Feature Living downstream

SARA looks at recreation options for the lower San Antonio

Editor's Note: In March, the Current published two stories about the San Antonio River Authority's plans to restore and revive the San Antonio River. This is the third of three parts about that revitalization. Here are links to the previous stories, "Mission control" and "No Dick's need apply."

Twelve years ago, Devy and Mark Collins bought a two-story mansion built of river stone just north of Sutherland Springs on F.M. 539, along the Cibolo Creek. They collected a pile of rocks and have hired a stonemason to rebuild the old eight-room house, known as the Polley Mansion, built by slaves over four years beginning in 1847.

The Highway 97 bridge crosses over the San Antonio River near Floresville. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

"Descendants `of Austin Colony settler Joseph Henry Polley` stop by now and then," says Devy. "And a busload of Asians came by on a tour. They snapped a bunch of photos."

The Collins family might have remained undisturbed by city slickers on their piece of high ground, where there's always a cooling breeze even in a 100-degree summer. But the Polley Mansion was mentioned during a May 25 meeting at La Vernia City Hall that sounded out residents on the San Antonio River Authority's Basin Plan for Nature Based Park Resources. A series of three meetings were conducted for residents of Bexar, Goliad, Karnes, and Wilson counties, which surround the San Antonio River watershed, including the Cibolo Creek and the Medina River and their tributaries. The meetings signified Phase II of the plan, which was more focused than the general discussions that occurred during Phase I.

According to the San Antonio River Authority website, which outlines the survey, "the plan will identify each community's park resources and is intended to bring the communities together to form a regional system of recreational, educational, and economic development opportunities" in the four-county region.

SARA is examining the area as a whole, researching municipal, county, and regional parks and recreation plans, cultural centers, history, and character, with an eye to constructing a master plan for economic development, heritage, ecology, and recreational tourism.

The river authority vows to remain "respectful of individual property owners" as it develops river recreation opportunities through public and private partnerships, strategies and funding sources.

"Nobody takes a two-week vacation anymore," says Emilie Ailts, a consultant with Marketing Support of Denver, Colorado, who led the meeting in La Vernia. She points out that many people are willing to drive 30 to 50 miles when they want to enjoy the outdoors, or visit historical towns in South Texas.

"We will endeavor to bring people back to the water," says Ailts. "You want to recapture the gathering place; that is our very intention. We want to identify where people can put in canoes, kayaks, and bring the community together, bring back trade and economic health."

An old metal vault rusts away in the old bank building in Sutherland Springs New Town. The area featured a nearby hot/cold springs resort at the turn of the 20th century. New Town and the resort were destroyed by a 1913 flood in Cibolo Creek.

For decades, waterways in the region have been dumping grounds, but people are returning to the rivers. "Water makes people feel whole," says Ailts. "What we want to do is create a spot of interest along the river, a total experience, even for more than one day."

Longtime La Vernia resident Ewald Koepp Jr. says he remembers a spot along the Cibolo Creek that, in the old days, was a popular swimming hole, a place where neighbors conducted church picnics and baptized people. "The highway bridge now bypasses that," says Koepp. "It is choked with weeds, and there is no longer any access to the campground. Can we get some of that back?"

Recovering Cibolo Creek might be difficult, and could be a challenge to SARA's recreational river plan. La Vernia Mayor Bradford Beck says flooding has increased along the creek upstream, affecting the town. "The Schertz bypass dumps water on La Vernia and the Cibolo Creek washes out the banks. It's bad (flooding since 1997)." He also cites increased development of new homes upstream all the way to Boerne, with no effective flood control in place yet along the Cibolo.

Tambria Read is a Floresville High School art and English as a second language teacher who commutes to work from Sutherland Springs. She also owns numerous properties on the Cibolo Creek watershed that were collectively known as New Town. At the turn of the 20th century, New Sutherland Springs featured a bank, a dry goods store, a hotel, a Galveston and San Antonio Railroad depot, a "motion-picture theater," and several homes.

The Sutherland Springs Development Corp. built a resort along the Cibolo Creek, which was served by a railroad from San Antonio, and featured "the largest group of mineral springs in America," according to a corporation advertisement. The resort offered fishing, boating, and bathing in "sulphur, iron and sour waters (hot and cold) that will cure any curable disease" and a sulphur-spring fed Olympic-sized pool. The nearby Hotel Sutherland served the resort's many guests, who tasted water from the largest spring in the creek.

But bad luck thundered downstream in 1913, when a Cibolo Creek flood destroyed New Town, including the resort's sanitorium and the Sutherland Springs Development Corp. The resort was later rebuilt, but the tourists never returned.

Nothing but bloodweed currently grows on the resort property, now owned by Read's cousin, Anne Foerster and her brother. And the buildings of New Town lie in ruins in clusters of trees and undergrowth. The vicinity was inundated by 8 feet of water after the flood in October 1998.

