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San Antonio

San Antonio
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Everything about San Antonio is great, and millions of come just for the Alamo. But what lifts the city above everyplace else in America is its magnificent Riverwalk. It's just unique. There's nothing else like it. You are in the bustling downtown of one of America's largest cities, and you walk downstairs 30 feet below street level to find yourself in a different world, a sort of hidden universe with waterfalls, subtropical rain forest, cobblestone walks, arched stone bridges, birdcalls echoing loudly from the trees, and, as a novel title says, A River Running Through It. That's the San Antonio River, which bubbles up out of the ground a few miles north of the city, gathers more water from San Pedros and Olmos Creeks, then makes a sweeping bend. San Antonio grew up inside the bend and the Alamo was built just outside of it. A lack of industry kept the river surprisingly clean and people swam, fish and bathed in it.

Now, the river is the prime location in San Antonio and all of Texas. Restaurants, luxury hotels, retail outlets and one of the nation's largest malls have built around the river. A water taxi service transports people from one part of the city to another. You can take an hour guided tour on specially designed cruisers. Special boats designed and built just for the Riverwalk skim the waters collecting paper cups, peanut shells, bird feathers, leaves and any other debris which might litter the pristine waters. You can walk for miles, stopping occasionally to sit on a bench and just enjoy the ambience. You can sit at a table along the water for a drink or lunch at one of the dozens of restaurants. To get to the Riverwalk from the Crockett or Menger, just walk across Alamo Plaza and descend the stairs. You'll follow a multilevel waterfall, then a stream, lined by dense foliage. The stream flows on out through the Hyatt atrium and empties into the river as you turn either right or left to follow the walkway. However, if you're out and about town, there are staircases leading down to the river at each of the major street crossings. Returning from either Sunset Station (Aldaco's) or the Mexican Marketplace (Mi Tierra) along Commerce Street, you'll come to staircases at St. Mary's, LaSoya and Alamo Streets. The photo at left shows one of the water taxiis coming out from Rivermall, with the convention center rising above the trees in the background and the Tower of the Americas rising 750 feet above that. It was built for the Hemisfair and has been a popular landmark ever since. The Chart House at the top allows you to eat at a windowside table while the whole restaurant slowly rotates 360 degrees each hour. The view makes it worth a visit, but the food is excellent, too.

The secret to the Riverwalk is seen here. The sidestreams emptying into the San Antonio River collect water from such huge areas that during heavy rains they would send walls of water into the river and it would rise over its banks and flood the downtown. Until the town figured out a solution to that problem, the Riverwalk was not possible. Engineers solved the problem by digging a cut through channel across the long D-shaped bend the river made through town. They installed flood gates at each end so in flood they could close the gates and send the water straight across the channel, preventing high water in the downtown. You are looking here at the Upriver Gate, with the water taxi heading on around the bend. Our boat is heading downriver, across the cutthrough. Above the green box you can see the raised gate, which can be lowered as needed. The Southeast Texas landscape is fairly level, so the river is not flowing fast except in flood.
This is the river's loop through Rivermall. The mall itself is worth a visit, being the largest glass enclosed structure in the world. But this is also where the tourboats load for their hour long cruise. The Menger and Marriott Hotels connect directly to this mall and you could take advantage of the water taxi service to ride rather than walk to downtown restaurants. The mall has 125 stores on three levels so has enough shopping to keep even hard core shoppers occupied for a good afternoon.
The first person to propose that the river be maintained as a sort of linear park was architect Alfred Giles in 1911, but it is Robert Hugman's vision that most influences the Riverwalk as it exists today. Hugman was placed in charge of development, then was replaced over landscaping disagreements, but finally was recognized as the true father of the Riverwalk. He maintained his architects's office in the Clifford Building most of his life. The Clifford Building is the turreted concrete building across Commerce Street from Casa Rio's, at the bridge over the Riverwalk. Hugman could thus sit at his desk and watch pedestrians walking along the river or boaters cruising by. He was officially honored in 1970 for his vision and design by the American Institute of Architects, and broke down and cried. In 1978 San Antonio dedicated the Hugman Bells, a beautiful set of five bells hung at the Arneson River Stage. He was invited to strike the first notes on the bells. Hugman died in 1980. His longtime office sign has been preserved in his memory in its original location, the curving wall of the Clifford Building where everyone passing by on the walkways or the river can see it.
A river obviously rises and falls, and the flow speeds or up and slows down, through wet and dry periods. The floodgates were only designed to prevent flooding, not stabilize the river at other times. But for the water taxiis and tour boats to operate, a stable water level and consistent flow speed was needed. So, south of the Downriver Gate, a dam was built, backing up the water all the way around the bend and up to the low dam seen bottom left. You can walk down to this dam by following the Riverwalk out to the Downriver Gate, turning left, and walking for two city blocks. If you want to reach it from street level, it is at Nueva Street. From Alamo Plaza, walk South on Alamo Street four blocks, then walk West on East Nueva Street for three blocks.

This is one of the more spectacular sites along the Riverwalk, the 1939 Arneson Theater. It is a completely equipped outdoor arena. The river flows right through the middle of it, with seats and control booth on one side and the stage and backstage complex on the other. They stage concerts, pageants, plays, political rallies, contests and other public events here. But as you walk the Riverwalk, it is important for another reason. If you climb the steps here to street level, you enter La Villita, the original Spanish / Mexican settlement, one of San Antonio's most historic sites. Santa Ann headquartered here during the Alamo siege, and General Perfecto de Cos formally surrendered the Mexican army here after Santa Anna fled back to Mexico, having signed over Texas to Sam Houston. La Villita today is an arts community, where you can eat in several Guadalajaran cantinos or shop for locally made pottery, baskets, blankets, jewelry, and clothing.

This is the stream flowing from Alamo Plaza into the Hyatt Atrium on its way to the river. The natural spring which created this stream was why the Mission San Antonio de Valero, later to be referred to as The Alamo, was built where it was in 1724. The outer wall of the mission was built outside the spring, so water was easily obtained inside. This allowed the men in the Alamo to hold out as long as they did against Santa Anna.
This is one of the waterfalls that flow into the river at various points. A lot of people assume the water is either a stream flowing naturally into the stream, or is artificial with a pump recirculating the water. Actually, neither is true. The water is collected from air conditioners serving the buildings up on street level, brought to a single pipe, and released just out of sight to flow down through these rocks and plants. The water at this location is coming from the Majestic Theatre plus the Omni La Mansion hotel. Notice the channels cut through the sidewalk so the water flows down to the river while passersby step over it.

This is the furthest upriver the taxiis and cruise boats can go. It's also the end of the Riverwalk sidewalks on both sides of the river. The low dam is one mile from the Upriver Gate. This dam creates a long stable pool for the University of the Incarnate Word, a liberal arts college with strong programs in biology, meteorology, and environmental sciences.

If you look very carefully just left of center, in the middle of the waterfall, you can see a heron fishing for its dinner.

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