.

The name for this courtyard varies depending on what source you read: In Mark Lemon’s book he refers to it as the Northern Courtyard, and Alan C. Huffines calls it the Cattle Pen in his book the Blood of Noble Men, and on the Alamo’s official website they refer to it as the Cavalry Courtyard (See map #13).

During the 1836 battle it’s believed that this is where the defenders had indeed kept the cattle that fed the garrison, as Huffines stated. This courtyard was also one of the weakest areas of the fort, were its walls were only about four and a half feet high. Accounts state that during the battle this section was defended by a small 4-pounder cannon placed at its eastern corner. However, even with the low wall and small artillery piece the defenders were able to hold off the attacking Mexicans, driving them further to the western end of the north wall.

Today this area is a small garden. When I visited in 1986 and 2011, there were two cannon on display in this courtyard which had been used in the battle. In 2018 I learned that one of them had been removed and was being restored by the Texas A & M Conservation Research Laboratory. The one still there was claimed to have been the Alamo’s famous 18-pounder. However, I’ve also read that the 18-pounder had been lost decades ago

The single cannon at the courtyard in 2018. Said to be the fort’s big 18-pounder. Photo by author.

The wall that separates this courtyard, and the Alamo’s grounds, from Houston Street isn’t where the fort’s original wall stood, that’s a foot further north on the street side. There’s a marker in the sidewalk that indicates the original boundary line.

As you leave the Northern Courtyard, look for the Wall of History (See map #14) next to the Alamo gift shop. The Wall of History is a long and colorful chronology of the Alamo’s history, beginning with its mission period.

The Alamo Gift Shop

Although the Alamo gift shop (See map #15) looks like an original building, it’s not. It was also built in 1937 for the Texas Centennial. It was first used as a museum on the history of Texas’s independence, and then later converted by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) to the present gift shop.

Adding a basement to the Alamo gift shop. Photo from Wikipedia.

Here’s a cute little story. In the 1985 Tim Burton movie, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-Wee Herman travels to the Alamo looking for his lost bicycle. He’s told that he’d find it in the Alamo’s basement. However, when he arrives, to his disappointment, he’s told that the Alamo doesn’t have a basement. Well, that’s not exactly correct, if you’re looking at all the property as the greater Alamo. 

In 1992, the DRT hired G.W. Mitchell Construction to excavate a basement under the Alamo gift shop. Completed in 1993, this basement holds gift items, supplies and an employee breakroom. And maybe, just maybe, there might be a bicycle somewhere down there too.

We’re now going to leave the courtyard areas and journey behind the Alamo church.

Slaughter Outside the Alamo
This open area behind the Alamo church is were the fleeing defenders met their death at the hands of the Mexican cavalry. Screenshot from the Alamo websites virtual tour.

In my 2014 post I told how the back of the Alamo church was completely different then it is today. During the battle there wasn’t a roof, or windows, in fact the wall of the church’s apse was considerably lower. It was in the ruined church’s apse that a platform had been built, at about twelve feet in height. Atop this platform were placed three cannon. This allowed the defenders to cover the ground behind the fort very effectively.

But it’s not the church will talk about on this tour. In this post I’ll show you an area of the Alamo’s grounds that’s not often pointed out, and it’s located only a few yards directly behind the church (See map #16). This area has a story that’s both heroic, as well as tragic.

On the morning of March 6th 1836, Santa Anna’s army began their attack on the Alamo. Colonel José María Romero’s mission was to storm the east side of the Alamo. Leading 300 men, Romero charged the rear of the church and the lowed walled Convento and northern courtyards. Here he encountered heavier than expected resistance from the defender’s small arms and cannon fire. This caused Romero to fall back and also drift to the north, where he would eventually mix with the forces attacking the Alamo’s north walls.

However, even with Romero’s men now to the north there still was a Mexican presence in that area. At a short distance from the fort was the Dolores Cavalry, patiently waiting for their time. Their mission was to apprehend any defender who tried to escape. And that time soon came.

As Santa Anna’s men worked their way southward through the fort, a group of defenders tried to make a break for it through a narrow opening between the church’s southwest corner and the wooden palisade. As they ran to the south east across the open field they soon met the Mexican cavalry.

Even with supportive fire from the church’s cannons, these men were soon cut down; they really had little chance against a mounted cavalry. Although these defenders tried to escape from the massacre, accounts by the Mexican’s say that these men fought bravely to the end.

This battle site is currently being used for living history encampments, and is where the Alamo Hall and the new Exhibit Hall are located.

Be sure you follow my postings; in a future post I’ll present my theory on the mystery of one of the funeral pyres of the Alamo heroes which will involve this area.

We’ll now walk along the south side of the church, heading back to the front. On the left you’ll see is the new Alamo Exhibit Hall; this was formally the DRT library. Be sure to check out what exhibit is being presented there. 

Just before you reach the front of the church you’ll walk under a stone arcade. This was also built in the 1930s by the DRT. In 2018, this arcade was used as a queue for those waiting to enter the Alamo church. I’ve recently read that this is now where the newly restored Alamo cannon are displayed.  

In Front of the Alamo Church

There are quite a few spots around the front of the Alamo church (see map #17) that I’ll be pointing out. The first is the place where David Crockett and his men from Tennessee defended. They manned what was a long wooden palisade, which ran from the southwest corner of the church to the southeast corner of the main gate Low Barrack building; this is often referred to as, “Crockett’s Palisade”(See map #18).

This line in the street shows where “Crockett’s Palisade” stood.
Photo by author.

There was another, often overlooked, building and wall that also helped to close off this area in front of the church. The building angled north off of the east side of the Low Barrack, and served as the garrison’s kitchen during the battle. From that building, running north to the Long Barrack was a six foot high stone wall (See map #19).

The lines indicating where inter wall ran. Photo by author.

This wall and building, along with the wooden palisade and Convento wall, would have separated this section of the fort from the rest of the compound. It may have been this area that Alamo survivor Susannah Dickinson was referring to as, “the little fort,” in an interview.

To see where the wall and the palisade were, cross over the closed E Alamo Street and look back toward the church. There on the street you’ll see two lines, one going to the church and the other to the Long Barrack, this marks their locations.

memorial grass area in front of the church. Photo by author.

We’re now going back to the church and the large rectangle grassy area (See map #20) in front of it. This is another historical spot that is mostly overlooked, and has nothing to do with the battle. I was told that this grass area was installed by the DRT to remember the mission’s Priests and Indians who were buried there when it was the mission’s “Compo Santo,” or cemetery. Mission records show that nearly 1,000 burials had taken place in front of the church. After the mission was secularized and abandoned in the late 1700s, it’s not recorded if those remains were ever relocated, or simply, forgotten.

Near the church’s front door, on the right side (See map #21) you’ll see a metal plaque in the plaza stones that reads,

The marker indicating where Davy died. Photo by author.

“LEGEND STATES THAT DAVID CROCKETT (BORN AUGUST 17, 1786) SACRIFICED HIS LIFE FOR TEXAS LIBERTY HERE IN DEFENSE OF THE ALAMO ON MARCH 6, 1836.”

