The History of Roads and Bridges in San Antonio
and South Central Texas up to 1944

This chapter focuses on the development of roads and bridges in San Antonio from the first bridge over the river up to 1944. As early as 1775, there were three categories of roads in Texas. There were urban streets, farm to market or rural roads, and main roads between towns, often referred to as highways, a word that goes back to the days when the most direct routes between towns were built near to rivers and longer routes with less shade and access to water for oxen and mules were built on higher ground. The highway was less convenient for local traffic but was less likely to be rendered impassable when it rained. By law, all roads between county seats in Texas were supposed to be first class, which was defined as forty feet wide and cleared of all obstructions. In the less inhabited parts of the state, the army was charged with maintaining postal roads between the series of forts that were built to maintain security in the area. In the more settled areas it was a county responsibility. Many farmers maintained the roads in lieu of taxes but their efforts were not always easy to discern.
Early bridges in San Antonio
First all purpose bridge, made of wood, over the river in San Antonio, at Commerce Street, built in 1842
First all traffic iron bridge in San Antonio, installed on Houston street in 1871.
First all purpose iron bridge at Commerce Street Street in San Antonio, installed in the 1880s
First iron bridge at Commerce Street in San Antonio, 1880s
Second iron bridge on Commerce Street taken 1890
Commerce Street bridge in San Antonio, 1895
Old style foot bridge over the San Antonio river near Hot Wells, 1909
Old style foot bridge over the San Antonio river near Hot Wells, 1910
Navarro Street bridge over the San Antonio river

Mill Street road bridge over the San Antonio river
South Loop road bridge over the San Antonio river
From San Antonio's very earliest days in 1718, the thoroughfare between the Alamo and San Fernando cathedral, now called Commerce Street, was the most important thoroughfare in the city. The first wooden bridge suitable for more than pedestrians and light carriages was built over the river in 1841. Replaced with a stronger wooden structure in 1867, Commerce Street was thronged with activity of all kinds. Freight trains of up to thirty wagons, each pulled by teams of oxen and mules, arrived and departed every day. Mixed into this would be street vendors and blacksmiths. The number of mules, horses and oxen must have made the air almost unbearable. Disease carrying flies filled the air. A stroll across Main Square full of grazing animals provided an entirely different experience from today.
More early bridges in San Antonio
Two bridges in Brackenride Park, San Antonio, in 1927
Crowds view amphibious jeeps in the San Antonio river during a World War Two bond drive demonstration
Augusta Street bridge in San Antonio, built in 1890
Augusta Street bridge in San Antonio, built in 1890

Augusta Street bridge in San Antonio, built in 1890
Arsenal Street road bridge over the San Antonio river, 1928
Arsenal Street road bridge over the San Antonio river, 1928
Establishing roads across South Texas

When Comal County was established in 1846, one of the first tasks for the Commissioner’s Court in New Braunfels was to define rights of way. The main arterial route, known as the San Antonio Road, was already "first class" by the standards of the day, as was the old stage route from Seguin, but few others had been created. By 1847 a route to Fredericksburg had been established, with landowners along the way compensated $10 for half an acre and $25 for a full acre. By 1890 routes to Blanco and Boerne had been added. Many landowners maintained the roads on their property in lieu of taxes, keeping them free of brush, weeds and low hanging tree limbs. Persons convicted of misdemeanors either unwilling or unable to pay their fines could also work off their debt by performing road work. Comal also required all able bodied men between twenty-one and forty-five to “donate” several days of labor each year towards road maintenance. When Atascosa (which can be translated as "boggy land that is difficult to cross" County was created in 1856, its population was extremely small. Teams of men were sent out from Pleasanton, the original county seat, to create roads and place markers along them, often simply piles of stones, to indicate the chosen path. But continual use in all conditions soon made the original route so badly churned up that successive wagons were obliged to keep finding less disturbed ground, making it almost impossible to say exactly where the original "road" was supposed to be.
Unpaved roads in San Antonio and South Texas
Two wheeled mule cart in downtown San Antonio
Unpaved street near Travis Park, San Antonio
Wagon train on unpaved roads in Live Oak County

Ox cart at a river in Texas
Freight wagon in Kerrville, Texas
Bexar County had the advantage of a higher population and having always been a destination for travelers, so its roads and highways were well established and traveled so frequently that large rocks and encroaching brush had become less of an issue. It also had higher property values that generated more tax income for the care and maintenance of city streets. Nonetheless, improvements came slowly in San Antonio. Ox carts and mules plied the streets, fording the river to get to the other side when the current allowed. For the first 125 years of the city's existence,only a small number of wooden foot bridges, often crude suspension types, were constructed over the wild, broad, free flowing river. It was not until 1841 that the first bridge strong enough for heavily loaded wagons was installed, connecting old Main and Almeda. When this bridge was replaced by a larger one, still of wooden construction, in 1867, the thoroughfare was renamed Commerce Street. The new bridge was constructed with logs made of cypress and cedar and could support ox carts laden with 5,000 lbs. of freight. In 1851 a second heavy duty bridge was erected, uniting Rivas Street (renamed "Houston Street twenty years later) on the east side of the river, over San Pedro Creek to a narrow foot path known as El Paseo del Rio. Land immediately north of the new route, a few blocks up river from Commerce Street, was still agricultural and supplied most of the compact city’s fruit and vegetables. For many years these were the only street level bridges capable of supporting wagons in San Antonio. A wooden foot bridge at St. Marys Street had been built in 1858. It was replaced in 1869 by the first iron span in the city. The metal pieces for what was still only a pedestrian crossing were hauled to the city in mule drawn wagons. Some of the growing number of locally built wooden foot bridges that followed rested on floating pontoons. When heavy rains increased the river’s flow, one end would be detached to allow them to go with the increased current. The two heavy duty bridges were permanently anchored. When the wooden bridge between what were still known as Rivas and El Paseo was washed away in 1865, the city replaced it with one made of iron in 1871. This was manufactured in St. Louis and hauled in sections, some forty feet long, from Indianola in 1871 by August Santleben, using purpose built wagons which arrived on the same ship as the bridge parts. After it was installed the thoroughfare was renamed Houston Street. The new bridge stood in place for twenty years until it was replaced by a concrete and steel span that was wider, stronger and required less maintenance. The iron bridge was moved up stream to the quieter location of Grand Avenue, where it served for another forty years, by which time that street too had been renamed, as Jones.
Early automobiles and primitive roads in Texas
San Antonio Automobile Club crossing Cibolo Creek en route fro New Braunfels, 1904
L.F. Birdsong at the wheel of a Maxwell on Blanco Road, 1910. Note unpaved road and lack of windshield
Heading towards Bulverde around 1930
Car and family on the main road to San Antonio in the 1920s
The pace of development picks up with the arrival of the railroads

