Feature Pushing for the coast 

In South Texas, a canoeist’s dream could be a trip to the Gulf on the San Antonio River


Editor’s Note: This the final story in a four-part series examining development along the San Antonio River. See previous stories, “Mission control,” March 17-23, 2005; “No Dick’s need apply,” March 24-30, 2005; and “Living downstream,” July 14-20, 2005.

Beeville native John Barnhart made a career as a Houston attorney, and, when he retired, he returned to South Texas, where he raises miniature donkeys and is converting an old house into a bed and breakfast on 700 acres in Berclair, a few miles outside Goliad.

He’s nearly 80 years old now, but his energy seems boundless as he talks about the future of tourism in historic Goliad County. Although, at his age he doesn’t canoe much on the San Antonio River, Barnhart is working to transform his home turf’s section of that watershed into a world-class canoe trail.

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When he’s not raising miniature donkeys, retired Houston attorney John Barnhart spends his time developing access points along the San Antonio River, such as the one near a county-owned bridge in Riverdale. Barnhart says there is great potential for Goliad and other communities to develop the San Antonio River watershed into a world-class canoe trail. (Photos by Michael Cary)

These days, Barnhart devotes much of his energy to planning the conversion of several highway bridges over the San Antonio River to drop-off and landing zones for canoeists and kayakers; his effort appears ready to pay off for Goliad and surrounding areas.

“The San Antonio River is a wonderful river, rich in wildlife, but not too accessible with its steep, muddy banks,” Barnhart says. “Right now the only person who can get to it is Tarzan.”

He likes to joke about his pet project, but even Tarzan would need Cheetah, Jane, and Boy to help him manipulate vines or rope to lower a canoe down the steep bank of a river that twists its way through Goliad County en route to the Gulf of México.

It’s all part of a vision shared by many, including the San Antonio River Authority, a lead player in transforming the river’s watershed into a major regional cultural, historical, and recreational tourism destination in South Texas. SARA has conducted a series of town-hall meetings from San Antonio to Goliad to gather input from locals regarding an ambitious plan to drive tourism dollars into local towns that lie along the Cibolo Creek, Medina, and San Antonio rivers.

“We encourage local entities to proceed with local plans for recreational projects,” says SARA spokeswoman Suzanne Scott. “We’re doing a map project to encourage people to travel the San Antonio River basin. We’re talking about canoe landings and staging areas, just starting the process of getting access points to the river.”

With the high price of gasoline, people may not want to travel far for recreation, says Scott. One goal is to inform Bexar County residents about the immense historical attractions just a short drive from San Antonio. “It is not on top of their minds to realize all the history down in the basin; the river is the connection, because it all happened in the San Antonio River basin.”

Initially, Barnhart says, long-time landowners who settled along the San Antonio River were horrified at the thought of hordes of people canoeing on a public waterway that intersects their properties. They envisioned “poachers, trash, and a drunken New Braunfels spring-break crowd. This was the image they had.”

Upriver in the Polish settlement of Panna Maria, getting tourists into canoes and kayaks on the Cibolo and San Antonio watersheds is apparently not a priority.

“The San Antonio River is a wonderful river,

rich in wildlife, but not too accessible

with its steep, muddy banks.

Right now the only person

who can get to it is Tarzan.”

“We gets lots of tourists here,” says Regina Foegelle, a descendant of the 150 Silesian (Polish) families who trekked to settle the countryside in the 1850s. Foegelle volunteers in the Panna Maria Visitor Center across the street from the Catholic church where the chair and chalice that Pope John Paul used for his 1980s visit to San Antonio now resides.

Indeed, tour-bus riders and cyclists who dare to pedal down narrow farm-to-market roads can find a plethora of historical markers in the Polish settlements of Cestohowa, Kosciusko, and Panna Maria, or in nearby Helena, once billed as the meanest town in Texas.

Examples include the little-known history of a Spanish presidio, El Fuerte de Santa Cruz del Cibolo, which played a significant role in Spain’s involvement in the American Revolution. The fortress that once sat near the confluence of Cibolo Creek and the San Antonio River provided cattle to the Spanish missions in San Antonio, but when General Bernardo de Galvez (Galveston is named after him) blockaded the Mississippi River against British warships and laid siege to a British fort in Pensacola, Florida, the fortress in South Texas participated in the first cattle drive eastward to supply the Spanish troops.