DRT Marker inscription

Although this may not be the exact location were Davy Crockett died, it is in the general area described by Susanna Dickinson, as she left the church after the battle.

“I recognized Colonel Crockett lying dead and mutilated between the church and the two story barrack building, I even remember seeing his peculiar cap lying by his side.”

Susanna Dickinson

As you stand there close to the church’s façade, look closely. Those pockmarks you see on the façade are from musket balls, another sign of the terrible fighting that took place there.

Musket ball marks in the church’s façade. Photo by author.

Before we leave this area in front of the church there’s another marker I want you to look for. This marker also has a thin brass rod embedded near it (See map #22). The marker says that it was at that location that Travis drew his legendary line in the sand. However, Travis’s line continues to be more of a myth and legend than a historical fact. And if Travis’s noble event did take place, there is no record that it happened at that location.

Sites on the South End of the Alamo Compound

The Low Barrack
The wall bordered grass area indicates where the Alamo’s Low Barrack was located. The fort’s main gate would have been on the right end. Photo by author.

We’re now going to leave the front of the church, and walk back to where those two before mentioned lines met. There, running across Alamo Plaza is a large rectangular, stone bordered, grassy area (See map #23). This is where the building known as the Low Barrack once stood.

The Low Barrack measured 131-feet long and 17-feet in height, with walls from two to two and a half feet thick. The building had three rooms, with the eastern room being, what is believed, where James Bowie was killed (See map #24). The Low Barrack also held the fort’s main gate (See map #25) and also made up most of the Alamo’s south wall.

It was on this side, closest to the church, where it’s believed that James Bowie’s room was located.
Photo by author.

Just outside the main gate was a structure that helped guard the gate. This was a wood and earthen lunette (See map #26). This lunette was destroyed by the Mexican army, along with the fort’s connecting walls and cannon, after their defeat at San Jacinto.

Although this lunette was indicated on the map drawn by Mexican Officer José Sánchez-Navarro, it wasn’t believed to have been very big or important. However, in 1988 an archaeological dig at the site revealed that this lunette was most likely very substantial in size and importance. Although the exact dimensions still need to be uncovered by future explorations, it’s believed that it ran roughly seventy-two or seventy-three feet to the south of the Low Barrack, and about sixty-three feet east to west.

The Alamo’s main gate would have been where the sign in the background is, and I’d be standing in the Lunette. Photo by author.

Find the marker indicating where the fort’s main gate was and take a few steps south, you’ll then be standing where the lunette was located.

Always New Things to See

Statue of David Crockett
Photo from MySA May 1, 2019, photo by Billy Calzada.

This ends my tour of the historic Alamo compound. However, as I said, this post is based on my 2018 visit, and things have changed since then.

As I mentioned, the restored cannons are now on display in the stone arcade, with one even positioned in front of the church.

In the Cavalry Courtyard (See map #13) are statues of Alamo and early Texas historical figures. And if I understand it correctly, those statues will eventually be moved in front of the Long Barrack.  

Also, I noticed in 2018 informational signs (You can see them in a few of my photos) placed around Alamo Plaza at some of the battle sites; I hadn’t seen those before. Also there seemed to be more tours, both through the Alamo and independent companies, being offered.

One thing I can say for sure, now under the GLO there are many changes being made.

I hope that this post will help you to navigate around what was the Alamo of 1836.

With my next posting we’ll explore those historical sites that are beyond the walls of the Alamo.

Sources used:

Huffines, Alan C. Blood of Noble Men, The Alamo, Siege & Battle. First Edition, Eakin Press, 1999.

Kirkpatrick, Dean. The Alamo Story and Battleground Tour. First Edition, NDK Publications, 2013.

Lemon, Mark. The Illustrated Alamo 1836, A photographic Journey. State House Press, 2008.

Nelson, George. The Alamo, An Illustrated History. Third Revised Edition, Cenveo Printing Company, 2009.

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The History of the Alamo, Part IX: Chili Queens, Street Preachers and Tomb Raiders

The stores running along the boundary line of the Alamo compound’s lost west wall. (L to R) the Crockett Building, Palace Theater and the Woolworth Building. Photo taken by Author in April, 2018. 

Ron Current

By the time the 150th anniversary of the 1836 battle arrived all but two of the Alamo’s original buildings had been erased from public sight.  And sadly, it wasn’t just physically gone; the historic Alamo was also gone from the very consciousness of most people. To citizens of the city, and visitors alike, “The Alamo” became just one of its two remaining structures; Its Church, the Shrine.

What if the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and the State of Texas, had purchased the Alamo Plaza instead of the grounds behind and to the north of the church?

The decades of focusing on just the church has caused damage to the reverence of the battlefield. The battlefield had become just another city park leading to “The Alamo,” and the site of the forts west wall, a collection of stores that promote themselves as being, “across the street from the Alamo.”

In this posting, the ninth in my series on the History of the Alamo, I’ll explore the good and the bad commercial development on the site of the west wall, and the many uses made of the Alamo Plaza through the years.

The Alamo Plaza: a great public gathering place

Being one of the largest open public spaces within San Antonio, the Alamo and de Valero Plazas became a draw for all those who wanted to sell their wares or to hold special events, especially with the backdrop of the famous “Alamo.”

Chili Queens

In the 1860s, these two plazas were one of the many locations throughout San Antonio to have the famous “Chili Queens.” These Chili Queens were mostly Mexican women who’d set up their cooking pots, boiling with tasty chili con carne and other Tex-Mex delights. Tables and benches were set up nearby to seat the many casual diners that these stands attracted. Soon strolling musicians joined in, circulating amongst the crowds, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Postcard showing the Chili Queen tables on Alamo Plaza

So famous were the San Antonio Chili Queens that writer O. Henry, after visiting the city made reference to them in his short story, ‘The Enchanted Kiss.” He wrote:


“The nightly encampment upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land.” 

Postcard of Chili Queen tables on the plaza with the Alamo church in the background

By the late 1800s, Alamo Plaza would be home to hundreds of competing cooks and thousands of hungry visitors, filling all its open space.

As more convenient locations became available for the vendors, and concerns for the public’s health, the number of Chili Queens began to shrink. Finally in the 1940s the San Antonio Health Department permanently closed all the food stands due to unsanitary conditions.  

The Chili Queen’s legacy would be the beginnings of our love for Tex-Mex dishes, Mexican Street food, and indirectly, the Taco Truck craze.

A showplace for a new kind of fencing

It was on Alamo Plaza that a product was first showcased that changed ranching and the open range forever. In 1876, Illinois entrepreneur John Warne “Bet a Million” Gates used Alamo Plaza to introduce his new fencing called, “barbed wire.” Gates built corrals on the plazas holding Texas Longhorn cattle to show the effectiveness of this new fencing.