The pace of change accelerated, along with the city’s population, with the arrival of the first railroad in 1877 and another from the north in 1881. The transportation of iron and steel for bridges and taller buildings became much easier and less costly. An attractive iron span soon replaced the wooden bridge on Commerce Street. Introducing streetcars became possible. Cyclists were among the most ardent early campaigners for improved roads. Such efforts led to a number of improvements. Within San Antonio side walks were created and paving stones laid at the intersection of main streets to help pedestrians avoid the inevitable dust or mud from the unpaved streets. Some main roads, such as San Pedro Avenue, were macadamized, which involved laying down courses of stones of diminishing size towards the surface. Downtown streets needed to be watered down every day to keep down the dust. Special streetcars did this first things in the morning. Others were regularly dragged by mule drawn wagons with large spikes to reduce ruts made by heavily loaded wagons. While improvements to San Antonio streets were paid for by residents on a street by street basis and from a small tax on streetcar tickets, roads in and around smaller towns, with their smaller populations, remained primitive.
Road progress and the railroads in San Antonio and South Texas
Unpaved street at Sunset Station around 1904
This is a PR shot from a moving company taken outside the San Antonio Missouri Kansas and Texas railroad station
Parcel and light freight truck, Asherton, Texas. The driver is not wearing a military uniform! This is the company uniform, despite the heat and lack of A/C.
Highway road work crew near railroad tracks
Loading road base into a truck from a train in Atascosa, 1935
Unpaved road near the railroad near Comfort
Fowlerton railroad depot in the 1920s. This depot later lost its original "tower".
Mesquite blocks on San Antonio streets

A decidedly "South Texas" improvement to San Antonio's streets began in the mid 1880s with the laying of hexagonal mesquite blocks on Alamo Plaza. Mesquite was not only abundant, it was inexpensive. In fact it was essentially useless for much of anything else. Today many ranchers regard it as little more than a thirsty weed, but the gnarled wood is fairly durable and resistant to rot, a quality enhanced with the application of creosote. This did not fully discourage swelling following heavy rain, which frequently led to an uneven road surface. This was still considered a huge improvement over the quagmire on Alamo Plaza every time it rained, which gained the nickname "Sweeney’s Mud hole," and was impassable to all traffic. By 1889, Military Plaza and downtown sections of Commerce, Houston, Dolorosa, Market and St. Marys were similarly "paved."
Streets with mesquite blocks in San Antonio
Hexagonal mesquite blocks are clearly visible on Alamo Plaza
Uneven hexagonal mesquite blocks on Alamo Plaza around 1910. Note early tourist bus
Hexagonal mesquite blocks are clearly visible on East Houston. The Majestic Theater now occupies this space
Hexagonal mesquite blocks are clearly visible on Houston Street in San Antonio.
Hexagonal mesquite blocks are clearly visible on Main Plaza in San Antonio in the 1890s
By 1890 the population of San Antonio had reached almost 38,000. In that same year the first traffic control sign, undoubtedly saying either STOP or YIELD, was placed at the intersection of Commerce and Medina Streets, in front of the International & Great Northern railroad station. And St. Marys Street gained a wider iron bridge to replace the old footbridge, increasing the number of all traffic metal bridges over the river to three. In 1891 G.G. Braden became San Antonio’s first sidewalk contractor. Funds from a tax on streetcar tickets took care of one third of the cost. Residents on each side of street were levied their share in proportion to the size of their lots. For an extra fee, high concrete steps could be built in front of houses to assist getting into and out of horse carriages, and such amenities, indicating a certain level of wealth, were very popular. In New Braunfels and elsewhere, downtown streets had sidewalks but were otherwise unimproved. Most, like Comfort, hired a contractor to drag them daily to keep them passable. In Seguin, folks walked along the streetcars tracks on Austin Street to keep out of the mud when it rained.
Alamo Plaza over the years
Alamo Plaza in the 1880s
Small ox wagons at Hugo & Schmeltzer, Commerce and Navarro streets, San Antonio
Alamo Plaza in the 1880s
Alamo Plaza, 1885
Looking north towards Alamo Plaza, 1890
Alamo Street, San Antonio, as yet unpaved, around 1890
Alamo Plaza around 1895
Alamo Plaza, as yet unpaved, around 1890
Alamo Plaza around 1900
Alamo Plaza
Alamo Plaza
Alamo Plaza
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, around 1910
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, around 1917
Alamo Plaza, 1918
Alamo Plaza, 1918
1918 Alamo Christmas scene
Welcome Tourists sign on Alamo Plaza
1918 image of the original Ford dealership immediately beside the Alamo
Ford Model T at the Alamo, 1919
1913 Ford Model T at the Alamo decorated for an event in 1919
Bus at the Alamo in the early 1920s
Woolworth building across from the Alamo in San Antonio circa 1921
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, around 1922
Street cleaning equipment, Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 1926
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 1928
Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 1928
Alamo Street, 1928
Alamo Plaza, 1930s
Alamo Plaza, 1935
Alamo Plaza, 1936
Alamo Plaza, 1936
Alamo Plaza, 1936
Alamo Plaza, 1944
First paved street in San Antonio - 1898

