Thursday, July 15, 2010

Research Walk

Yesterday, I got together my maps, my notebook, some fruit in an insulated bag, and a bottle of water, and I took the bus downtown to figure out where Di was living when Len came to town.

See, I had picked Yturri Street because of its proximity to the cotton yards; but I realized that Yturri (a short street in the middle of the bend in the river, comprising an area analogous to St. Mary's Street between Commerce and the old library) would have been part of the area devastated by the flood of March 26, 1865. According to the two and a half columns of coverage in the April 7 Semi-Weekly News, the "freshets of March 26" were a disaster - families homeless, merchandise destroyed, property lost or injured in areas never flooded before, and loss of life.

Mind you, it's difficult for a modern researcher to be sure where this devastation lay. The report printed in the Semi-Weekly News describes the hardest-hit areas as
running across the bend of the river, one from above Mr. Simpson's house to the rear of Dr. Herff's house, which proved so destructive, and the other from about Mr. Gidding's house to Nat Lewis's mill, across Main Street.

As it happens, I know where Nat Lewis's mill was. Not only is it commemorated by one of the Riverwalk's tile historical markers and noted on one of my maps, but I used to work for the local utility company, constructed on what was once known as Bowen's Island near the ford where the mill was located. I remember when Betty Farlow put together a display about the history of the site for the company, back in the 80s. She could never interest the corporation in producing a proper historical booklet, but she did enough work to have written one and would pour her findings into my sympathetic and interested ear at lunch. So I know about the mill, the ford, the Turnverein, the nude bathing off the bridge - the works. But Giddings, Herff, and Simpson are, if not strangers to me (certainly not Giddings, operator of the Jackass Mail), not people I'm on visiting terms with.

Still, Bowen's Island is adjacent to Yturri Street and Main is a couple of blocks west of it, so I would either have to choose another street or enter the complication that when Len goes to the address she has for Di, in order to inform her of her father's death, neither Di nor her house will be there. I chose the complication because, face it, everybody gets lost their first time in San Antonio. I'm not sure how to make this into a way to advance the plot, but that's the sort of thing I can figure out as I go. First thing's first: find where Di and the Middletons moved to, and figure out how hard it will be to track them down.

So off I went, tramping through the streets, map in hand, constantly comparing it to the existing streets. In a couple of places I found helpful historical markers - at the German-English School and at the site of Guenther's Upper Mill - that made it easier to peel back the layers of time to the right year. At the Upper Mill, for example, I found that the mill wouldn't have been there - since Mauermann made his map in 1868, it shows features that wouldn't have existed three years earlier, and this is one of them. The mill was razed for river widening in 1924 - so this tells me not only that the map is "wrong" on this point, but that the river I see today is wider than the river Len will see if she has occasion to go that far south. But wait, there's more! Set into the ground a few yards from the mill marker are a couple of stones, marked "Stribling House 1859-1926;" and between them is a huge black walnut tree. So - no mill, but a substantial house with a stone foundation where the owner has planted a black walnut!

I am tolerably familiar with downtown San Antonio. I lived there, in a now-gone apartment across the street from the Southwest Craft Center and the former KMOL studios (now WOAI-TV) for the crucial years between dropping out of Trinity University and moving in with Damon. Most of the jobs I've had, temporary or permanent, were downtown. When a convention I'm interested in comes to town, like ALA, TLA, or IRA, it's in the convention center across from the German English school. And when visitors come to town, I'm their native guide. I've even done walking research there before, in order to see what Ada and Amber saw when they switched places across time in Switching Well. I can tell you ghost stories, history stories, movie stories, any kind of story you'd like about the heart of San Antonio - and still, the light bulbs kept coming on over my head as I realized - oh, that's what they did with that street; oh, this is where I am; oh, here's where that was.

I never realized before that the famous Market House, a honey of a building cooled by fountains and designed to look like a massive Greek temple, was built on the flood channel. It hadn't struck me that either the old cathedral had to be oriented differently from the new one, or that parishioners had to cross the Main Acequia to get in the front door. I hadn't noticed that Dolorosa Street, rather than turning into Market Street, becomes the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and continues as that little alley behind the old library.

And I finally realize just how wrongheaded it was to continue the line of Navarro Street as South St. Mary's; requiring, as it did, that St. Mary's Street be laid out to turn sharply eastward (about in line with the old bend in the river that delineated Bowen's Island) in order to join up with an existing street that continued the line of Navarro (only it wasn't Navarro at that point; it was Paso). For years I've been repeating the local story blaming St. Mary's Street's bewildering layout - running north, south, east, and west all in the course of a single mile - on the burro drivers who fell asleep on their way home and let the animals find their own way; but in this part of town, at least, blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the city engineers.

I'm not going to lay it all out for you in tedious detail. This is sort of place geekery should be done in person, and if you ever want a native guide to San Antonio, give me a call - we're in the book. It's enough to know that I understand the town I love better, and I found exactly the right neighborhood and type of house the Middletons and Di will relocate to, at exorbitant rent, after the flood. I also know exactly where the Plaza Hotel was, where the James Vance family lived (historical marker - corner of modern Nueva and S. Main, then Nueva and Acequia streets, only Acequia didn't run that far) and have a good sense of the cotton yards. I still need to locate some livery stables, an office for Julian Middleton, and no doubt other sites I don't know about yet.

But I know enough to get Len well and truly lost, and that'll do to go on with. It was an excellent morning's work (do not ever devote a summer afternoon to a research walk in San Antonio if you value your health!) and I wrote a fair amount today. I look forward to doing it again.

And again.

And again.


  1. Gee, somehow I missed the inauguration of this blog. Oh, well, far from the most important thing I have failed to notice.

    Thanks for your comment at mine, BTW.

  2. You couldn't be expected to notice something that I took no particular care to inform you of. When I followed you I thought you might click the profile and find the blog, but you're not part of my writing community so it didn't seem legitimate to make a point of telling you about it.

    When you think about it, you're my pre-internet internet connection, though, so maybe I should have. Come over as often as you want. And when you have the authorial blues, you know how to reach me.