"Beyond Denial: Glimpses of Depression-era San Antonio"

L. Patrick Hughes

News of the New York Stock Exchange's "Black Tuesday" meltdown produced no banner headlines in the San Antonio Express. For weeks thereafter only relatively small items on the stock market debacle appeared in the paper. Those that did stressed the fundamental strength of the nation's economy, expressing agreement with President Herbert Hoover's assertion that there was no cause for alarm. Editors gave far greater coverage and more prominent placement to a variety of other stories of greater interest to subscribers. There was no sense of foreboding or panic. South Texans were by and large indifferent to the calamity that befell their countrymen in the financial centers of the northeast. Events there might as well have been unfolding on Mars as far as the majority were concerned. Items on panic selling, margin calls, and frantic efforts by bankers to stabilize the market had little relevance to their daily lives.

Most citizens of San Antonio that early autumn of 1929 agreed with editors, business leaders, and elected officials who expressed pride in the present and optimism about the future. The building boom which had driven the Alamo City outward in all directions and its population within sight of the quarter million mark would, they maintained, continue unabated. The City Advertising Campaign, a publicity barrage budgeted at over $100,000, trumpeted the city and region's advantages to people across the nation's heartland. Full page advertisements extolled San Antonio as the starting point on the "Trail of Opportunity," the key to "the vast oil and gas stores of the Southwest...the fertile soil of the Rio Grande Valley and the Winter Garden...the rich, black lands of the Gulf Coast country." Boosters proclaimed even as the new decade began that circumstances for investment had never been better.

Despite the aura of confidence, the Great Depression quickly found its way to San Antonio. Once there, it struck deeper and held on longer than in other major Texas cities. Denial soon lost all credibility and the city faced the gravest economic crisis in its long history. Fratricidal political struggles between the long-entrenched machine and insurgent reformers hampered municipal efforts to cope with the ever-worsening emergency. Activists and officials attacked one another as crooks and/or communists in a never-ending barrage of epithets. The politics of conflict notwithstanding, the Depression-era, particularly following the launch of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, changed the face of San Antonio forever. Projects undertaken at the depths of despair remain vital parts of the Alamo City six plus decades later.


San Antonio in late 1929 was more vulnerable to major economic reversals than its citizens realized. A comparison with other major population centers is instructive. Austin, for instance, rested upon twin cornerstones: the University of Texas and state government. Their importance is impossible to overstate. Education and government constituted fifty-four percent of the capital city's total payrolls and both activities were, while not immune, resistant to the economic calamity that befell the nation. Though declining revenues forced the university and state government to cut wages and eliminate positions, they continued to pump money into the Austin economy throughout the Thirties. The university was particularly important. Anticipating the influx of what turned out to be over four thousand additional students by decade's end, the Board of Regents launched a massive building program. It, along with the construction of multiple hydroelectric dams by the Lower Colorado River Authority, resulted in the city's designation in the mid-1930s by Forbes magazine as "one of the two bright spots in the nation."

Population and financial heart of North Texas, Dallas entered the Great Depression with a diversified economy hitting on all cylinders. Blacklands' cotton, marketed at the city's Exchange and transported by its numerous railroads, found its way to buyers around the world. The value of retail sales, wholesale transactions, and manufacturing set all-time highs in 1929 as did the volume of bank clearings at nearly $3 billion. Only three cities in the United States exceeded the quantity of life insurance business handled by Dallas firms. Its banks were strong and moved immediately to underwrite the exploitation of a virtual ocean of East Texas oil discovered in October 1930. Local firms such as Magnolia and Sun prospered, hundreds of new petroleum-related businesses sprang up, and untold millions of petrodollars fueled the Dallas economy for years to come.