Battle of Flowers Parade

In April of 1891, Alamo Plaza and the Alamo was the end of the first “Battle of Flowers” Parade. This event, inspired by such parades in Spain and Europe, began as a way to honor the fallen of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. Each year colorful floats, bands and military units march down the streets of San Antonio to the Alamo.

Postcard of one of the Battle of Flowers floats in front of the Alamo church.

The first parade drew around 15,000, and by 2014 attendance had grown to an estimated 350,000 parade enthusiast. The Battle of Flowers Parade also helped to start San Antonio’s annual Fiesta, and this parade is still one of the major events of Fiesta.

Alamo Plaza plays host to Presidents and others

Postcard showing the Alamo Plaza filled with an enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear President Theodore Roosevelt

Over the years Alamo Plaza has been the site used by U.S. Presidents and other speakers., taking advantage of the large open ground, and to have the Alamo church in the background.

Today most of these larger events have since moved to other locations within the city. This is partially due to much of the Alamo Plaza’s former open space being now taken up by flowerbeds, the Cenotaph, and the expansion of the area in front of the Alamo church.

Today, because of the sheer volume of visitors coming to see the historic Alamo, the plaza now attracts many who have little respect for the hollowed ground that their standing on. They only see the plaza as a platform to present their views.

From social protesters, to street preachers, to panhandlers; on any given day you’ll see them there, demanding attention from those who came to learn and to feel the history.

Development of the west wall

Samuel Maverick was one of the first, and most influential developers of the Alamo grounds. He built his home on what is now the northwest corner of E. Houston and N. Alamo Streets. His house sat were one of the old mission Indian houses was located, known as the Castaneda House. During the 1836 battle this was the location of one the fort’s northern cannon postern, called Fortin De Condelle. Today this spot is occupied by the Hotel Gibbs.

Just south, across E. Houston Street from the Hotel Gibbs, begins a line of three commercial buildings which run south along Alamo Plaza Street. These buildings sit along what was the Alamo’s west wall.

The Woolworth Building

The Woolworth Building

The first building on the corner is the old Woolworth Building. Opened in 1921, it housed the Woolworth department store for years. This building has a historical aspect of its own. In the early 1960’s its lunch counter was the site of one of the first peaceful integrations to take place in the south.

The Palace Theater

The Palace Theater

Next to the Woolworth building was the Palace Theater. Opened in 1923, this building also has an architectural history. The Palace Theater was designed by architect George Willis, a trainee of Frank Lloyd Wright. Another historical tidbit is that the Palace was the first completely air-conditioned building in the United States

In this general area stood the old mission house known as the Trevino House. During the 1836 siege it’s believed that this was William Travis’s headquarters. And it’s here where he wrote this famous letter.

The Crockett Building

The Crockett Building

The last building in this line, and the last sitting on Alamo compound ground, is the Crockett Building (not to be confused with the close by Crockett Hotel).

In 1882, the year before the State of Texas purchased the Alamo church for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the sons of Samuel Maverick constructed what they named the Crockett Building. It was designed to house several stores on the street level and multiple offices on its upper floors. At the time the Crockett was the best example of “Gilded Age” architecture in the city. Today the Crockett’s street level renters are the apparel shop, Del Sol, and Grand Trolley Tours.

Lost to Time

By the time these buildings were constructed all remanence of the mission/fort on that ground was already gone. And as the decades past the businesses that occupied the Woolworth, Palace and Crockett buildings were an accepted part of the community, and the memory of the Alamo compound and battlefield became lost to time. Those businesses along Alamo Plaza Street would promote themselves as being, “across the street from the Alamo,” because it was commonly viewed that the church was “the Alamo.”

Then, more and more people became interested in the Alamo, especially after the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950s, and they began looking at the total historical Alamo, not just its church.

Walt Disney publicity photo for their Davy Crockett TV series. This scene is Davy (Fess Parker) being presented with his “Old Betsy” rifle.

They also began to realize the importance of honoring this hollowed ground, all the hollowed ground that was the Alamo. And just about the time that a group of businesses opened in those buildings along the lost Alamo west wall that shocked and angered them for their lack of reverence.

Phillips Entertainment

Phillips’ Aquarena Springs was one of the biggest tourist attractions in Texas, second only to the Alamo. The park is now closed.

Phillips Entertainment began as a small Texas family owned attraction/ entertainment company in 1964, with Gene Phillips opening his first attraction, a small theme park called Aquarena Springs, in San Marco, Texas. Over the next 20 years their operations grew to four more tourist attractions located throughout Texas.

When Bill Phillips joined his father in the business he created Phillips Entertainment, Inc. (PEI) in 2000, as a separate entity with the sole purpose of operating attractions in the City of San Antonio.

Phillips searched all over San Antonio for the right location to open his new attractions. What he needed was a building with lots of space, affordable rent, and if possible, something else that was nearby that was already drawing large numbers of tourists. What he found was the Woolworth and Palace buildings, and across the street from those buildings, the Alamo.

PEI signed a long term lease with the building’s owner,  Service Life and Casualty Insurance Company, for both the Woolworth and Palace. In 2002, PEI opened their first attraction, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. This attraction did so well that they followed it with the Guinness World Records Museum in 2003 and then Davy Crockett’s Tall Tales Ride in 2005. In 2008, PEI made a major investment and redesigned one of their main attractions, and in doing so cutting any references they had to the Alamo. They converted the Davy Crockett ride into the Tomb Raider 3D Adventure Ride and Arcade.

PEI’s attractions that occupy the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. Photo by author, 2018

PEI continued to expand their interest in San Antonio: managing the Mirror Maze and River Sweet Candy Shop just down Alamo Plaza from their main attractions. A little further beyond the Alamo’s footprint, they also manage the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, and the Texas Ranger Museum.

Bill’s son, Davis Phillips, and grandson of founder Gene Phillips, is the current President and CEO of PEI. Davis is one of the most successful tourist attraction operators in the country. Phillips, and PEI, are active in San Antonio tourism and members of the Texas Travel Industry Association, and is very vocal in protecting his interests on the Alamo Plaza. This is understandable, considering PEI investments in their entertainment venues.

Davis, who also sits on the City’s Alamo Plaza Committee, made the statement that he, and the other tourist attractions/ businesses that line the Alamo Plaza, are not against change. And he’d be willing to consider a master plan that may require moving some of PEI’s businesses, but only:

if its focused on our (PEI) future success as it is the Alamo’s

Shortly after this statement Phillips learned that PEI had a new landlord; The Texas General Land Office, the owners of the Alamo.

Davis Phillips made a statement awhile ago that I strongly disagree with. He said that his businesses helps to bring people to the Alamo. The Alamo has been a destination for history pilgrims and tourists since shortly after the 1836 battle. Visitors to the Shrine has increased each decade, especially after the aforementioned Davy Crockett craze.

Phillips is a exceptional entrepreneur in the tourist attraction business, and he knows that business very well, and what helps to bring him customers, and that’s being close to something where people are already coming too; it’s the Alamo that brings him customers, not the other way around.