In 1898 a small section of Market Street on either side of St. Mary's Street in San Antonio became one of the first streets in Texas to be given a top layer of asphalt. A similar experiment was undertaken in downtown Houston. The material came from the only naturally occurring asphalt mine in Texas. Located near Uvalde, the operation ran until 1935. (Today asphalt is a manufactured blend of oil and crushed limestone.) The natural asphalt was applied quite crudely for several blocks by the Parker-Washington contracting company. Modern methods are quite more advanced than this first attempt to see how the material would fare in a busy intersection section of a major Texas city. In fact the original application stayed smooth and impervious until 1910 when it was replaced during a $220,000.00 street widening project.
Main Plaza in San Antonio
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1861
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1872
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1877
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1900
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1908
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1908
San Fernado Cathedral, Main Plaza, San Antonio, around 1920
San Fernado Cathedral, Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1927
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1930s
San Fernado Cathedral, Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1936
Main Plaza, San Antonio, 1939
By 1900 there were some twenty-four bridges over the still meandering San Antonio River. There were around eight thousand horseless carriages in America, but the pace of production was increasing rapidly. The first horseless carriage on record in San Antonio was an electric, delivered to the showrooms of the Staacke Brothers on Commerce Street. (It's most likely that Montgomery Ward brought in an electric vehicle demonstrator in 1897, but absolute confirmation has not be be established. The first gasoline powered automobile appeared in San Antonio in 1901. The San Antonio Automobile Club was formed in 1902 with thirteen charter members. That same year, Emil Seeliger of Lockhart acquired a car. The first car drove through Uvalde in 1904 and four were acquired by local residents the same year. Dr. C. Jones brought the first automobile to Comfort, a two cylinder Maxwell, in 1906.
Commerce Street images
"Look-back" newspaper article about the dangers of galloping across the Commerce Street bridge in San Antonio
Commerce Street, San Antonio, 1854
Commerce Street in San Antonio before it was paved
Small ox wagons at Hugo & Schmeltzer, Commerce and Navarro streets, San Antonio
Commerce Street, San Antonio, in the 1870s
Commerce Street, San Antonio, in the 1870s
Commerce Street at Military Plaza, San Antonio, 1870s
Commerce Street in San Antonio
Commerce Street in San Antonio, 1890
Commerce Street in San Antonio, 1890
Commerce Street in San Antonio, 1892
Commerce Street in San Antonio
Commerce Street in San Antonio around 1900
Commerce Street at Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 1905
Commerce Street, San Antonio, 1910
Commerce Street, San Antonio, 1914
Commerce Street, San Antonio, 1920
Commerce Street in San Antonio, 1935
Commerce Street, San Antonio, 1942
Projects to widen San Antonio's old narrow and crooked streets

The pace of development of San Antonio into a truly modern city really picked up after 1910. The project to widen Commerce Street, begun n 1914, is a watershed in the city’s history, the defining point where the city shifted from narrow, unpaved streets to modern, uniformly wide thoroughfares stretching well beyond the confines of the historic city center based around Main Square at San Fernando Cathedral and Alamo Plaza. From its earliest days Commerce Street was noisy and congested and decidedly foul smelling, with hundreds of oxen and mules, warehouses, blacksmiths, saddlers and livery services catering to the large amount of freight entering and leaving the city every day. It was so crowded that it was not possible to operate streetcars through its confined space. Houston Street was newer and wider. Every streetcar route began and ended there. Soon Houston Street eclipsed the older road, becoming the premier location for shopping and other businesses.
San Antonio street improvement projects
Widening Commerce Street in San Antonio around 1914
Moving the only recently constructed Alamo National Bank building on Commerce Street, San Antonio, during the street widening project around 1914
Commerce Street once widened, from tourism brochure
Widening Alamo Plaza in San Antonio around 1914. Note sheared off frontage on the left and Joskes on the right
Widening Soledad Street in San Antonio.
Early San Antonio road works
Street widening on Commerce Street near Sunset Station
Asphalt plant in Bexar County, 1921
Road construction on Nolan Street, San Antonio
During the four year widening project on Commerce Street many buildings were either totally demolished or lost several yards of their original structure. A few had their frontages carefully removed and then rebuilt. Only one, the new five story Alamo National Bank building, was physically raised and moved back while work continued uninterrupted within it. The costs were staggering. Widening the street to a consistent forty feet and adding twelve feet wide sidewalks on each side alone came to $411,000.00, of which the city paid $90,000.00, $221,000.00 were raised in bonds and over $100,000.00 by popular donations. Moving back the fronts of buildings cost an additional $450,000.00. With the movement of the bank building the entire project came to almost $1.5 Million. This is the equivalent to around $21 Million in today’s money. The city took pride in the transformation being undertaken to keep San Antonio as the number one city in Texas.
Houston Street images
Very early image of Houston Street in San Antonio
Houston Street in San Antonio, as seen from Alamo Plaza, 1910
Houston Street from Alamo Plaza, 1910
Houston Street around 1914 from tourism brochure
Houston Street in San Antonio
Houston Street in San Antonio, flooded, 1913
Houston Street in San Antonio
Houston Street in San Antonio around 1914
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1929
Houston Street in San Antonio circa 1930
Houston Street in San Antonio circa 1930
Houston Street in San Antonio
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1929
Houston Street, San Antonio, 1936
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1939
Houston Street covered in snow, San Antonio, 1939
Houston Street, San Antonio, 1940
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1944
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1944
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1944
Houston Street in San Antonio, 1944
Along with widening of Commerce Street, there came the creation of Broadway, a wide route to the north, which unified and replaced River Avenue and Avenue C in 1914. Soledad Street had been widened in 1910, at a cost of $400,000.00, causing the loss of the historic Veramandi Palace. This building, built in the 1770s, had been the site of many historic events. James Bowie lived there briefly with his new wife, the daughter of the Spanish Governor, for whom the building was known. In 1835 Ben Milam had been shot within its grounds by a sniper during the struggle for Texas independence. An adobe structure, the so called palace was in very poor condition. It was first threatened with demolition in 1893, followed by a second attempt in 1897. It took the widening of the road to seal the building's fate. The demolition of significant buildings would continue for many years. In 1927, when Market Street was widened from thirty-five to seventy feet, the venerable Market House was demolished. The Guilbeau House on Main Street, built in 1847, suffered one indignity after another. It first lost its spacious front gardens when the road was widened in 1929. All of a sudden, streams of cars were just a few feet from the front door. It became an officers club during World War two but ownership by the city since 1941 was not enough to save it and it was razed in 1952 to make way for a post office parcel sorting station. The site of Federal Reserve building on Main Street was once occupied by the very charming Vance building. Built in 1859, it too had been acquired by the city. In 1939 it housed the State Employment Service offices. In 1952 it was replaced with a conspicuously unattractive concrete box unloved by anyone to this day.
San Antonio buildings lost to street widening projects
The Veramandi Palace in San Antonio was lost to a street widening project
Market House in San Antonio was lost to a street widening project, leading to the creation of the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1924
Market building on Commerce Street, demolished and replaced with the still standing Mercado building
Veramandi Palace on Dolorosa Street, San Antonio, lost to a street widening project. The doors in this image are on display within the Alamo
Vance building on South Main, replaced with a 1960s concrete box that housed the Federal Reserve until recently
Paying for road improvements

