Riding the Old Spanish Trail: A Road Trip from San Antonio in the 1920's

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Brackenridge Park (San Antonio Express-News File Photo)

You take a deep breath and try and soak in your surroundings. You pick up the delightful smell of frying eggs and bacon very close by and, in the distance, a faint whiff of mountain laurel. The warmth surrounding you seems unseasonable for spring, especially this early in the morning, but apparently, it’s typical San Antonio weather, which “Yankees” from the Northern states flock to during the warm season. You hear a great deal of cross-chatter from campers, day trippers, families, and other leisurists speaking over a chorus of sparrows and white-winged doves. You’re surrounded by ragged canvas tents and automobiles in varying states of cleanliness, some sparkling clean and others caked in dust and caliche. You’ve just disassembled your tent and stowed it in the back of your trusty 1925 Chevrolet Superior sedan, a frugal machine that is nonetheless a marked improvement over your clattering old Ford from before the Great War. You’re getting ready to leave the tourist camp at Brackenridge Park on yet another leg of your great and arduous journey out west, to the storied land of cowboys and braves, gunslingers and banditos, on the route first blazed by pioneers in the 50’s as they set up a chain of isolated cavalry forts between San Antonio and San Diego.

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Old Spanish Trail, 1926 (Courtesy of http://www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com)

You had just arrived in San Antonio the night before, the long drive leaving you feeling run through the wringer and hung out to dry. You had the option of staying at a nice hotel downtown such as the Menger, the Gunther or the St. Anthony, but you picked out Brackenridge Park specifically upon recommendation from an old Army friend who was stationed in San Antonio not long ago. It’s some distance from the OST, on the road leading north out of town towards the remote “streetcar suburb” of Alamo Heights. Once all of your belongings are packed up, you bid goodbye to the fellow campers with whom you shared a big communal meal last night and check the fuel, oil, and radiator water level before setting out. You have a brief moment of panic as you stomp down on the starting button and nothing happens, until you realize you once again forgot to turn on the ignition switch. Sure enough, the 4-cylinder engine roars to life and you slowly roll out of camp and onto Broadway Avenue towards downtown. You keep your distance from the little yellow streetcar in front of you; some cities are very strict about stopping for streetcars as they stop for passengers and San Antonio may be one of them.

Entrance to Dr. Urrutia’s mansion on Broadway (courtesy of Urrutia Photo Collection)

You ease your way down Broadway, passing by such interesting sites as the new Kiddie Park, the beautifully ornate gate to the mansion of Dr. Aurelio Urrutia, and the Pig Stand, a novel new restaurant catering specifically to motorists. You make a quick stop for gas and provisions at Jamison Auto Supplies; the proprietor, J. Jamison, warns you that rain is in the forecast for today. This fills you with a sense of impending dread, as getting rained on when out in the boondocks would almost certainly result in you being marooned in the ensuing quagmire. The traffic begins to thicken as you approach downtown; as with any major city, you have to keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians, horses, traffic signals, police officers directing traffic, and the distinctive red, white, and yellow markers for the Old Spanish Trail posted on light poles. You hang a right onto Commerce Street and pass over the San Antonio River as the congestion reaches a fever pitch; as the name implies, Commerce Street is the heart of the city’s shopping district and department stores surround you on both sides.

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Commerce Street, 1920 (Courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum)

After passing by the beautiful soon-to-be-opened Aztec Theater, you arrive at San Antonio’s Main Plaza, recently designated the “zero mile” for travelers on the Old Spanish Trail. Past the chaos of traffic, you can see the San Fernando Cathedral in the center of the plaza; once you reach City Hall, you hang another right onto Flores Street, where you see your first signs for Texas Highway 9 and US Route 385, the state and federal names for the Old Spanish Trail as it heads west out of town.

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San Fernando Cathedral, 1927 (Courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum)

At the Five Points, you veer left onto Fredericksburg Road before crossing over San Pedro Creek and the International and Great Northern Railroad tracks. The urban sprawl begins to thin out you reach the area around Monticello Park, a glamorous, modern new suburb replete with stylish Art Deco-style buildings. After Vance Jackson Road, the residential section thins out almost completely, although you’ll still be traveling on limestone rock asphalt roads as far as Boerne. You scan the horizon for storm clouds, but you are relieved to see nothing but clear skies. At long last, you can shift into high gear as you enter the beautiful Texas Hill Country, in stark contrast to the monotonous forest you’ve been travailing through so far. Your trail guide explains that this part of the country is “spring-water country”, with over a thousand miles of clear-water springs and creeks. As the terrain gets hillier and the road gets windier, you see signs for Camp Bullis and Camp Stanley, familiar stomping grounds for many a doughboy who trained there before being shipped off to France during the war.

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Army trucks en route to Camp Bullis (Courtesy of Texas Transporation Museum)

At the little village of Leon Springs, you hang a left onto the old stagecoach road towards the town of Boerne. As you putter along, an old farmer in an old Tin Lizzie passing you on your left hails to you. As you pull to a stop, he informs you in his thick German accent that a storm had passed through the night before and the water level at the low water crossing over Balcones Creek is still somewhat high. You thank him and wish him well as you continue on your way towards Boerne. Encounters like these are very common for motorists driving out in the country and provide and indispensable source of vital information about weather conditions, washouts, and any such problem you may encounter in the wilderness. After you just barely manage to avoid getting the floorboards wet at the creek crossing and cross the county line into Kendall County, you pass through the small, mostly German town of Boerne, where the asphalt pavement runs out and the “improved” gravel road begins. Try as they might, there’s only so much the Old Spanish Trail Association can do to maintain the roads out here with their limited means — here’s hoping the federal government will bring these primeval thoroughfares to modern, civilized standards!