My next post will be the last in this series; I’ll start by reflecting on my feelings during my first visit to the Alamo in 1986: what were my expectations, what did I find when I got there and what was the reactions of others that were there around me. I’ll then tell of my visits in 2011 and 2018, and the changes I saw each time.

I’ll finish with a look at some of the possible changes proposed for the Alamo, the Plaza and the west wall buildings.

Some of my resources:

“About Us.” Battle of FLOWERS , The Battle of Flowers Association, http://www.battleofflowers.org. Accessed 6 Jan. 2018.

Jennings, Frank W. “Popular Chili Queens Graced San Antonio Plazas.” Journal of the life and culture of San Antonio, University of the Incarnate word, http://www.uiw.edu. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018.

MySA. “History of the Fiesta Battle of Flowers.” mySA, San Antonio Express-News archives, 8 Apr. 2015, http://www.mysanantonio.com.

Cinema Treasures . “Palace Theater .” Cinema Treasures, Cinema Treasures, http://www.cinematreasures.org. Accessed 8 Jan. 2019.

Phillips Entertainment Inc. “About Us.” Phillips Entertainment Inc., Phillips Entertainment, http://www.ripleys.com. Accessed 8 Jan. 2019.

Huddleston, Scott. “State is buying historic buildings facing the Alamo.” San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Express-News, 5 Oct. 2015, http://www.expressnews.com.

Dietel, Janet, and Adam Reed. “Also conserve interiors of Alamo Plaza buildings.” mySA, mySA, 26 Mar. 2017, http://www.mysanantonio.com.

Dimmick, Iris. “State Purchases Three Buildings Across From Alamo Plaza.” Rivard Report, Rivard Report, 2 Dec. 2015, http://www.therivardreport.com.

Nelson, George. “1876-A demonstration of the new barbed wire.” The Alamo: An Illustrated History, third Revised, Aldine Press, 2009, p. 95.

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The History of the Alamo Part VIII: A Historic Battlefield Erased

The Alamo and Valero Plazas in 1890. This was the Alamo battlefield in 1836.
Ron Current

My last post told the story of the Alamo’s church in the 20th century while under the control of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. In this post I’ll go back a little in the timeline to bring you up to speed on what was happening to the Alamo Plaza while de Zavala and Driscoll were battling over the Alamo’s two remaining buildings. Knowing this history will help you to better understand how the Alamo came to be what it is today. 

It all began with Sam Maverick

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the History of the Alamo Part III, it was Samuel A. Maverick, and his purchasing of the largest sections of the old mission/fort’s grounds, that set the stage for what the Alamo Plaza would become.

His subdividing and selling of the land where the west and north walls had stood, as well as tearing down what original buildings that were left along those walls, had erased the majority of that hallowed ground where the heaviest fighting of 1836 had taken place. Also, with the ownership of these lands in the hands of different individuals and companies it would make the restoration of the Alamo battlefield extremely difficult in the future.

Samuel A. Maverick

When Maverick was subdividing the old mission grounds he left the compound’s large central open area intact. This he donated to the City of San Antonio, and it became Alamo Plaza. During its mission and fort periods this area was not a traditional plaza. Being surrounded by the compound’s walls it would have been the fort’s parade ground.

However, just outside of the Alamo’s main gate was the Plaza de Valero. Valero was a true plaza, a large open common area surrounded by houses with a road that led up to the Alamo’s gate. This plaza was never owned by the Catholic Church, as was Alamo Plaza, and was always municipal land.


 Creating a plaza from a battlefield 

These two open areas had been separated by the Alamo’s main gate building, the Low Barracks, until that was demolished in 1871. Once the Low Barracks was removed residents could now enjoy one of the largest open spaces in the entire city, that’s until it rained. When it rained this whole space became one impassable, gigantic mud hole. 

Between 1888-89, the City of San Antonio undertook a major paving program to solve this mud issue on the two Plazas. The paving material of choice was the ever abundant Mesquite woodblocks.

The city also required that the stores and property owners bordering the plazas install sidewalks. While the paving was taking place a wooden waterline was extended into Alamo Plaza for a fountain that had existed in front of the Hugo & Schmeltzer building (very near were the Alamo Cenotaph stands today).

The Alamo and Valero Plazas in the 1880s. The Market House is in the foreground.

San Antonio was quickly becoming a major urban center, and the two plazas along with it: In 1878 the first street car line was built on Alamo Plaza, in 1882 the Market House building, not an original Alamo structure, was the last building on the plaza to be torn down, in 1887 the city installed public restrooms on the plaza, and in 1890 the U.S. Post Office, the largest structure to be build on the Alamo battlefield at the time, was constructed on the site of the north wall.

Besides the mud issue there was another big concern for the plazas and the buildings around it, and that was the San Antonio River.  Flowing through the middle of the city the river regularly flooded its banks; the most devastating coming in 1921. This led the city to begin looking at different options on how to control its flooding.  It would culminate with the construction of the present system of dams located along the river. With the river levels now stabilized development along the banks of the downtown could  begin. In 1939, partially funded by Federal Works Progress Administration, work began on today’s River Walk. 

The Alamo church in 1900 with the city street coming up to its door.

Continuing with making changes to the plazas, in 1891 the city constructed a park on the Plaza de Valero that featured: trees, shrubs, flowering plants and a band stand for concerts. As more and more businesses began to line the plazas San Antonio saw the need for better traffic control. They paved over the old wooden blocks with asphalt, added streets with curbs, and more sidewalks. One of these new streets went right up to the front door of the Alamo church.

A monument to the Alamo heroes  

The first attempt to construct a monument on Alamo Plaza to the fallen defenders of the Alamo was in 1912. The plan then was to build a 800ft tower on the plaza. However, the group proposing this project couldn’t put together the two-million-dollar cost.

It wasn’t until 1936, during the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Alamo that the idea for a monument was taken up again. In celebration of the battles centennial the State of Texas provided $100,000 for the design and construction of a monument. Local sculptor Pompeo Coppini was commissioned to do the design, which he titled, The Spirit of Sacrifice. Today this monument is known as the Alamo Cenotaph.

The Alamo Cenotaph, 2013

The Alamo Cenotaph is constructed of grey Georgia marble and pink Texas granite. Its center spire rises sixty feet above its 40ft long by 12ft wide base. The base features carvings of members of the Alamo garrison, including the images of Travis, Bowie and Crockett. Also inscribed on the monument are 187 names of Alamo defenders, which were provided by historian Amelia Williams. However new research now shows that some of those listed were not at the Alamo, and that there were more than 187 defenders.

The Alamo Cenotaph was dedicated on November 11, 1940 by then San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick, the grandson of Samuel Maverick.

A battlefield lost

By the time that de Zavala and Driscoll had arrived on the scene nothing remained of the Alamo battlefield, it was as though it had never existed. And for those who knew nothing of the Battle of the Alamo it was too easy to see only the church as the Alamo, even as they walked on the very ground where heroes had fallen.

My next post will cover the changes to the Alamo buildings and plaza through the late 20th and the early 21st centuries. I’ll also present some of the ideas that have been presented from various groups on how they think the Alamo should look in the future. 