Funding road construction has always been a political football. Everybody wants better roads and fewer potholes but the money is always a very difficult issue. The first attempt to pass national legislation that would provide funds to states and create a federal agency to create uniformity of construction was made in 1911, the same year the idea of a transportation department at the state level in Texas was put forward. Neither campaign was initially successful. Until these institutions came into being, each county was left to go it alone, using funds from fees and property taxes to build the best roads they knew how. In 1915 when the main road through Uvalde was graded and macadamized for the first time, San Antonio had 307 miles of hard surfaced streets at a cost of $2,900.00 per mile, 381 of Macadam construction, 36 miles of graded dirt roads and 25 of clay and sand. Finding money for streets and roads was comparatively easy in what was the largest city in Texas. San Antonio had a trade area of at least sixty counties, an area the size of Ohio, with 850,000 residents. The first city road bonds had been issued in 1904, for $500,000.00, followed in 1907 by a further $250,000.00. In 1913 bonds to the tune of $1 million were issued. This increased to $1.5 million in 1915.
Primitive Texas Roads in the early automobile era
Ford Model T being pulled through the muddy main road to San Antonio
Ford Model T being 0n a muddy main road to San Antonio
Franklin sedan on a road in the Hill Country
Franklin sedan on a road in the Hill Country
1920 Dodge in the Hill Country
And yet, despite all this expenditure, many people in San Antonio believed more could and should be done to improve both city streets and regional highways. Following the early lead of cyclists, car clubs staged events to demonstrate the need for better roads. One of the best known was “The Farm and Ranch Tour,” organized by Farm and Ranch Magazine publisher, Frank Holland, who put up a $1,000.00 prize to encourage participation. On July 22, 1912, twenty six cars set out from Dallas across the heart of the state. They stayed overnight in Austin on the 23rd. The following day the remaining twenty-three cars arrived in San Antonio. Each runabout was obliged to carry one or more passengers and touring cars at least four. They were all wined and dined by local dignitaries while their vehicles remained on Alamo Plaza overnight before heading to Galveston and then back to Dallas. Civic pride was also used as a motivator. August 10, 1913 was declared “Good Roads Day” by the Bexar County Highway League, one of the largest automobile associations in the state. Led by David E. Culp, whose enthusiasm led him to be a member of around 100 motoring associations, the call went out to local citizens from San Antonio and Austin and all points in between to come out and work on the highway. The effort in New Braunfels was led its Good Roads Club secretary, Martin Faust. Despite the heat of a Texas summer, volunteers were asked to bring their own shovels and other tools to work on the highway and demonstrate support for better roads in their area.
San Antonio highway improvement projects
Excavating an underpass beneath MK&T tracks in San Antonio, 1936
Finishing off a drainage culvert in San Antonio in the 30s
Moving a tree during road widening on Rigsby Avenue in San Antonio in the 30s
San Antonio becomes a national crossroads

Click image for separate page about the Old Spanish Trail in San Antonio

San Antonio became an important national cross-roads with the dawning of the automobile age. Mirroring railroad development thirty years earlier, the city became a significant destination on many major north-south highways. The best known of these today is the "Old Spanish Trail" - See linked page - which became the first southern transcontinental route, running from the Atlantic in Florida to the Pacific in California. First proposed in 1915, it would take over ten years to complete. The next route to include San Antonio was the "Glacier to Gulf Motorway." which was begun around 1924. The route began in Calgary, Canada, and ended in Brownsville, Texas, running through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, via Amarillo, Lubbock, San Angelo, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi. There was also a subsidiary route from San Antonio to Galveston, via Beeville and Victoria. San Antonio was on two more routes originating in Canada. Another was called the "King of Trails." Its symbol was the letters KT on a yellow background. This route ran almost directly south from Winnipeg, through Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma and then through Dallas, Waco and Austin before sharing the same route as the Glacier Highway to Brownsville. And yet another, the "Meridian Highway," also began in Winnipeg but ran through the Dakotas and Kansas, then Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and down to Laredo.
Tourist Trails in the 1920s

Early newspaper report of a trial run from Niagara Falls to San Antonio
Texas guide to highway trail markers
Good roads delegation visiting Port Lavaca
1916 Federal Road Aid Act