Houston, the state's largest population center by 1930, relied on the extraction of raw materials, the processing and sale of agricultural commodities, a growing petrochemical industry, and transportation. Completion of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914 transformed the Bayou City into an economic titan. The region's lumber, cotton, cattle, and rice funneled through the nation's largest inland port facility for carriage to distant markets. Sixty freight lines transported in excess of fifteen million tons of cargo each year. Ships hauled away the crude oil from fields old and new in addition to distillate products from the growing number of area refineries. Humble, Gulf, and Sinclair were but the most prominent of the forty oil companies with offices in Houston. Explosive economic activity produced some of the largest and most profitable banking institutions in Texas.

By contrast, the Alamo City's economy rested on shakier ground. Fears of higher wage scales and unionized labor resulted in long-standing resistance to heavy industry. Indeed, at the very depths of the Depression when widespread unemployment decimated San Antonio, municipal leaders rebuffed in no uncertain terms Ford Motor Company's interest in building production facilities in Bexar County. Their vision, like that of their predecessors, coupled a heavy military presence with light manufacturing, tourism, and the financing and processing of South Texas' agricultural and ranching bounty. Fort Sam Houston, Kelly Field, and other military installations became centerpieces, providing a reliable infusion of federal funds. Army and air corps operations pumped money into merchants' coffers year after year. City fathers ballyhooed the town as a vacation destination, inviting potential visitors to "travel the Road to Romance" back through it's storied past. San Antonio's bankers financed the cultivation of a myriad of crops in addition to livestock operations south and west to the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande. Most everything produced throughout the region - cotton, grain sorghums, poultry, livestock, and vegetables of every variety - passed through San Antonio for processing and transport across the nation and around the globe.

Appearances of prosperity, however, were in many ways misleading. The proud city had lost its status during the Twenties as the largest in Texas and population growth between 1920 and 1940 was the slowest of the state's four major cities. Overly dependent upon its military installations, the San Antonio economy suffered with the downsizing of the armed forces throughout the 1920s. City fathers averted any base closures and at decade's end even secured a new Air Corps training facility with the donation of 2,300 acres of land at a cost of $500,000. Nonetheless, appropriations cutbacks delayed scheduled expansion and renovations at Fort Sam Houston. Severe troop level reductions meant fewer dollars in merchants' registers, limiting economic growth throughout the city. Not until the outbreak of World War II would residents once again enjoy the windfalls of exploding defense spending and major military expansion.

Other economic activities suffered as well. Tourism's impact proved minimal, its tremendous potential undeniable but realized only in subsequent decades. Banking rose and fell with the cyclical fortunes of agriculture. Unfortunately that sector declined significantly once the artificial markets of wartime Europe vanished abruptly with the outbreak of peace in 1918. The perennial problem of overproduction returned with a vengeance, commodity prices fell, and uncollectible farm and ranch notes rose. Low wage, non-union jobs proliferated, defended at all costs by employers and touted by Chamber of Commerce types to lure new investors. Such wages meant higher profits for owners but translated into peonage for tens of thousands of San Antonians. Workers who labored long and hard fashioning garments, rolling cigars, and shelling pecans made little headway as years turned into decades. Poverty, especially among minority populations, was a significant weakness and slum living conditions prevailed within sight of the Alamo even as the so-called prosperity of the Twenties was coming to an end.

A breath-taking plunge in new construction was perhaps the earliest sign of the economic downturn. The falloff was particularly dramatic in San Antonio that had so recently enjoyed boom conditions. The value of building permits issued in 1929 totaled $18 million. The Depression's first year saw a decline in this critical indicator well in excess of fifty percent. This occurred despite voter approval that spring of $5 million in public works bonds to combat declining employment and continue civic improvements. The collapse continued over the next two years mitigated only by construction at Randolph Field on the city's northern outskirts. Permits totaling a paltry $1.5 million for all of 1932, a ninety percent decrease from prosperity's final year, attested to the crisis of confidence now pervasive.