If you enjoyed this post please read the others in this series:

The History of the Alamo: Mission to Fort

The History of the Alamo, Part II: From Fort to Forgotten: http://Www.stillcurrent.blog/the-history-of-the-alamo-part-ii-from-fort-to-forgotten

The History of the Alamo, Part III: From Forgotten to Army Depot:http://the-history-of-the-alamo-part-iii-from-forgotten-to-army-depot

The History of the Alamo, Part IV: From Warehouse to Roadside Attraction:http://the-history-of-the-alamo-part-iv-from-warehouse-to-roadside-attraction/

The History of the Alamo, Part V: Two Angels, Two Different Visions:http://the-history-of-the-alamo-part-v-two-angels-two-different-visions/

The History of the Alamo, Part VI: From Roadside Attraction to a Shrine:http://the-history-of-the-alamo-part-vi-from-roadside-attraction-to-a-shrine/

History of the Alamo Part VII: The Era of The Daughters of the Republic of Texas: http://history-of-the-alamo-part-vii-the-era-of-the-daughters-of-the-republic-of-texas

Also checkout my other posts on this subject

The Alamo; Today and in History:http://the-history-of-the-alamo-mission-to-fort

What happened and where it happened, as it is today; a photo walking tour of the Alamo battlefield (2014):http://what-happened-and-where-it-happened-as-it-is-today-a-photo-walking-tour-around-the-alamo-battlefield

The Alamo and Thermopylae: a Comparison in History:
http://the-alamo-and-thermopylae-a-comparison-in-history

Some of the sources used in this post:

Thompson, Frank . The Alamo: A Cultural History, Taylor TradePublishing, 2001.

Nelson, George. The Alamo: An Illustrated History, third revisedEdition, Aldine Press, 2009, p. 98. Eaton, Jack D.

Excavations At The Alamo Shrine. Fourth Printing, Center forArchaeological Research, 1985.

“Alamo Mission in San Antonio .” Wikipedia,Wikipedia, 30 Nov. 2018,

“Alamo History Chronology.” The Daughters oftheRepublic of Texas, The Daughters of the Republic ofTexas,www.drtinfo.org/drt-library/research/alamo-history-chronology-2#wrap.

Wikipedia . “Alamo Cenotaph.” Wikipedia,Wikipedia, Sept. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamo_Cenotaph. \lsdsemihidd

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The History of the Alamo, Part VI: from Roadside Attraction to a Shrine

 

800px-1907_postcard_Save_the_Alamo

This 1907 postcard shows a float in the Battle of the Flowers parade proclaiming the feelings of the people of San Antonio and Texas. But what vision were they proclaiming? This postcard was featured in the Frank Thompson book “The Alamo.”

I love history shot

Ron Current

My last post told of the developing division between the de Zavala and Driscoll DRT groups over the Alamo. Adina de Zavala knew the history and layout of the Alamo’s grounds. She had talked to old San Antonio residences who told her how the Long Barracks and Church buildings had been changed over the years. From these accounts she knew that there were two surviving Alamo buildings, with one hidden under the façade of a grocery store.

Clara Driscoll, being away in Europe until 1898, had the common belief of the time that only the Alamo’s church was left of the original mission complex, all the others having been torn down and built over.

If only the two ladies had sat down together, and talked, they may have come to a consensus. Instead, each drew their own “line in the sand,” creating a war that could have destroyed all that was left of the Alamo.

Another Battle of the Alamo

After the State of Texas made the Daughters of the Republic of Texas custodians of the Alamo the DRT executive committee gave control over to Driscoll and her followers. However, the City of San Antonio had given control to de Zavala. This confusion of who had rightful control over the properties became the epicenter for the growing division between the two women, and how the barracks property was to be developed.

The long barracks with the Hugo & Schmeltzer exterior off

The Hugo & Schmeltzer building in the first stages of its demolition. The balcony had been removed, ca 1910.

As I stated before, de Zavala saw the hidden Long Barracks as being of greater importance in Alamo history than the its church, and needed to be preserved even more. Driscoll only saw the Hugo & Schmeltzer building, over shadowing “the Alamo” with no connection at all to the original mission.

Trying to keep control from de Zavala, the Driscoll faction tried to have the locks changed; hearing this de Zavala’s followers rushed in and stopped it. This caused the two groups to split apart, with Driscoll breaking from de Zavala’s chapter and forming their own Alamo Mission Chapter of the DRT in April of 1906.

In 1907 the Vanderventer Hotel Company began buying up land east of the Alamo to construct a luxury hotel. Their plan was to build their hotel far back behind the Alamo’s church. To help give their hotel more visibility on Alamo Plaza they made a proposal to the DRT; let them tear down the old Hugo & Schmeltzer (Long Barracks) building and they’d create a large park in front of the hotel and alongside Alamo church. This would open up the northside of the Alamo as Driscoll wanted. The hotel group also offered to pay the salary of a custodian for five years. Driscoll and the DRT saw this as a win, win; not only would it remove the ugly grocery store building, it would also help to defray some of the operational cost of the “Alamo.”

Hearing that the DRT was in favor of the hotel’s plans de Zavala flew into a rage! De Zavala wrote to the hotel’s representative, Charlies M. Reeves. She told him the history of the Long Barracks and of her plans to restore it, and to have it house a Texas Hall of Fame museum.

Reeves was also one of those who didn’t believe that any part to the original Alamo stood on the Hugo & Schmeltzer property. He rudely wrote back to her, “… (Your) position is historically incorrect. At the time of the battle of the Alamo only the south wall of the Mission was standing. Texas patriots wish to preserve only that which has to do with her history… What you propose to do in the perpetuation of the walls of this old building would simply result in preserving indefinitely an eye-sore which would be a source of humiliation and regret to the people of San Antonio for all time.”

It was Reeves, being from St. Louis, who was totally incorrect historically, but his response fit very well into what Clara Driscoll had been saying, and believed.

Reeves’ letter had really fired up de Zavala. She went around the city and was able to rally enough support from businessmen and residents to kill the hotel’s plans. For Driscoll, the Hugo building had to go, and she would use every bit of the influence she could muster to get it done.

On February 10, 1908 Driscoll had an injunction placed on de Zavala barring her from the Hugo building, but before the doors could be padlocked de Zavala ran inside locking the doors. De Zavala remained holed up in the building for three days, generating national headlines.

It was only after Texas Governor Thomas Campbell ordered the State to retake control of the situation that de Zavala finally came out. But Adina’s victory was short lived; the DRT was able to get a judge to rule in favor of granting back custodianship of all the Alamo properties to Driscoll and her chapter. After which the DRT expelled de Zavala and her followers from the organization and the grounds.

Even though it seemed that Driscoll had won, it was only the battle, not the war. The State of Texas still owned the property, Driscoll was only its custodian. There were hot feelings on the Long Barrack issue in all parts of Texas, and the State wasn’t ready to tear the building down yet. The Legislators took the political way out, and waited until after the 1810 election.

