One of the most iconic features of San Antonio, especially from the outside looking in, is the River Walk.
As a hub of restaurants, hotels, public spaces and storefronts, as well as a unique combo of park and thoroughfare through which to traverse and experience the core of the city, it has long been a focus of tourism in the Alamo City, beginning with its official dedication at the first annual Fiesta River Parade in 1941. But with developments over the recent past, from the Pearl and the Museum Reach to the Mission Reach expansion, the River Walk has increasingly become a favorite destination for locals too. It now spans 15 continuous, charming, walkable miles.
The history of the river, as distinct from the River Walk per se, is long and rich enough to merit its own article (or book-length treatment). The San Antonio River was called Yanaguana (“refreshing/life-giving water”) by the native Payaya tribe, whose livelihood centered largely on the river and its source The Blue Hole (now on the grounds of the nature sanctuary Headwaters at Incarnate Word).
The Payaya and other tribes used the Yanaguana for water, transportation, food and more, for thousands of years before the Spanish are thought to have first visited the area in the 1500s. For these original peoples, the river was so important that it was even a significant part of their spiritual lives.
In 1691, the river was named San Antonio because Domingo Terán de los Ríos, the first governor of the Province of Texas, wanted to commemorate a Saint Anthony’s Day mass he celebrated there. Not too long after that, in 1718, then governor Martín de Alarcón founded a new city here in that same name.
For the next 200 years or so, under Spanish, Mexican, sovereign, Confederate, and U.S. rule, missions and other settlements were built, trade was carried out, wars and not-quite-wars raged, the population swelled, and floods occasionally brought disaster to those closest to the river’s banks.
In 1914, River Park, a new, mile-long, landscaped portion of the downtown riverside, proved popular among locals and visitors alike. This was really the conceptual beginning of what we think of as the River Walk today.
Then, September 9, 1921 brought a historic 23-hour downpour that flooded some 1,000 acres of San Antonio. The city began to take flood preparation much more seriously after this event, which led to the creation of several projects — including the Olmos Dam and a bypass channel to divert water underground instead of into the city’s center — that had the effect of safeguarding the area surrounding the river.
This spawned optimism concerning the future of the River Park idea. When the River Walk debuted in 1941, San Antonians, along with the rest of the nation, were largely focused, especially after Pearl Harbor in December of that year, on World War II. A few developments were made in the 1940s and early 1950s, but things really took off right before and after San Antonio’s World’s Fair, HemisFair 1968, as businesses and hotels seized upon what they saw as a quick opportunity to cash in, with possible longterm perks.
Expansion and improvements on the River Walk were completed in King William in 1968 as well.
The improvements made for HemisFair 1968, from the convention center and theater to the business developments, significantly improved the city’s convention and tourism allure moving forward.
In 1988, with development on the River Walk still booming, Rivercenter Mall opened.
With the city and all concerned parties now fully aware of the unique potential of the River Walk, significant expansions have been almost continuously occurring for the past 30 years.
The River Walk, as it exists today, is not only the center of our city’s tourism industry, but, it just might be capable of revealing some important truths about our city, its people and its history. If you walk it nice and slow from Brackenridge Park to the Pearl, from the Museum Reach to the newly remodeled Convention Center, from King William to Mission Espada — what you’ll find, if you’re paying attention, is a surprisingly nuanced glimpse into the soul of a city in the midst of celebrating its 300th birthday.