Dilapidated buildings are part of the landscape in the San Antonio River watershed south of San Antonio. This old rock house stands just outside the Polish settlement of Panna Maria, with the tree-lined San Antonio River in the background.

Foerster and Read could benefit from collaborating with the San Antonio River Authority to convert the properties to a privately owned park resource. "There is lots of flood debris from 1998 and 2002," says Read. "Crews cleaned up around bridges, but they didn't do much else."

Read and her cousin want to develop their land into hiking and birding trails and a campground. "Highway 539 has a lot of potential for historical tours; there are lots of sites, and it is a well-known wildflower road," Read says.

SARA has displayed its willingness to partner with local entities in Wilson County. SARA, which once was charged with making the San Antonio River navigable and currently is responsible for flood control, joined with Wilson County to develop the 50-acre Jackson Nature Park on the Cibolo Creek just outside Stockdale, which is farther east on Highway 87.

In Floresville, which lies to the south along Highway 181, there's a new hike-and-bike trail and the old Rancho de las Cabras, which raised cattle, goats, horses, and donkeys for San Antonio's Espada Mission. The National Park Service now maintains the historic site and opens it to visitors on the first Saturday of the month.

Farther south, former Poth mayor Gene Maeckle has not attended any of SARA's meetings, but says people are waiting to see what is included in its master plan. Maeckle currently is the chairman of the Wilson County Historical Society, which oversees the historical Dewees-Rimschel House. It was moved from the town square in Gonzales (H-E-B was planning to bulldoze it) to 100 acres near the San Antonio River in Poth. "We'd like to develop the 100 acres to a birding/wildlife area," says Maeckle. Currently, the two-story house is rented out for social functions such as wedding receptions, or family reunions. "We believe we're close enough to the river that SARA could give us a little assistance."

Another historical feature in the Poth/Falls City area along Highway 181 that could factor in the SARA master plan is the Conquista Crossing, below the San Antonio River's confluence with the Medina River. The SARA plan mentions connecting Medina River Park on the Southwest Side of San Antonio with areas downstream for canoeing and kayaking. Although the crossing currently lies on private property, Maeckle says a lot of people remember picnicking and camping near the crossing. Conquista Crossing, with its solid rock bottom that reportedly still has wagon ruts in it, was a major crossing on the La Bahia Road that connected San Antonio to Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espirítu Santo near present-day Goliad. Maeckle says that although the crossing is privately owned the river is a public waterway; canoists could put in at a river crossing between Campbellton and Falls City, which is state property, and float downriver from there.

Randy Hohlaus is an architect with Kell-Muñoz Architects in San Antonio and a member of the Alamo City Rivermen, a group of canoe enthusiasts (www.alamocityrivermen.org). He has canoed the river from Blue Star Arts Complex in San Antonio to Floresville and points farther south. "You can go all the way to the coast. The river very near the coast flows into the Guadalupe River before it hits San Antonio Bay. You have to watch out for logjams and tree falls to scurry over, but you can go to the bay."

Some of the best sections of the river to canoe are near Poth and Falls City, which gets its name from a waterfall on the San Antonio River. "That's a pretty neat stretch of the river," says Hohlaus. "It could be a real attraction for people, and it is pretty well undiscovered."

Hohlaus says the San Antonio River is an easy, flat-water river that families could put a boat in. "The water quality has had a bad rap, but lately it is decent. The water is green, but definitely good. There are easy floats for day trips; for novice or beginning canoeists."

Closer to home, Hohlaus says the San Antonio River would make for good canoeing if only San Antonio would let enough water run downstream. "Where the San Antonio River leaves Blue Star and runs to Loop 1604 could be a really interesting run because it has a good amount of fall (drop in elevation), with lots of little features. But the big problem is water quantity. There is so little water assigned to keeping the river in a viable state in that section until it meets the confluence with the Medina River. It is often difficult to navigate with a canoe. It would be quite an interesting stretch to canoe, if there were enough water."

SARA and a handful of hired consulting firms have identified the top recreational activities: picnic areas, playgrounds, public event venues, camping, relaxing, hunting, and fishing, followed by walking, jogging, running, biking, swimming, and tubing.

SARA officials plan to conduct another series of public meetings in August or September and will publish updated research on its website, sara-tx.org.

This is a new approach to studying the community recreation that needs to be developed beyond the next 10 to 15 years, says Ailts. "A regional plan would build on the strength of the area, and we will look at it as a whole. We are getting a picture of what the needs of the river valley are."

The San Antonio watershed could be transformed into more than just a place to let storm water roll downstream from San Antonio to the Gulf of Mexico. It could someday bring the people back to the water that was vital to the indigent populations that lived in the region for centuries, and to the later European colonials, who explored and settled in South Texas beginning in the 18th century, building homes like the Polley ranch, where Devy and Mark Collins are raising their six children.

By Michael Cary

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