Texas Governor, Oscar Branch Colquitt

Newly elected Gov. Oscar Colquitt visited San Antonio, where he toured the Alamo church and the Hugo & Schmeltzer building. Gov. Colquitt then called a meeting with both de Zavala and Driscoll, so that each could plead their cases.

Oscar_Branch_Colquitt December 16, 1861 – March 8, 1940

Gov.Oscar Branch Colquitt (1861-1940)

Driscoll again stated that to her knowledge the Hugo & Schmeltzer building was never part of the original mission complex. She also offered to use her own money to pay for its removal, and to have a park and a wall built surrounding the Alamo. This she said would allow the only original fort building left to be honored.

De Zavala was also adamant in her opinion, that beneath the stores exterior lay the stone walls of the mission’s convento, and the Alamo fort’s Long Barracks. It was there, she said, were the most horrific fighting of the March 6th, 1836 battle took place. De Zavala also provided testimonies from San Antonio residences and the families of Alamo defenders that remember what the Alamo had looked like.

Three months later Gov. Colquitt came to his decision; the Long Barracks was to be completely restored. Gov. Colquitt also went on to remove the DRT as the official custodians of the Alamo. His reasoning, that the DRT hadn’t done their job in restoring the property since it was turned over to them.

De Zavala was ecstatic, her dream was coming true. Soon the two remaining Alamo building would be restored and the Texas Hall of Fame would open. Driscoll was outraged, not only would the eyesore remain, but her DRT was kicked out. Clara would now bring her full political and influential power to bear on Gov. Colquitt.

Excitement turns to disappointment

chron17

De Zavala’s concept drawing of the restored Long Barracks, looking nothing like the historic original.

Gov. Colquitt put through legislation to fund the removal of the Hugo & Schmeltzer covering, and another $5,000 to restore the historic Long Barracks.

In anticipation de Zavala had drawings made showing how she envisioned the restored Long Barracks should look. What she came up with looked nothing like the original  building, in fact it was very similar to Honore Grenet’s building. Her drawing showed a massive two-story building with a Spanish styled arcade and two bell towers at each end.

Ruins of the Long Barracks

Only the badly damaged west and south walls of original Long Barracks remained, as it was around 1912.

Work on the demolition of the stores superstructure began in 1910. But soon after the outer covering was removed it became evident that the damage and destruction done by the U.S. Army and the department store owners was too extensive. When all the coverings were swept away it revealed that all that was left of the original stone building was only its outer west and south walls.

De Zavala was heartbroken. She had hoped to find all of the original walls still intact, but that was not the case. The Long Barrack’s second floor had suffered the most from all the previous renovations. What remained of the second floor’s stone wall was pockmarked with windows and doors that had been cut out of the old stone by its previous owners. The now exposed ruins looked worse than when it was the Hugo & Schmeltzer store.

However, there was one bright spot that the demolition had revealed, the original mission foundations; proving that de Zavala was correct in her belief that the building had been part of the Alamo mission complex.

The battle continued

Even in its horrible state both de Zavala and Gov. Colquitt fought to keep and to restore the Long Barracks, even its second floor. Meanwhile Driscoll was politicking hard, to again gain control of the Alamo, and to tear down those ugly ruined walls. For two years a very public battle went on between Gov. Colquitt and Clara Driscoll, each holding their ground.

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The ruined west wall of the original Convento/Long Barracks

In 1912 Driscoll was successful in getting an injunction to keep the State from doing any reconstruction work on the Long Barracks. Driscoll, and the DRT, also brought suit against the State and Gov. Colquitt to regain custodianship of the Alamo. Their case was upheld, and in 1913 the DRT once again had control of the Alamo.

When Gov. Colquitt left the State on a business trip, Lt. Gov. Will May ordered that the second floor wall to be removed. There had been a compromise reached between de Zavala and Driscoll to let the first floor remain. Also in the compromise, it was agreed that they’d try and restore what was left of the Long Barracks’ first floor and the mission’s arcade.

In the Long Barracks restoration they used the stone that had been salvaged from the second floor wall. It would be in this reconstructed building that would eventually house the museum de Zavala had so long dreamed of.

Sadly, lack of funding kept the reconstruction of the Long Barracks from being completed. It stood roofless, and full of weeds, until 1968. Today the Long Barrack does house the Alamo’s museum, but not as the “Hall of Fame” pictured by Adina de Zavala.

The Alamo's Long Barracks ruins 1918

The partially rebuilt roofless Long Barracks ca. 1918

Every time that I’ve visited the Alamo and gone through the Long Barracks, I’d tell everyone, ”It was in this building that more Alamo defenders and attackers had died than anywhere else.” It wasn’t until doing research for this post that I came to realize what had actual been done to this building. As Frank Thompson points out in his book, The Alamo, A Cultural History, “…visitors who believe they are standing in an original Alamo structure are mistaken. It is almost a total reconstruction.” So I was one of those, however it still sits on hallowed ground, and there is still its original west wall, more about that in a later post.

The aftermath of the battle of the Angels

cropped Mrs._Clara_D._Sevier_LOC_3350948489 1911

Clara Driscoll ca. 1913

Clara Driscoll did get total control of the Alamo, and because of what she had done to rescue the Alamo she is remembered as, “The Savior of the Alamo.”

Throughout the rest of her life she and her DRT continued to repair and restore the Alamo church. It is her vision that became what the Alamo is today, the”Shrine” that she wanted it to be.
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Clara Driscoll also did many philanthropic outreaches in her life. Using her money and influence she helped the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Texas Fine Arts Association and the Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi Texas.

Clara Driscoll died on July 17, 1945, at the age of 64. As a tribute to her work on the Alamo she lay in state in the Alamo church. She was laid to rest in the Driscoll family tomb at the Alamo Masonic Cemetery, San Antonio.

 

Adina de Zavala, although barred from the DRT, continued to help identify and mark historical sites around San Antonio, including the site of the Spanish Governor’s Palace and the location of the Alamo defenders funeral pyres.

De Zavala with memebers of her DRT at the Spanish Goveners House

De Zavala, and her followers at the Spanish Governors Palace.

Adina de Zavala died on March 1, 1955, at the age of 93. She had never married, and so she willed her estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, establishing a vocational school for girls and a boy’s town.

On April 27, 1955, in her honor the Texas State Legislature passed a resolution stating that she was, “a major role in preserving the Alamo and the Spanish Governor’s Place” and for placing, “permanent markers on some 40 historical sites in Texas, many of which might have been forgotten.” Also the Bexar County Historical Commission placed a bronze maker honoring her on Alamo Plaza.

After her funeral service at St. Joseph Church in San Antonio her Texas flag draped coffin was taken past the Alamo. De Zavala did not lie in state inside as Driscoll had, because the DRT had denied it.Adina de Zavala's grave

De Zavala is buried in a simple grave in her family plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

In 1994, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas finally honored Adina de Zavala by placing a maker at her gravesite. They also installed makers at the Alamo commemorating both de Zavala and Driscoll.