The Polish immigration in the 1850s is also thoroughly acknowledged on roadside markers and in history books, as is the story of Helena’s reputation as a late 1800s frontier crossroad fraught with danger. One legend says a stray bullet from a local saloon patron killed a prominent rancher’s son, and the grieving father vowed to kill the town by luring the railroad several miles westward.

There was the Ox Cart War sparked primarily by San Antonio merchants who hired Mexican cart owners to haul freight from coastal ports and destinations in México. Anglo teamsters were angered that San Antonio merchants preferred the less expensive Mexican freighters, and shots were fired in 1857. The Texas Rangers intervened, and in some cases participants ended up dangling from a rope attached to a hanging tree in front of the Goliad County Courthouse.

Former Karnes County Judge Robert Thonhoff researched the story of the presidio, and says with the exception of wagon ruts at Carvajal Crossing, used for centuries by Native American tribes, Spanish explorers and Anglo settlers, he found little evidence of the Spanish fort on the Cibolo Creek.

“An old tomb and other remains were bulldozed in the 1930s,” says Thonhoff, who published “El Fuerte del Cibolo” in 1992. “People were trespassing, and the owner took care of it. There’s the old marker at Cestohowa, but the location was never archaeologically confirmed.”

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Goliad State Park Manager Leah Huth examines a map of planned access for canoes and other boaters along the San Antonio River, upstream from Goliad and the park. Huth has worked with the San Antonio River Authority to develop a survey of the potential to develop the San Antonio Watershed into a major regional tourism and recreation destination.

Even though the presidio is historically significant in Texas and U.S. history, there will likely never be a visitor’s center at the Fuerte del Cibolo site because it is on private property. “It’s virtually impossible to get on the land now,” says Thonhoff.

Downriver in Goliad, Barnhart serves as chair of the Canoe Trail Goliad Committee, a 2-year-old subgroup of the Goliad Heritage Council, which is spearheading the effort to build landings and take-out points at existing highway bridges that cross the San Antonio River.

“The Canoe Trail Goliad Committee is not seeking public funds,” says Barnhart. “We have no public money from the taxing system. Goliad County has no discretionary funds and we’re not trying to acquire land. What we’re about is a simple project whose rewards are bountiful, and SARA is on a quest for social capital. They have a wonderful vision for recreation along the San Antonio River; they have good leadership and the know-how.”

The Texas Department of Transportation owns the right of way for a potential put-in at Charco on Highway 239. Barnhart says it’s about a two-day run to Goliad. Downriver there’s Riverdale, where Hobbits and rivermen alike could launch their canoes under a bridge owned by Goliad County.

Leah Huth, manager of Texas Parks & Wildlife’s Goliad State Park, says the priority is to improve TXDOT-owned property under a bridge on Highway 59, about a half-day’s run downriver to downtown Goliad or to the state park. Huth also has worked with SARA officials in conducting public meetings and preparing an initial survey of potential regional recreation resources.

Another jewel in Goliad’s crown is an old ferry crossing adjacent to the downtown plaza. The city owns a right-of-way on Ferry Street, and plans include a landscaped park and picnic tables, complete with a place to access the river for a short float to the state park.

Die-hard river rats could even float the river downstream toward Tivoli near the Gulf Coast. It would be a two-day trip to Duke’s Crossing, a popular local fishing hole, but there are no accommodations for canoeists, and the trip is recommended only for experienced boaters.

“People are finding improved water quality over the years, and they want to see new canoe areas,” Huth says. “It’s not as perilous, and for canoeists who want peace and solitude, the San Antonio River has it. People don’t equate Goliad with the San Antonio River, but we’re going to change that.”

Word has spread about the river’s canoe-ability. Goliad State Park recently hosted participants in the second Fall Flotilla down the San Antonio River. Eighty-two people, including three canoe clubs, floated down the river in canoes, kayaks, and johnboats. The river ran at 391 cubic feet per second, brisk enough to give boaters a push downriver.

“There was not much paddling done,” Huth says. “It was just a very enjoyable ride.”

By Michael Cary


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