Sunday, May 31, 2015

San Antonio

In 1536, Álvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a shipwrecked Spanish explorer who was enslaved by Native Americans for a period, visited the interior of what would later be called Texas. He was probably the first European to take in the valley and the meandering waterway, which the Payaya Indians called "Yanaguana" (meaning refreshing waters), later to be called the San Antonio River.

By 1675, the Spanish realized the strategic value of this land and, feeling pressure from their rivals, the French next door in Louisiana, decided to send missionaries and colonists to occupy Tejas. Interestingly, believing they would acclimate well to the region, the King of Spain initially sent many settlers from the Canary Islands to settle San Antonio.

In 1691, a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries came upon the river and Native American settlement on June 13. As many of you may know.....that's the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padova, Italy, so they named the place and river San Antonio in his honor.

On May 1, 1718, a mission was completed and the responsibility for the establishment of the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar (Ok...pronounced Be-har...but in Texas it's pronounced "Bar". It's a Texanism...don't get me started), to the new governor. That mission, called San Antonio de Valero, (a name derived from "San Antonio de Padua" and Viceroy of New Spain, Marquess of Valero of course), will become today's "Alamo". By the way...the word Alamo does mean something too. In the early years, part of the old mission complex was used as the headquarters of a Spanish cavalry unit. During this time, the Spanish word alamo, meaning "cottonwood," was introduced by soldiers garrisoned there to honor their home at Alamo de Parras in the Mexican province of Coahuila. Now you know.

By 1821, Mexico had won independence from Spain and invited American settlers brought in by guys like Stephen Austin to settle the land and by 1833, then El President'e Antonio de Santa Anna (yep...the future General who retakes the Alamo) had mucked things up for the Mexicans and a civil war broke out. In Texas, the Anglo settlers joined many Hispanic Texans, who called themselves Tejanos, in demanding a return to the Mexican Constitution of 1824. In a series of battles the Anglo Texans, who called themselves "Texians", supported by a significant number of Tejano allies, initially succeeded in forcing the Mexican military to retreat from Texas. And so we come to the Battle of the Alamo.

By April of 1836, Santa Anna had had enough of those rabblerouser Texians and decided to make a political statement by defeating the insurgents and returning Texas back to Mexican control. By now, the Texian movement had moved from a political revolt to a full fledged secession of Texas from Mexico. Sam Houston was the leader of a small army of Anglos and Tejanos fighting a disparate war of attrition against the well-armed Mexican army. The Alamo was a shell of the original Mission having been abandoned back in 1793. It was basically four walls with no roof and a built-up dirt artillery platform for a cannon on the north end where the altar had been. Houston pleaded with William Travis not to defend the Alamo and fall back to Houston's lines but Travis, Bowie, Crockett, his Tennesseans and some Tejano volunteers numbering about 260 men decided to hold the fort anyway against an estimated 1,800 Mexican Army regulars.

The adobe walls were no match for Mexican artillery and gunfire and, after 12 days of siege, was overrun in a massive attack that wiped out all the male defenders leaving only the women and children of the defenders to be sent back to Houston to tell him of the battle and defeat. A message to them to quit the fight and surrender.

History shows the message was ignored and after rallying his forces under the famous battle cry, "Remember the Alamo", one of his Lieutenants, Juan Sequin, defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto a month later assuring Texas independence that same year. Interesting factoid, Juan was later elected Mayor of San Antonio but forced out of office at gun point by an Anglo mob. There would not be another Hispanic Mayor in San Antonio until Henry Cisneros in 1981.

Dianna and I have now been in Texas for about 9 years and had not been to San Antonio so we made it our 40th wedding anniversary destination. Yes, a mere 40 years ago we were young and impressionable without a care in the world. Now, two kids, a couple of houses, a grandson and several dogs later we are still together and trying to enjoy our later years as best we can.

As many of you (and to my wife's chagrin) have learned, I tend to make reservations at older historic hotels so I picked the oldest, the Menger in Alamo Plaza. Killing two birds with one stone in that it is literally steps away from the Alamo Memorial site. On our arrival, Texas was in the midst of its record setting rainy season and had just stopped as we checked in.