Nor in an era before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation were San Antonians immune from the panic phenomena of bank runs. Without question, several area banks suffered from real problems: weak management, growing stacks of uncollectible notes, and the declining value of properties held as collateral. The frightened depositor, however, caused the greatest difficulty. All told, the crisis forced one-third of San Antonio's twenty-one financial institutions into insolvency. It was, however, the failure of City Central Bank and Trust Company that shook San Antonio to its core. The firm's seven hundred largest depositors were able in time to liquidate bad assets, secure a $1.5 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), and eventually reemerge as South Texas Bank and Trust. It just took too long; a year passed before the process of liquidation and restructuring was complete. In the meantime, depositors, including the City of San Antonio, had no access to even a portion of their funds. The impact on the local economy and municipal government was profound.

The federal census of 1930 placed San Antonio's unemployment level at nearly six percent. Given the presence of large numbers of undocumented Mexican immigrants and the seasonal influx of migrant field workers, the true figure was almost certainly higher. Regardless, even official statistics revealed a significant and growing problem. Unemployment was double the statewide average and exceeded that of all other metropolitan areas in Texas. The number of idled workers grew with each passing month. By mid-January 1931 over 3,000 family heads had applied for relief work with the privately-funded Unemployment Relief Committee. The figure reached 10,000 in 1932 and just kept growing. By early March 1933, the Committee was feeding nearly 22,000 men, lodging almost half that number, and was still not meeting the demand. This translated into unemployment of an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 in a city of a quarter million. Nor was this phenomenon short-lived; the number of relief cases in 1935 led all other major metropolitan areas in Texas.

By 1931-32, homeless men, many with families in tow, became a daily visual reminder for San Antonians of hard times. Flophouses operated by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army overflowed as the economy worsened. Shantytowns sprang up on the city's outskirts and along the banks of the river meandering through town. Police initially rounded up homeless indigents - viewed as a civic embarrassment - and escorted them out of town in hopes they would move on. Their numbers, however, grew with each passing month. Law enforcement then reversed field, allowing those without shelter a place to sleep overnight in the bowels of the police station. Regrettably, maximum capacity was but one hundred and fifty while the homeless were legion. Three hundred took matters into their own hands, illegally occupying land in the Medina River Valley Project. Their stay was brief; federal marshals ousted the squatters before they set a precedent that others would follow.

Veterans of the late war encamped at Covington Park, a remnant of the failed Bonus Army march on Washington, D. C., fared better under the aegis of Maury Maverick. Member of an influential family, Maverick was both Bexar County tax collector and commander of a local chapter of the Veteran of Foreign Wars. Hoping to avoid trouble, San Antonio mayor C. M. Chambers named Maverick director of the War Veterans Relief Camp. Expressing solidarity with his fellow veterans, the feisty director went to work. A thirty-five acre tract of unused land on Frio City Road inveigled from Humble Oil served as a permanent location. The Missouri Pacific Railroad donated derelict wooden freight cars for lumber salvage to construct housing and communal structures. Maverick successfully negotiated with farmers for food, doctors for medical services, and the RFC for $150 a month in operating funds. Renamed the Diga Colony (an anagram for Agricultural and Industrial Democracy), the encampment functioned as an experimental self-help community. The nearly two hundred residents had assigned responsibilities and were expected to contribute to its financial needs from any outside employment or relief payments they might receive. With some turmoil, the undertaking survived for almost a year before the beginning of direct federal relief in 1933 allowed residents to pursue their own separate battles against the Depression.