San Antonio maps & aerial view

San Antonio map, 1886
San Antonio map, 1891
San Antonio map, 1903
San Antonio main exit routes map, 1932
San Antonio , 1939
A huge step forward in the creation of the modern highway system came in 1916 with the passage of the Federal Road Aid Act, the first significant federal legislation to address the need for better roads in the automobile age. The Bureau of Public Roads was set up within the Department of Agriculture in 1893 but was provided little authority or funding. In 1907 the US Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had the right to create interstate highways under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. Funds for post roads were included in the 1912 Post Office Department Appropriations Act. In Texas federal money went to creating the sixteen foot wide macadam Post Road between San Antonio and Austin, which for years was touted as the best road in the state. However, many southern states, including Texas, resented Federal interference, particularly with regards to enforcing fair and equal labor practices. This led to widespread southern opposition to any further efforts to involve central government in more highway projects. Nonetheless, after four years of wrangling, the 1916 Act became law. It included an obligation on the part of all states wishing to receive federal assistance to have a department of transportation and so, in 1917, Texas, resisting to the end, became one of the last states in the nation to create such an agency. The earliest had been Massachusetts in 1894. The purpose of the new department in Texas was two fold. It was to employ qualified engineers to oversee the construction and upgrading of roads to federal standards, if federal funds were involved, but also allowed the state to employ workers on its own terms. This included the use of prisoners in chain gangs, as it did in other states. The practice in Texas was mainly confined to the eastern part of the state and ended in 1925.
Early Driving Hazards in Texas
Car navigating the main road from San Antonio to Corpus Christi
Washed out steel frame bridge, 1921
Texas Department of Transportation formed in 1917

When the Texas Department of Transportation, often referred to as TxDOT, was formed there were almost two hundred thousands automobiles and trucks in the state. San Antonio became the headquarters of one of the original six road department divisions in Texas. In 1918 the first stretch of highway in Texas to be given an asphalt surface was a twenty-five mile stretch near San Marcos on the Post Road between San Antonio and Austin, now officially called Route 2. At the same time, while almost no roads outside of cities had a hard surface, many were graded and provided with better drainage, and the state speed limit was increased from eighteen to twenty-five miles per hour. Seventy-five million dollars was allocated for roads across the nation in the 1916 Act. Five million was spent in the first year alone. Projects were to funded with matching funds provided by Federal and state governments. A long standing debate over what kind of roads should be given priority had been raging since the first horseless carriages hit the roads. Many wanted long, wide, paved roads between towns and cities to allow faster speeds and heavier trucks. Others demanded that farm to market roads were the most important in what was still very much a rural country. Railroads were strongly in favor of the latter as they would allow farmers to bring their produce to depots in trucks, reducing the need for countless branch lines while, at the same time, stifling the development of longer range heavy trucks which were already beginning to appear. The heated debate was somewhat brought under control in 1921 with a revision to Federal law that stated that no more than 7% of roads in each state could be interstate in character. However, like any good compromise, the allocation of monies told a different story. Recognizing that most driving would actually be done on these new arterial highways, up to 60% of spending could be allocated towards such roads.
Texas Highway Improvement Projects
Horse drawn road making equipment, 1921
Unimproved road in Texas, 1924
Road prior to highway construction, Atascosa County, 1935
Mules dragging the road during construction of HWY 66 in Atascosa, 1935
Texas route numbers

To begin with, each state came up with its own numbering systems. The route between Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth and the state border with Oklahoma was Highway 2. Highway 3 ran from Lake Charles at the Louisiana Border through Houston to San Antonio and on to Del Rio and Marfa. At Van Horn it merged with Highway One, from Fort Worth, to reach El Paso. The road to Corpus via Floresville and Beeville was Highway 16. The road to Fredericksburg via Boerne and Comfort was Highway 9. Many old time Hill Country residents still refer to the road to San Antonio as Old Number 9. But there was almost no cooperation between states when it came to roads numbers, leading to a great deal of confusion, as the number of most roads changed when you crossed a state line.
Early Texas Highway Maps
Very early San Antonio street map
916 Rand McNally auto trails map detail. Note lack of route numbers.
Highways proposed by the newly formed Texas State Highways Department, 1917
San Antonio detail of 1936 road map showing old and new route numbers
Highway direction signs

Until the state took full responsibility for road signs, it was left to each town and sometimes even individuals to take care of them. The New Braunfels VFW post, under the leadership of WW1 veteran Joe Sanders, also chief vehicle mechanic and chauffeur at the Dittlinger Flour Mills, began to place hand made signs along country roads and at intersections around the town for the benefit of the growing number of motorists in the area. Long before Canyon Lake was created, folks were seeking out the cool waters of the Guadalupe River for recreation and relaxation. River Road, along the Guadalupe, despite the lack of either pavement or bridges was as a popular route for a Sunday drive, by now an established national pastime. Much to the dismay of the VFW volunteers, who painstakingly measured distances, built, painted and erected the road signs, many were immediately vandalized or simply removed, either by local teenagers or older residents who did not welcome the intrusion of so many city dwellers near their property.
Early Texas Highway Signs
Soldiers clown around on San Antonio road sign circa 1920
Early road sign for Kerrville
Famous "Drive Friendly" sign in Hondo
Dual language warning signs on the road from San Antonio to Laredo, 1937
In 1922 Congress set about making sure that the near disastrous transportation experiences encountered by the military during World War One would not be repeated. During the conflict railroads became so entangled that the government had to take them over, although the problem was more a lack of suitably long sidings than anything else. Troop and material movements over the nation’s underdeveloped road systems were almost as bad. Repeated long convoys of heavy trucks, most of which had solid tires, quickly ruined unpaved roads and lightweight bridges. To rectify this situation a national network of military highways was proposed. Harral Ayres, as the state leader of the Old Spanish Trail Association, and a civilian representative of San Antonio, one of the most important military cities in the country, successfully lobbied Washington politicians that the entire length of the OST be so designated; ensuring increased federal funding for its construction and improvement.
Early Highway scenes near San Antonio
Military trucks heading towards Camp Bullis
Austin Highway on the then outskirts of San Antonio in the 1920s
Smith Chevrolet sign on Highway 3, 6 miles out of San Antonio
State gas tax finally provides enough money for roads in 1924