Menger Courtyard
The Menger Hotel was built in 1859 but was the result of German immigrant, William Menger's brewery, the first beer brewery in Texas. He decided to build a hotel to accommodate the many carousers who frequented his brewery. The beer was chilled by the Alamo Madre ditch, which passed through the hotel courtyard. Said to have been the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River, it once hosted such notables as Sam Houston, Generals Lee and Grant (no..not at the same time) and Presidents McKinley, Taft, Eisenhower, and Roosevelt; Babe Ruth, and Mae West.

River Walk view toward back of Menger
Little known fact is that the famous River Walk is based on a ditch dug by the Missionaries to move water from the San Antonio River to the farms adjacent to the Presidio. The ditch (Acequia Madre de Valero), is 6 miles long and was built to irrigate about 400 hectares. It was vital to the missions in order to grow crops and to supply water to the people in the area. Acequia Madre de Valero ran from the area currently known as Brackenridge Park and southward to what is now Hemisfair Plaza and South Alamo Street. Part of it that is not viewable by the public runs beneath the Menger Hotel.

Once settled in our room overlooking Alamo Plaza, we quickly walked over to the Alamo to get our vacation rolling. As we made our way around the front I was immediately struck by two things. The first was how small the Alamo Mission is. When you see the tourist literature or commercials on TV, you get the impression it's this big adobe monument to the heroism of the martyrs of the Texas Revolution. It turns out to be rather diminutive in size (which many friends had warned me about) but still revered as a sacred site by native Texans. I think I figured it out. When you shoot upward and keep the fence posts and people out of the picture, you skew the image and it looks bigger.

No matter your politics or where your from, Texans do hold this place in high esteem. You when you overhear people speaking in hushed voices as they tell the tale of the Alamo to their children or guests as though they were in church. There's even a sign at the entrance reminding visitors the site is sacred, to speak softly, remove hats and absolutely no photography.

The inside is unremarkable except for the museum-like exhibits throughout. It's walls are clearly scarred with the remnants of battle, bullet holes and gouges from flying debris. Again the interior is not original in that the original Mission was converted by several inhabitants over the years to suit their needs. Recall that the building was roofless during its use by the Texians in the 1830s.

Different color roofline
After secession, in 1849, the U.S. Army leased the old Mission and added its current roof and made it a warehouse. They even split the space and made a second floor which was taken down for the restoration. It was used for the same purpose during the Civil War (TWONA). After the war, the Army got it back but abandoned it when Fort Sam Houston was established nearby in 1876. It was even a city jail for a time. It wasn't until 1892 that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas took over the property and began restoring the site.

The second thing that struck me was what surrounds the sacred Alamo historic site. Tourist traps. Not one but two Ripley's Believe it or not Museums among other touristy notables reside directly across the street from the Alamo. There are several prominent statues and memorials there as well but it's kind of cheesy, if you know what I mean.
When we got back to the hotel, we booked a Ghost tour that starts at the historic Colonial Room restaurant in the Victorian original wing of the Menger. It's a beautiful example of Victorian era architecture.

The original hotel space was originally two floors and 50 rooms but subsequent additions and remodels added floors and rooms which now hold 316 rooms. It was dinner and a walking tour of the haunted portions of the hotel as well as some hot spots by the Alamo and surrounding streets. Turns out the Menger is the most haunted hotel in America. Lots of crazy stuff happened in the hotel and significant figures have passed away within its walls. The historic Menger Hotel is said be called home or visited regularly by some 32 different entities.

Teddy's negotiation table 2nd floor
One of the Menger's most famous guests is that of former President Teddy Roosevelt. It was here, in the Menger Bar, that Roosevelt recruited hard-living cowboys fresh from the Chisholm Trail, to his detachment of Rough Riders. Reportedly, Teddy would sit at the bar and as the cowboys came in, he would jovially offer them a free drink (or several) as he worked his recruiting strategy upon the unsuspecting cowpoke. Many sobered up the next morning to find themselves on their way to basic military training at Fort Sam Houston before joining in the Spanish American War.

