A Bridge to the Past
Posted on September 14, 2018
“We have no city except perhaps New Orleans that can vie, in point of the picturesque interest that attaches to odd and antiquated foreigness, with San Antonio.” – Frederick Law Olmsted’s First Hand Account of San Antonio, 1856
Recently I took a friend from out of town to visit several landmarks throughout the city of San Antonio. When friends come to town, they always ask to see the Riverwalk, and because it conveniently connects other San Antonio highlights, we also make stops at the Alamo; La Antorcha de la Amistad, “The Torch of Friendship”; and the Tower of the Americas. As we walk the city’s streets, we feel its vitality around us. In the early evening air, downtown is alive with the buzz of Tejano music, the aroma of the local restaurants, and the energy of its denizens.
We casually wind our way through the streets alongside the river, stopping only for my friend to tie his shoe on Commerce Street Bridge. I have toured San Antonio with friends and family time and time again, but it’s details struck me in a new way this last time. Its pillars and the roadway they support triumphantly emerge from the river to bear the burden of new and old travelers alike–like the weight of the world on Atlas’ shoulders in a minor way.
Intrigued, I began to research its history. Constructed over the river near La Villita in 1739, the crude bridge had six major beams and connects Mission San Antonio Valero to the east and San Fernando de Bexar to the west. Although meant to unite the community and the missions, the bridge was the cause of much contention between the local priests and soldiers stationed on the other side of the river who would harass women as they traveled along the road. Eventually, after several disagreements between the clergy and the military, the bridge became an established crossing for the city.
Around 100 years later in 1841, Mayor Juan Seguin implored the city council to raise a tax to improve San Antonio’s infrastructure after hearing several reports of the bridge’s collapse on more than one occasion. In some instances, people had even fallen through. The council approved the tax and enlisted R. T. Higgenbotham to design a more structurally sound beamed bridge to replace the original and fairly crude crossing point. But the new bridge and others in the city were still prone to flooding, and the local population was forced to continue to maintain the old and new bridges alike. By 1873, there were a total of ten bridges throughout the city, crossing the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, that all required yearly maintenance and were at risk of being swept away quite easily.
After Texas became a state, the city of San Antonio rose in popularity and attracted the interest of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1858. Olmsted admired the ingenuity of the Commerce Street Bridge and the water’s naturally vibrant blue. He wrote: “The effect (of the water) is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring. You cannot believe your eyes, and almost shrink from sudden metamorphosis by invaded nymphdon.” And “the temperature of the river is of just that agreeable elevation that makes you loth [sic] to leave a bath, and the color is the ideal blue. Few cities have such a luxury.”
Over time the bridge again fell into disrepair, and a child was tragically killed after falling through its beams and drowning in the river. The incident captivated poets, writers, and the public alike. The written works created in memory of the child gave rise to an apt nickname for the bridge: “Literary Bridge.”
Later on, the bridge would be renamed again after the writer O. Henry wrote several short stories about it. In his work, A Fog in Santone, an invasive fog penetrates the city leaving three thousand people with various terminal illnesses. As the story begins, the sickly protagonist leaves a shop after purchasing morphine pills and quickly wades through a dense fog onto the iron Commerce Street Bridge. While crossing, he is overtaken by a fit of coughing which O. Henry describes as it echoes through the bridge’s structure:
“The purchaser of the morphia wanders into the fog, and at length, finds himself upon a little iron bridge, one of the score or more in the heart of the city, under which the small tortuous river flows. He leans on the rail and gasps, for here the mist has concentrated, lying like a foot-pad to garrote such of the Three Thousand as creep that way. The iron bridge guys rattle to the strain of his cough, a mocking pthisical [sic] rattle, seeming to say to him: ‘Clickety-clack! Just a little rusty cold sir—but not from our river. Litmus paper all along the banks and nothing but ozone. Clacket-y-clack!”
The bridge as we know it today was updated in 1915 and includes concrete railings, piers, and spandrels with rich naturalistic ornamentation. The friend who visited led to my discovery of the lore surrounding the Commerce Street Bridge, and others throughout the city, and my fondness for it. Though happy to know its story and many charming details now, I’m not quite sure how I missed them in the first place.