The next step in road development in Texas was perhaps the most significant of all. Beginning in the early 1920s, Governor Pat Neff campaigned across the state for the imposition of a one penny tax on each gallon of gasoline. In his speeches he said that no road was better than its deepest pot hole. He also pointed out there was not one hundred miles of continuously paved highway within the state. The tax was fiercely opposed, as most taxes are. The increasingly powerful oil industry in Texas, the largest in the nation, was vehemently opposed to it. To sweeten the pot, 25% of all revenues raised were promised towards education. The measure passed in 1924. Finally there were enough funds to begin building a modern road network across the state. The tax became a political football. In 1927 it was raised to three cents. It was reduced in 1928 to just two then raised to four in 1929. By this time the number of cars in Texas had reached almost 1.5 million, over one for every four people. As part of the deal, the state assumed total control of highway construction but also assumed all road related debts accrued by each county, allowing for the reduction of property taxes, always a popular move.
Texas Highway Improvement Projects
Fredericksburg Road in San Antonio lo king north, around 1930
State Highway 16 near San Antonio in 1915
State Highway 16 near San Antonio in 1937
TxDOT truck fitted with magnetic device to pick up nail and other objects in the 1940s
State highway numbers replaced with nationwide system

A national road numbering system was introduced in 1925, to reduce confusion between states using different numbers for the same highways. Highways going north and south were given odd numbers, with even numbers allocated to east/west routes. The numbers given to roads in Texas just a few year earlier were replaced. Highway 2, from Laredo through San Antonio and Fort Worth became Highway 81. Highway 3, from the border of Louisiana to El Paso became Highway 90. Old Highway 9 to the Hill Country became Highway 87. Texas Highway 66, not to be confused with its more famous successor, from McAllen to Wichita Falls, was renumbered as Highway 281. The need for volunteer efforts faded away when the Texas department of transportation began installing hundreds of thousands of professional signs across the state.
Railroad grade crossing improvement project in New Braunfels
Seguin Street railroad crossing in New Braunfels before underpass
Seguin Street railroad crossing in New Braunfels after underpass
In 1929 work began to improve the road between San Antonio and Austin. Originally classified as a post road, then Highway 2 and now Highway 81, the roadway was widened from sixteen to forty feet, sharp curves were eliminated and, using eminent domain, the route was given a straighter course across land initially denied by unwilling property owners. Altogether the newly paved road, with a total right of way width of one hundred feet, was shortened by eight miles.
Texas Highway Improvement Projects
Road grout leveling on HWY 66 in Atascosa County, 1935
Building HWY 27 near Kerrville in 1934
Building HWY 27 near Kerrville in 1934
As the 1920s drew to a close, the original dream of a continuous highway across the south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was finally realized. Governor Neff had dedicated an OST zero milestone outside the Bexar County Court House in March 1924. It is still there today. Drivers were supposed to reset their perhaps unreliable trip odometers for the next leg of the journey at such markers, just as the first intrepid motorists had done twenty years earlier. The first ceremonial drive across the 2,817 miles of continuously improved road, lined with signs put up by each state, began in San Diego, California on April 4 1929. Their arrival in San Antonio was ceremoniously greeted with a dinner at, of course, the Gunter Hotel, where Ayers had kept his HQ. It had taken fourteen long years for the original vision of a southern transcontinental highway to be realized. The volunteer OST organization quickly faded away. States had been issuing official maps since 1927 and had taken responsibility for highway construction much earlier. Some OST ideas remained in a more subtle form. As early as 1923, OST beautification committees had been formed to provide guidance on how roads, bridges, signs and rest areas should be designed. They even provided suggestions on how restaurants, gas stations and tourist camps should look, with particular emphasis on the use of attractive stone work.
Texas Highway Improvement Projects
Highway inspector’s vehicle over culvert, 1921
Laying sidewalk in Pleasanton along HWY 66, 1935
Street work in Devine, Texas
The early era of efforts by enthusiasts and amateurs was over. The Texas Department of Transportation had grown to sixteen divisions, employing hundreds of engineers and road gangs. The automobile industry was the largest in the nation. It churned out 4.5 millions cars in 1929, a number that would not be exceeded until 1949, following twenty years of depression, war and recovery. During this period the appetite for transportation never diminished. The second world war would create stresses upon America’s road network that would eventually lead to a fourth class of roads, interstate highways, but there were still many miles of hard road to be traveled before then.
Roads in South Texas Towns
Unpaved street in Marion, Texas
Unpaved street in Bandera, Texas
Unpaved Water street in Kerrville

Water Street in Kerrville, now paved
Unpaved streets in Castroville, 1941
Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas, 1937
But travel across the region was still a hit and miss affair. As late as 1929 a San Antonio guide book recommended that persons should not travel by road outside the city if it had rained recently, was raining or looked as though it might. The large number of pictures of cars stuck axle deep in endless mud attest to the wisdom of the advice. While the road to Corpus Christi seems to have been particularly bad, running as it must through some less affluent counties, even the much vaunted Old Spanish Trail was not much better. Even though what was now called Highway 87, from San Antonio through the Hill Country was technically improved, in many cases this meant that it had been graded and provided with ditches for drainage. Many sections remained unpaved. Along the Gulf coast the road surface consisted of crushed sea shells.
Primitive roads in Texas
Texas Highway 1, later renamed HWY 90 under the Federal numbering scheme way out in west Texas
Cars in the Big Bend area
Unpaved road in Caldwell County in 2010
Unpaved road in the Big Bend area in 2010

Unpaved road in Caldwell County in 2010
Unpaved road in Caldwell County in 2011
Unpaved road beside railroad tracks at the Texas Transportation Museum in San Antonio
Roads and bridges in Comfort, Texas