After a wonderful meal and the Menger's signature dessert, an incredible dish of Mango ice cream, we wandered around the three main floors of the old hotel and heard stories of apparitions who wander the same halls and bother the guests. We then walked out the front of the hotel for our street tour. First stop the Alamo. We were reminded of the horrific battle which took so many lives and that, while we walked on the street in front of the Alamo, we were actually walking on top of a mass grave which had been found when the street was excavated before paving. Excavations throughout San Antonio still expose graves of the fallen today.
Our capable guide Bethany of Sisters Grimm Ghost Tours reminded us of an incident which sparked the haunted history of the Alamo. Ghostly tales about the Alamo can be traced all the way back to 1836. Several weeks after the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna ordered General Andrade to raise the Alamo and in doing so ensure that nothing was left standing. Like any military commander holding the rank of general, Andrade delegated this unwholesome task to a trusted subordinate, Colonel Sanchez.

Upon the arrival of Colonel Sanchez and his men, all that remained of the old mission was the chapel. Resolute to carry out Santa Anna's demands, Colonel Sanchez instructed his troops to begin tearing down the church. As the detail set about preparing to carry out the order, work was abruptly halted when six ghostly monks materialized from the walls of the chapel.

The soldiers watched in stunned silence as these "diablos" slowly advanced waving flaming swords over their heads, while all the time issuing a warning in an inhuman screech, "Do not touch the walls of the Alamo" (I wonder if it was in English or Spanish). Heading the ghostly advice, Colonel Sanchez and his men retreated with their tails between their legs.

We traveled to several haunted locations some more interesting than others. One such location was a Holiday Inn Express. The building was multi-storied and rather box-like in construction. Bethany pointed out the metal bars which adorn the exterior windows. It wasn't just decoration, but the result of its former life as the Bexar County Jail between 1870 and 1960. The building often housed serious criminals and served for a time as a place of execution for convicted murderers. It was abandoned and purchased by Comfort Suites in the late sixties.

Nighttime carriages light the darkness
They renovated it into a hotel but were soon receiving complaints of apparitions around the third and fourth floors, one particular ghost seemed to be missing his head. What the realtor failed to disclose was that the hangings occurred on the fourth floor where the accused would fall through to the third floor. On occasion, the fall would cause the heads of some of these men to separate from their bodies (no doubt incorrect tension on the knots). The best tidbit was that the jail had a cemetery where they buried the unclaimed bodies in a side yard of the jail. Right where Comfort Suites (now Holiday Inn Express) have their pool. Fortunately, they stopped hangings in 1923 and went to an electric chair. Today, guests often call the front desk reporting what they believe to be a smell of burning wire or electrical equipment around the 3rd and 4th floors.

An interesting stop was the Cathedral of San Fernando. It is the mother church of the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the seat of its archbishop. The original church of San Fernando was built between 1738 and 1750. The walls of that church today form the sanctuary of the cathedral, which gives rise to its claim as the oldest cathedral in the State of Texas. In 1836, the cathedral, still a parish church, played a role in the Battle of the Alamo when Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna hoisted a flag of "no quarter" from the church's tower, marking the beginning of the siege. Bones of some of the fallen are entombed in the walls of the church raising spectors of those men seen walking or standing by the church by passerbys.

We were drawn to the church by a  video art installation spectacular on the facade of the Cathedral created by renowned French artist, Xavier De Richemontartist. It's a beautiful montage of the history of Texas and specifically a segment on the Alamo. Very cool.

Kind of like the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland
Then back to the hotel for rest and re cooperation before our marathon second day of historic tours and wine sampling. case you're wondering, I did have trouble sleeping and around two a.m. I got dressed and wandered around the hotel hotspots. The eerie silence was only punctuated by the sound of an unseen lone vacuum cleaner wailing in the distance. Sorry no sightings but I did get a chance to take some photos without dodging people to get the shot.