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Boerne Main Street, 1890s (Courtesy of littlecolonels.com)

There’s not too much to see as you pass through Boerne, aside from St. Mary’s Sanitarium; due to its salubrious warm climate, the Hill Country is home to many such sanitariums. You could think of worse places to gradually die of consumption. Upon reaching the junction between Texas Highway 9/US 385 and Texas Highway 27/US 290 at Nelson City, you see a sign for Hallie Maude Neff State Park; you wonder if there’s any relation with Mother Neff State Park as the Old Spanish Trail turns left and follows US Route 290. The washboarding of the road in this part of the country is giving your rear leaf springs a workout as you tighten your grip on the steering wheel; you assure yourself that the further you go along, the less you’ll notice it. The roads here are narrow, harrowing, and full of blind corners, but the spectacular view from each hill you crest helps put your mind at ease. Soon enough, you are able to see from one of the hilltops the town of Comfort, the gateway to the Guadalupe Hills. The water is just about up to the edge of the bridge as you drive over the Guadalupe River — you’re thankful you didn’t try this drive the night before!

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Guadalupe River Crossing at Comfort (Courtesy of Louis J. Blume Library, St. Mary’s University)

You give a wave to the patrons of the tourist camp on the banks of the Guadalupe as you cruise up the hill towards Comfort. Comfort itself is a charming and provincial town, with unpaved streets and plenty of old 2-story limestone buildings, the centerpiece being the grandiose Faust Hotel. Just before you turn left on 4th Street, you can see a small limestone obelisk just across the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad tracks. This is the Treue Der Union Monument, which commemorates the pro-Union German conscious objectors who were massacred by Confederate soldiers on the Nueces River near Brackettville in 1862. The remains of the victims were re-interred in Comfort after the war, and it remains a volatile subject amongst locals even to this day — you would be wise not to mention it.

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Downtown Comfort (Courtesy of Texas Transportation Museum)

You pass over Cypress Creek as you head west out of Comfort and into Kerr County, paralleling the course of the Guadalupe River. Also paralleling the river is the aforementioned San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad, which you will be following all the way to Kerrville. Sheep and goat ranches, as well as grain and cotton farms, abound in the area as the land flattens out slightly. Soon approaching is the small community of Center Point, which you can only assume must be the “center point” between Comfort and Kerrville. The bulk of the town is located on a high bluff on the other side of the river, but the train depot is located on your side, which you assume must be problematic during the rainy season. As you pass the depot, you can see the eastbound passenger train, consisting solely of an odd-looking “doodlebug” gasoline railcar, easing out of the station on its journey back towards San Antonio.

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Center Point station, 1939 (Courtesy of the Texas Transportation Museum)

As you leave Center Point, you catch sight of a Studebaker Touring car parked on the other side of the road. You pull up to it, anticipating what may be a long and tedious repair session. As it turns out, the occupants are a husband and wife arguing over a map, which alleviates your initial dread. You ask them where they’re headed, and they reply that they’re looking for the Old Camp Verde. You ponder for a moment before realizing that they’re referring to the old abandoned cavalry fort on the road towards Bandera Pass. You advise them to continue on into Center Point and inquire locally since you aren’t sure which road you take to get there — all you know is it’s somewhere south of here. The couple thanks you and continues on their merry way. Travelers along these auto trails must remember to pay all good deeds forward; out here, helping a stranded or lost motorist can mean the difference between life and death. As the road curves to the north, you can see the massive American Legion Hospital high on a hill to your right, indicating that you’re coming into the city of Kerrville.

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American Legion Hospital, Kerrville (Courtesy of Joe Herring Jr., blogspot.com)

According to your guidebook, Kerrville is apparently the wool and mohair capital of Texas and the main resort area for the Hill Country. The railroad turns away to the left as you pass the Schreiner Institute, a relatively new military school founded by prominent local Charles Schreiner. You are relieved to be traveling on asphalt paved roads at long last as you drive into downtown Kerrville, whose old limestone buildings remind you of downtown Comfort. At Baker Street, you turn right and pull into Weston’s Garage and Drive-in, adjacent to City Hall and opposite the ostentatious St. Charles Hotel. You shut off the engine, pull the handbrake lever, and ease out of the car for the first of many breaks to stretch your legs and go to the euphemism. You check the car and see some loose tar stuck to the fender, so you open up the trunk and fish out a jar of coconut butter and spread it along the tar with your pocket knife, softening the tar so you can scrape it off without damaging the paint. You take a deep breath and try and soak in your surroundings. It’s a long, lonely, dusty road ahead of you, but you’re ready for it.

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St. Charles Hotel, Kerrville (Courtesy of Joe Herring, blogspot.com)

Click here to read the part two of this ongoing series, which covers the leg between Kerrville and Ozona, Texas.

Sources:

Texas Transportation Museum (www.txtransportationmuseum.org)

Old Spanish Trail Centennial website (www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com)

David Rumsey Map Collection (www.davidrumsey.com)

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/)

Historic Aerials by NETR Online (historicaerials.com)

Joe Herring Jr.’s blog (joeherringjr.blogspot.com)

Old Highway Maps of Texas, 1917–1973 (www.dfwfreeways.com/old-highway-maps)

Pre-Interstate Highway Routes History, The Texas Highway Man (www.texashighwayman.com/pre-fwy-history.shtml)

“San Antonio on Wheels: The Alamo City Learns to Drive” by Hugh Hemphill, Maverick Publishing Company, 2009

Rand McNally Auto Road Atlas of the United States and Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, 1927

Old Spanish Trail Travelog, West Texas Edition, 1925

Mackenzie Rudd is a freelance writer, content creator, history geek, and pop culture maven who lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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