Homelessness and spreading poverty placed unprecedented demands on municipal government, demands that the City of San Antonio lacked both the resources and the will to address fully. Local officials faced their own economic crisis. Increasing numbers of hard-pressed citizens found themselves unable to remit property taxes. Paid receipts nose-dived from eighty-five to sixty-seven percent between 1930 and 1932. Deadline extensions and threats of seizure had little effect. Inability to touch over $500,000 in municipal funds on deposit in the failed and restructuring City Central Bank and Trust Company complicated matters further. Commissioners led by Mayor Chambers responded by postponing projects and scuttling the city's heretofore limited relief efforts. San Antonio thus achieved the dubious status as the only major Texas city refusing to underwrite general relief efforts. City workers' wages were halved and three hundred plus employees were terminated. The city's payroll in 1929 had stood at $55,000 a month; it totaled but $11,500 in 1932. The fiscal year ending in August 1932 nonetheless fell $147,000 short. Further austerity measures axed the new budget an additional thirty-eight percent. C. K. Quin assumed leadership of the commission in early 1933 upon Chambers' death but enjoyed no greater success in the realm of finances. Indeed, the city began missing payrolls in June 1933. Quin at long last alerted citizens as to the severity of the crisis, an admission that came as no surprise to most. "The city," warned the new mayor, "faces the most chaotic financial condition in its history. The prospect of citizens being without a fire department, health department, garbage collection, or any other day to day function is imminent." Denying the Depression's presence in the Alamo City was no longer a viable position for even its most optimistic boosters.


San Antonians' predilection for cutthroat politics greatly complicated efforts to deal with the economic nightmare. The scene throughout the Thirties was one of never-ending conflict with first one extreme and then the other prevailing at the polls. As a result, no real consensus ever emerged on how government - municipal or federal - should deal with the emergency. Nor was the city's representation in Washington, D. C., stable, focused first and foremost on San Antonio's needs, or particularly effective in tapping the federal treasury to finance recovery. In this respect, San Antonio suffered in comparison with other major cities in Texas.

No city enjoyed greater political unity, stability, and effectiveness in attacking the Depression than Austin where Tom Miller dominated as no mayor before or since. The investiture of phenomenal time and energy, force of personality, and effective partnership with City Manager Guiton Morgan during their joint sixteen-year tenure overcame the denial of formal power under the city's council-manager system. An ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, Miller, with the business community's full support, forged an all-important consensus. New Deal programs offered the best available means for Austinites to cope with depressed economic conditions, address perennial problems, and construct the infrastructure needed to promote growth. Mayor Miller worked closely with Congressman James P. Buchanan, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and presidential confidant, to make the dream reality. Surprisingly, the flow of federal largesse increased following Buchanan's death in early 1937 despite successor Lyndon B. Johnson's freshman status. Not a penny of federal money that could be won remained on the table. The result was a town stronger at decade's end than at its start.

While neither Dallas nor Houston enjoyed the political unity and stability of the state capital, both escaped the fratricidal struggles that characterized San Antonio. Turnover of local officials in Dallas was significant with the City Charter Association and the Citizens Civic Association (popularly known as the Catfish Club) vying for control. While competition was keen, it was in one sense artificial. Dallas' business community dominated both groups and its interests were never seriously challenged. Nonetheless, leading business figures chartered the Dallas Citizens Council in 1937 to bring the infighting to an end. It quickly co-opted the Charter Association while preserving its organizational structure, gained control of municipal government in 1939, and dominated municipal elections for decades to come. If turnover characterized the local scene, continuity prevailed in the nation's capital. There Hatton Sumners, veteran congressman and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tended Dallas' interests throughout the decade, securing monies for a variety of projects.

Jesse Jones, director of the RFC and the New Deal's banker, performed much the same function for Houstonians. His diligence coupled with unquestioned importance within administration circles produced millions of federal dollars for area projects such as erection of the San Jacinto Monument. Jones' contribution was indeed critical given Houston's lack of a congressional titan in Washington, D. C. Five-term representative Daniel Garrett passed away in 1932. Joe Henry Eagle served but two terms before making an unsuccessful senatorial bid. Houston finally found its titan in Albert Thomas who assumed office in 1937. His undeniable influence, however, lay in the future; Thomas was but one of many less than powerful congressional newcomers during the latter Depression.