Two strong angels, each with a different vision of what the Alamo was. One was historical, and one based on conjecture. But both where needed at a time when the Alamo was all but forgotten, and on the verge of being lost forever.

My next post will go on to tell of how the DRT worked to restore and preserve the Alamo. But again, their focus was on the Alamo’s church, not the historic battlefield it was part of.

 

Some of the Sources Used:
Thompson , Frank. “The Second Battle of the Alamo.” The Alamo: A Cultural History, Taylor Publishing, 2001.
“Alamo Low Barracks and Main Gateway.” Texas Historical Markers on Waymarking.com, Waymarking.com, 2018, waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3DJ6_Alamo_Low_Barracks_Main_Gateway.
“Alamo History Chronology.” The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, drtinfo.org.
“Warehouse to Shrine: 1878-1905.” CHRONOLOGY, The Alamo, thealamo.org.
“Historic Photos of the Alamo.” Search: Historic Photos of the Alamo, Google, http://www.google.com/search?q=historic+photos+of+the+Alamo&rlz=1C9BKJA_enUS69:
“Clara Driscoll (philanthropist).” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Aug. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Driscoll_(philanthropist).
“Adina Emilia De Zavala.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 13 Oct. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adina_Emilia_De_Zavala.
“Adina Emilia De Zavala.” Find A Grave, Find A Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10365039/adina-emilia-de_zavala. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.
“Alamo Mission in San Antonio .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 11 Oct. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamo_Mission_San_Antonio.
“Buildings .” The Alamo, The Alamo, http://www.thealamo.org/remember/buildings/index.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.
Nelson, George. “Feuds Over Preservation of the Convento.” The Alamo, An Illustrated History, third Revised , Aldine Press, 2009, p. 98.

 

 

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American Heroes, American history, D-Day, Great American Battlefields, history and travel, Lost and Found, Normandy, Sites to see in the world, Still Current, The Normanday American Cemetery and Memorial, Travel, Uncategorized, What to See in France, World history, World War II

Three Stories of Heroes of Normandy

 

So many of our young gave so much for many others two

The long rows of markers at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Photo by Author

I love history shot

Ron Current

On our recent trip to France we did as most Americans do and visited Normandy, the site of the World War II D-Day invasion.

Besides the beaches where the landings took place the most moving stop we made was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Although the cemetery and memorial are a peaceful and a reverent tribute to those that had made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, not much is told about those resting there.

In this post I’ll tell three stories of heroes that rest there: one of the Sons of a famous American President, one of two brothers whose story inspired an Academy Award winning movie, and the story of a wife’s unending love, and her search for the love of her life.

But first here’s a little information about the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Thousands of visitors come each year to walk among the rows to shining white markers,  but what most visitors don’t know is that this beautiful cemetery on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach is actually the second resting place for those soldiers killed in the D-Day invasion.

The location of the first cemetery of those American’s killed during D-Day.

 As you drive along the Omaha Beach road you’ll see sandwiched among the rows of summer cottages is a small white memorial that reads, “THIS MARKS THE SITE OF THE FIRST AMERICAN CEMETERY IN FRANCE WORLD WAR II SINCE MOVED TO AMERICAN CEMETERY N.”I.”

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Site of the first American D-Day cemetery. Photo by Chris Coffin

 

It was here on June 8, 1944, two days after the invasion, that those killed were laid to rest. After the war ended their remains were moved to the current cemetery and memorial.

 

 

 

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The Memorial to those American's who that fell during D-Day

The Memorial at the Normandy Cemetery. Photo by Author

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial occupies 172 acres on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. From different areas within the cemetery you can clearly see the English Channel and Omaha Beach below. There was once a path you could take down to the beach, but that’s been closed.

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves by Donald De Lue.

“The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Photo by the Author

There are 9,387 American soldiers buried there, and although most are from the D-Day invasion there are also those from other World War II engagements as well. Not all those resting there are men; three American service women are interred there. There’s also one World War I hero buried there, which I’ll cover later.

The center piece of the memorial is the statue by Donald De Lue entitled, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”

Along the inside walls of the monument are maps depicting the D-Day invasion, and behind the memorial is a wall that’s engraved with the names of those who are still missing in action. Some of these names now have a bronze star next to them; this denotes that the soldier’s remains have been found and identified.

Among the notables buried at the Normandy American Cemetery are three Medal of Honor recipients, and two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr.

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Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain

My first story is of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Eventhough his father was one of the most a famous American presidents not much is said about Theodore Roosevelt Jr. But in doing the research for this post I found that in some ways “Ted” Roosevelt was more heroic than his famous father.

Ted Roosevelt already had an outstanding career, not only in the military but also politically, by the time World War II broke out. He had served in World War I and after he had served as the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. When America entered World War II Ted was one of the first to step up again in helping to defend his country, even though he now suffered with a heart condition, which he kept secret from the Army.

At the time of the D-Day invasion Roosevelt was a Brigadier General. On that terrible morning of June 6, 1944, Roosevelt commanded the 8th Infantry Regiment on its assault on Utah Beach. Roosevelt was the only general to take part in the landings, and at 56 years old he was also the oldest person.

Roosevelt was one of the first off the landing craft, wadding to the beach leading his men. Once on the beach he discovered that they had landed at the wrong position, and that’s when made his famous comment, “We’ll start the war from right here!”

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Theodore Roosevelt Jr. grave. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain

Another interesting fact about the D-Day invasion and the Roosevelts is that just down the coast at Omaha Beach another Roosevelt was also leading his men ashore. Captain Quentin Roosevelt II, Ted’s son and Teddy’s Grandson, was among the first wave to hit Omaha Beach.

Ted’s heart condition, and other health problems caused by his WW I injuries, along with the stress from the D-Day assault, finally took their toll on the warrior. On July 12, one month after the invasion, he suffered a heart attack and died. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and a promotion to a two-star, Major General.

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Quentin Roosevelt’s grave, next to his brother Ted. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain

I mentioned that there is also one World War I soldier buried at the Normandy Cemetery, and that’s Ted Roosevelt’s younger brother, Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. Quentin was a fighter pilot in World War I, and was shot down over France. The Roosevelt family had his body moved next to his brothers.

 

 

 

The Niland Brothers: Preston Niland and Robert “Bob” Niland

Niland brothers

In the foreground the graves of the two Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, side by side. Photo by Author.

Preston Niland

2nd Lt. Preston Niland. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain

Preston Niland was a Second Lieutenant in the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Preston was killed on June 7, 1944, during the second day of fighting, near Utah Beach.

Niland

Sergeant  Robert Niland. Photo from Wikipedia, public domain

Robert “Bob” Niland was a Technical Sergeant with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. On June 6th, 1944, while his company retreated from Neuvilli-au-Plain during a major counterattack by the Germans; Bob, with two other men, volunteered to stay back and hold off the Germans with machinegun fire. Although the other two men survived, Bob Niland was killed in action.