Thanks to a lot of research on the part of the Comfort Heritage Foundation, the history of roads in and around this town is pretty well established and serves as a good snapshot of the region as a whole. The big obstacle in this part of the Hill Country is the Guadalupe River, which can rise from a sleepy little stream to a raging, destructive torrent with astonishing speed and destructive force. The first bridge to augment the original ford was built in 1906, two years after Dr. C. Jones brought the first automobile to Comfort, a two cylinder Maxwell. The structure was insubstantial and hovered just a few feet above the surface of the water during normal conditions. It did not last long as it was no match for the river when it flooded. A rickety suspension bridge was also built nearby at the same time but it was only suitable for foot traffic. A more substantial concrete bridge was built in 1914. It, too, was just a few feet above the surface of the river. When the river was in flood, water would pour over the top, making crossings very hazardous. And yet this bridge still stands, more or less. It had to be rebuilt in 2007 following a catastrophic failure when an oversized truck proved too much for the 1914 structure. This truck was directed onto the old bridge because it was deemed too heavy for the newer bridge, installed in the early 1980s. Against the advice of locals, when the old surface level bridge was rebuilt in 2007, it was provided with side rails, to minimize the danger of people driving over the sides. Almost immediately a prolonged season of heavy rain swept debris of all kinds down stream, clogging these side rails, and the bridge began to act as a dam. Water was forced towards the center of town, uphill, along the old route of High Street.
Roads and Bridges in Comfort, Texas
Crude rope bridge over the Guadalupe River in Comfort.
Flow bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort. It was soon washed away.
Low concrete bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort in the 1920s
Low concrete bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort following heavy rain in the 1920s
Following the completion of the 1914 concrete bridge, little more was done to improve area roads for almost twenty years. The unpaved streets of Comfort had to being dragged every day until around 1933. Following the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the federal government began operating a series of "make-work" projects to provide relief from the Great Depression. Improving roads in rural areas was looked on very favorably. They provided much needed employment and yielded long term benefits for the community. The Public Works Administration had responsibility for financing such highway improvements, including bridges and the elimination of grade crossings. The Works Progress Administration took care of local roads and the Civilian Conservation Corps built access and fire roads in remote areas. Highway 27 between Boerne and Kerrville was designated a Federal Emergency Construction Highway Project. Eight different contracts were issued to improve the road surface and build bridges. Brown & Root was awarded the $110,563.45 contract for the 16.2 mile stretch between Boerne and Comfort. This included a new high level truss bridge with an exposed superstructure of girders supporting the weight from above rather than below. Also referred to as an elevated box bridge, the two lane span cost $3,350.00, about $39,000.00 in today’s money.
Roads and Bridges in Comfort, Texas
Hill Country road near Comfort
First high road bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, built in the 1930s
First high road bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, built in the 1930s
High bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, built in the 1930s
The project was designed to employ as many people as possible. No one could work more than thirty hours, or four days, a week. This was to allow farmers and ranchers time to work their land on their free days. Skilled laborers received 45 cents and unskilled workers 30 cents an hour. People in the area will tell you with pride how their families survived these lean years thanks to this and similar employment programs. Many can point to a specific element, such as a culvert, and say that their father’s work there kept them alive for six months during those tough times. The problem was the resulting roads, even though they now had asphalt surfaces, were still not all that good. It was recognized that the existing federal standards were becoming insufficient for a modern road network. It would take years of study and investment to come up with what now seems obvious; sharp curves and obstacles too close to the roadside, such as trees and poles, make driving unsafe. Good sight lines and clear areas at the side of the road save lives and increase traffic speed.
Roads and Bridges in Comfort, Texas
High bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, built in the 1930s
Rodeo trail re-enactors crossing the low concrete bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort following heavy rain in the 1970s
Modern high bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, with low bridge below it, clogged with debris after heavy rain
Modern high bridge over the Guadalupe River at Comfort, with low bridge below it, clogged with debris after heavy rain
Urban expressways in San Antonio

Within San Antonio itself, perhaps the most significant change wrought by the automobile was the development of urban expressways, planned as early as the 1930s. Many arterial roads through the city were straightened and widened to accommodate ever growing numbers of cars and trucks, to relive pressure on otherwise crowded neighborhood streets. These allowed suburban residents to work down town and keep the city center viable. Folks, both individuals and businesses, were leaving downtown in droves long before expressways were added to the urban landscape. The concept of the freeway as savior of city centers runs contrary to modern thinking, which tends to blame them for the decline of downtown areas across the country. The opposite is actually true. Why would any sane city or state leadership spend fortunes building these intrusive scars through the urban landscape if the goal was to bring about bankruptcy and desolation? Multiple shelves at the downtown library are filled with proposals from this era, as city hall strove to find ways to keep the center alive and vital, an effort that is still going on today.
San Antonio Hotels

Vance House on Houston Street. Space now occupied by the Gunter Hotel
One of the first air-conditioned hotels in the USA, the St. Anthony, in 1927
One of the first air-conditioned hotels in the USA, the St. Anthony, in 1927
Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, 1935
The Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza
The Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza
The Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza, 1932
The Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza, 1937
Bluebonnet Hotel, at the corner of Pecan and N. St. Marys in San Antonio
Bluebonnet Hotel, at the corner of Pecan and N. St. Marys in San Antonio
Bexar Hotel, now the Jefferson Hotel, at the corner of Houston and Jefferson in San Antonio
During the depression the federal government’s share of road construction costs rose from around 10% to almost half. In both 1934 and 1936 Congress emphasized spending on farm to market roads at the expense of limited access highways. As a result almost none existed outside of California and the northeast of the country in 1940. Of the 190,000 miles of roads in Texas, just 26,805 could be classified as interstate in nature and none were limited access. Most had only two lanes, “B” roads by today’s standards. Of the nation’s three million miles of roads only half had been graded, graveled and drained and therefore classifiable as all weather roads. With war once again on the horizon, 75,000 miles of the nation’s roads were designated strategic highways. Of these, 14,000 miles were found to be too weak and 4,000 miles too narrow. Over 24,000 bridges need to be upgraded or replaced. Work on other roads was suspended to concentrate on urgently needed military projects. Fortunately the railroads were better prepared this time. They carried the bulk of military supplies during the war, but suffered enormous wear and tear due to overuse and insufficient maintenance due to manpower and material shortages.
More San Antonio street scenes
Military Plaza in San Antonio, 1890
Houston and Broadway, San Antonio, 1904
Broadway in San Antonio from Houston Street in 1920s
W. Pecan Street, San Antonio, 1920
Parking lot on Market Street, San Antonio, 1929
St. Mary's Street, San Antonio, flooded, 1921
N. St. Marys Street, San Antonio, 1934
N. St. Marys Street, San Antonio, 1935
N. St. Marys Street, San Antonio, 1940
N. St. Marys Street, San Antonio, 1940
Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio, 1940
World War Two would bring even greater changes to San Antonio and its road systems. These will be discussed in a different chapter on this web site.
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San Antonio Road Travel Timeline
First heavy duty bridge over the river in San Antonio
Texas United Stated Mail Line was running two stagecoaches a week between Houston and San Antonio.
Bi-monthly stage coach service running between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, later extended to Brownsville.
Stage coach service from SA to Austin by Tarbox & Brown
Stage coach service from SA to Port Lavaca
Henry Skillman begins running a stage coach service between San Antonio and El Paso.
Stagecoach service from SA to Indianola.
First volunteer fire company is formed.
George S Giddings takes over the El Paso contract and extends service to San Diego, CA. It initially took seven weeks to travel the 1,476 mile journey but this was cut to fours weeks. Called the Southern Overland Mail, the service lasted until the beginning of the civil war, when the federal contract is revoked.
Heavy duty bridge over the river in San Antonio at Commerce Street replaced with a second wooden structure
First heavy duty iron bridge installed in San Antonio creating Houston Street in the process
Three horse carriage manufacturers operate in San Antonio. Work to replace the wooden bridge over the river at Commerce Street with an iron bridge is begun.
Some downtown streets are paved with mesquite blocks.
First traffic signal installed, on Commerce Street, near I&GN station.
Several block of Market Street on either side of the intersection with St. Marys are crudely asphalted. Along with a similar project in Houston, these are the first paved roads in Texas.
1st horseless carriages, battery powered Studebakers, arrive at the Staacke Bros. showroom on Commerce Street.
1st gasoline powered automobile, a Haynes Apperson, acquired by a Commerce Street banker
1st city automobile sale, a single cylinder Curved Dash Oldsmobile made at a bicycle store on Houston Street
1st Automobile club formed
City ordinance requires automobiles be numbered. A city wide speed limit oif 6 MPH was set, leading in March to the first speeding ticket and court fine.
As of August 21, 1905, the city engineer of San Antonio reported that there were 71 automobiles in San Antonio, representing a value of about $37,200.
First motorized vehicles take part in Battle of Flowers parade
First Ford dealership opened.
SAPD acquires its first automobile, an air cooled Franklin, for patrol work, plus motorcycles
San Antonio issues its first set of road rules. Rule #1: Drive on the right side of the street.
First motorized fire trucks acquired.
Widening of Commerce Street begins.
Broadway is created out of Avenue C and River Avenue
Old Spanish Trail connecting St. Augustine, FL, to San Diego, CA, via San Antonio, is begun
Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, is created.. Texas highways given state issued numbers. Route between Houston and San Antonio becomes State Highway 3
The first bus in San Antonio is built in the shops of the San Antonio Public Service Company.
San Antonio gains first TxDot offices as headquarters of one of its six divisions. TxDot was created in 1917.
Headquarters of the "Old Spanish Trail" moved to San Antonio.
Lone Star Motor Company sets up an automobile and truck plant at 515 Roosevelt.
Lone Star Motor Company goes out of business.
First factory built bus is acquired.
First electric traffic light is installed.
SAPD creates an automobile theft squad.
The last police horse is retired.
National highway numbering system introduced. Route between Houston and San Antonio becomes Highway 90
Last use of horse drawn fire equipment.
San Antonio motorist guide still advises not to leave the city if it's raining, has recently rained or rain is in the forecast.
"Old Spanish Trail" completed, 14 years after it began, running from St. Augustine, FL, to San Diego, CA. Within Texas the route becomes HWY 90 and runs through San Antonio.
Texas Board of County and District Road Indebtedness is created to pay back local authorities for roads created by bonds and other means which were now part of the state highway system.
San Antonio becomes the first major US city to abandon its street rail car service.
SAPD patrol cars are fitted with 2 way radios.
First traffic meters are installed
The privately owned San Antonio Transit Company takes over the previously city owned bus service.
Planning begins in San Antonio for the post war free way system as the city expands rapidly.
San Antonio's first expressway, HWY 281, is completed.
First 3/4 mile section of US 87, now IH10, is completed between Woodlawn Avenue to Martin Street.
First section of IH35, from Alamo Street to Broadway is completed.
First section of Loop 410 is completed.
IH35 now reaches south to Division Avenue.
The city owned SA Transit System takes over from the SA Transit Company.
City first mall, Wonderland, now Crossroads, is opened.
IH10 now reaches De Zavala to the west and exceeds city limits to the east.
First section of Loop 1604 is opened, from Bandera to IH 10.
Loop 410, nearly 52 miles round, is completed.
A section of Loop 1604, west from HWY 90 is opened.
Breathalyzers are introduced by SAPD.
Use of radar to catch speeders introduced.
VIA Metropolitan Service takes over the city bus system, making it a county wide service.
McAllister free way, the improved HWY 281, is finally opened after a decade long political struggle to prevent its creation.
Loop 1604 is completed.
Mobile digital terminals, MDT's, installed in SAPD patrol cars.
Downtown bicycle patrols introduced.
November 17, Friday - First production vehicles come off the production line at new Toyota factory in San Antonio. Peak production, when achieved, should be one new Tundra pick up every 73 seconds, of 750 a day, 200,000 year.