Both brothers are buried side by side, and their graves are one of the most visited at the cemetery; the reason is because their story was the inspiration for an Academy Award winning film about World War II.

Bob and Preston were two of four brothers from Tonawanda, New York. All four brothers: Bob, Preston, Edward and Fred “Fritz” had joined the service to fight in World War II.

After both Bob and Preston had been killed, and it was believed that their brother Edward had also been killed by the Japanese in Burma, the Army pulled the last brother, Fritz, from the fighting. They did this so that at least one brother would survive. Fritz would spend the rest of the war as an MP in New York City.

The story of the Niland Brothers would loosely be used by Director Steven Spielberg’s in his 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

The story does ends somewhat happily when it was found that Edward had only been captured by the Japanese. He was released on May 4, 1945.

Fritz died on November 1st 1983, and his Brother Edward in February of 1984.

A Wife’s Unending Love

From love story to mystery to discovery, WWII widow remains devoted

Peggy and Billie Harris on their wedding day. Photo from DoDLive, public domain.

Peggy Seale had finally met the love of her life, 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris, while she worked at Altus AFB Oklahoma. They had been exchanging letters for some time, but that meeting in the base hanger was their first face-to- face. It was love at first sight.
In 1943 Peggy and Billie married in Florida, where Billie was finishing his fighter pilot training. However, their honeymoon was short lived; six weeks later Billie was shipped off to England, and the war.

Lt. Harris was assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron/354th Fighter Group, whose missions were to fly as escorts for bombers supporting the Allied retaking of France.

Because of the high secrecy needed during the war Peggy only heard from Billie very sparingly, and when she did it was only in short notes. Peggy knew that she would have to wait for Billie to finish his tour of duty before she could see him.

Lt. Harris had completed from 60 to 100 missions, and was eligible to be sent home. However he took one more mission. On July 17, 1944, Harris was again flying his P-51 fighter as an escort when his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire.

As his plane was going down Billie had more than enough time to bailout, but ahead, directly in the path of his plane, he saw the French Village of Les Ventes. Billie then made the choice to use his time instead of bailing out, to steer his plane away from the town.

The people of Les Ventes were outside, after hearing the anti-aircraft fire, standing in the town’s main square, when out of the black night sky they saw an Allied plane on fire heading directly towards them. As they watched, knowing that sure death was coming, the plane slowly banked away, crashing in a nearby woods.

Some men from the village ran out to the crash site were the found the pilot dead. After the Germans released Harris’s body the villagers buried him in the town cemetery’s war heroes section. The whole village attended his funeral, and the flowers that covered his

The Grave of Billie D Harris

1st Lt. Billie D. Harris’s grave. Photo by Author

grave were said to have been knee deep. In 1946 Harris’s body was moved to another cemetery, and then finally to the new Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mar.

Believing that Billie was on his way home Peggy sat in excited anticipation, but he didn’t arrived. Peggy contacted the Army and was first told he was already back, and then on his way home, and then missing in action. These changing stories would continue throughout the war. Even after the war Peggy couldn’t get a direct answer as to what had happened to her husband.

For 60 years Peggy would try every avenue to find out what had happened to her Billie, and all she ever got was the same bureaucratic run around. But still she persisted. Someone had to know something on what had happened to Billie. She searched and waited, but never remarried.

Each year, for 60 years, the Village of Les Ventes had honored the pilot who had sacrificed his life to save theirs. They even named the village main street after him, “Place Billie D. Harris.” And each year they’d hold a parade to celebrate his sacrifice.

Even though Harris was no longer buried in the village cemetery, the town continued to visit and decorate his grave at the Normandy American Cemetery, thinking that he had no family to remember him.

As the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of France drew near, the town wanted to do something really special for their hero; the problem was, they really didn’t know anything about him, except his name. What was his family like, and what part of Canada was he from. Yes, they thought Billie was Canadian.

It was an article about the towns 60th Anniversary celebration for their Canadian hero that caught the attention of Mr. Huard, president of the Normandy Association of the Remembrance of Aerial, who contacted Les Ventes Village Councilwomen Valerie Quesnel to inform her that Billie D. Harris wasn’t Canadian, but rather American.
Quesnel then visited the Normandy American Cemetery to talk to Huard and confirmed what he had told her.

Now knowing that Harris was an American Quesnel knew what country to go to get the correct information they were looking for. Quesnel wrote to the United States National Archives were she was sent copies of 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris’s military file.

Meanwhile, Billie’s Cousin, Alton Harvey, had come to Peggy’s rescue to help her find Billie. Instead of making more useless calls Alton decided to personally go to the National Archives himself to see if they had anything on Billie. When he requested information on his cousin he thought it would take months to get anything, instead it only took a few minutes. The secretary was able to find Harris’s file quickly because someone else had recently requested those records, Valerie Quesnel.

This was unbelievable! Alton contacted Valerie, who then contacted Peggy. Finally after 60 years of searching, wondering, and praying Peggy knew what had happened to her Billie, and where he rested.

Peggy Harris, after so many years of not knowing, finally visited her husband’s grave. While in France Peggy also visited Les Ventes, where the citizens welcomed her with

From love story to mystery to discovery, WWII widow remains devoted

Peggy Harris at her Billie’s grave. Photo from DoDLive, public domain.

open arms, the wife of their hero.

Peggy was taken to the site where Billie had crashed, by the last living member of the village who had witnessed it.

Every year that she was able Peggy would return to visit her Billie’s grave. And when she wasn’t there she would have flowers sent on their wedding anniversary, Billie’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and other occasions.

On November 12, 2012, at a special assembly honoring Veterans, the Altus AFB Blue Knights Honor Guard performed a flag folding ceremony in honor of 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris. The flag was presented to Peggy Harris by Col. Ted Detwiler, 97th Operations Group commander.

Also for his service, 1st Lt. Billie D Harris was awarded two Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 11 oak leaf clusters.

When asked why she hadn’t remarried Peggy would answer, “Billie was married to me all of his life, and I choose to be married to him all of my life.”

Just three stories of many

What seems to be endless rows of shining white markers, also holds thousands of stories of the heroes lying there. These are only three of the many.

If you’d like to visit these graves from my post you’ll need to ask at the cemetery office for their location, because there is no special identification on them.

Sources:

Gorstein, Ethan. “The story if the vanishing husband.” kiwi report, kiwi report, 23 July 2017, http://www.kiwireport.com/story-vanishing-husband.
Wittkop, Erin. “WWII Widow Finds Husband’s Resting Place 60-Years Later.” DoDLive, DOD Social Media, 20 Nov. 2012, http://www.dodlive.mil/2012/11/20/wwii-widow-finds-husbands-resting-place-60-years-later.
“Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.” WIKIPEDIA , Wikipedia , July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_Amereican_Cemetery_and_Memorial.
“Niland brothers .” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niland_brothers.
“Theodore Rossevelt Jr.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 16 July 2018.
“Theodore Rossevelt Jr.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 16 July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Roosevelt_Jr.

 

 

 

 

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