In the Bayou City itself, the Great Depression tested but failed to break the business community's control of local government. Continuity prevailed. The influence of bankers was particularly pronounced at the depths of the crisis. As chief executive of Houston's strong mayor-council system, Walter Monteith (1929-1933) wielded formal power denied his counterparts in most Texas cities. Nonetheless, when bankers dictated massive budget cuts in 1931-32 as the price of continued financial support of city operations, he had no choice but acquiescence. A fiscal conservative in a politically conservative town, Monteith had no disagreement with austerity, only with the severity of budget reductions. Successor Oscar F. Holcombe (1933-1937, 1939-41), himself a successful entrepreneur, was no less committed to the bottom line. Holcombe's challenge proved far less complicated. Houston experienced a relatively speedy economic rebound and New Deal programs offered financial assistance unavailable earlier in the decade. The response of Houston's local officials throughout the Depression years, then as so often in the past, reflected the city's prevailing ethos - "conservative, cautious, and business-oriented."

In contrast to Austin, Dallas, and Houston, conflict and chaos were the constants of San Antonio politics. But throughout it all was the machine. Originally founded by Mayor Bryan Callaghan in the 1890s, it maintained a stranglehold on local government as decades passed. Infrequent efforts at reform ended in failure. Callaghan beat back one such effort in 1911, a proposed shift to commission government through charter change, by ordering the arrest of proponents at polling places throughout town. When the demand for change persisted, Clinton Brown, Callaghan's successor, coopted the threat. Intent above all else in retaining control of patronage jobs, Brown successfully maneuvered to eliminate civil service from the proposal placed before and approved by voters in 1914. San Antonians thus got the commission structure but not the element most crucial to reform. Government titles changed but the machine persevered.

In large part, the city-county machine rested upon the 1,800 patronage jobs at its disposal and its vise-like grip on the registration/voting process. The overlap between the two was so great in San Antonio as to become almost one. Applicants for municipal jobs quickly learned the machine's hiring criteria - scores of paid poll tax receipts that could be used on election day to push favored candidates to victory. The game was played fast and loose. As one observer put it: "...here is where the politicians are obliging. They buy up as many poll tax receipts as they can before the books close, keep them on file and pass them out to their owners on election day - with instructions, of course, and an extra dollar or so for sweetenin'." At times they didn't go to the trouble of distributing the receipts, they simply voted them by proxy. When outcomes hung in the balance, city and county officials temporarily assigned staff, at taxpayers' expense, to serve as precinct workers to guarantee victory.

The machine's continuance in office hinged as well on a pragmatic arrangement with Charles Bellinger, black boss of San Antonio's Eastside. Bellinger, whose wealth derived in large part from illegal gambling operations and bootleg alcohol, was no less dependant on a cooperative officialdom for survival. Their modus vivendi paid handsome dividends for both parties. The boss received protection for his various enterprises along with a modicum of city services for black neighborhoods. The machine, in return, began every municipal campaign assured of four to six thousand black votes for its slate of candidates.

The machine's policies were hyper-conservative. Texans in general but San Antonians in particular favored minimal government services over higher tax rates. The Depression era was no exception. Balanced budgets were sacrosanct. Upon the altar of fiscal austerity, commissioners sacrificed all support of relief efforts. Leaders were no less committed to preserving the city's low wage, non-union labor supply. Union efforts to organize workers and infrequent strikes against employers resulted in militant steps by law enforcement officials to preserve the status quo. Attacked by the press as communist agitators, peaceful pickets invariably found themselves unwilling occupants of Police Chief Owen Kilday's jail cells. Attitudes towards national politics were no less conservative. Chambers and Quin exhibited far greater suspicion of Washington, D. C., Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal than their counterparts in other major cities. Fear of federal interference resulted in reticence to apply for financial assistance. Only when there was no alternative did leaders grudgingly and intermittently turn to the nation's capital with open hand.

While the machine was and would remain for some time the dominant and ever-present force in local politics, San Antonio was not without its reformers. Failing in their effort to purify Alamo City politics by charter revision during the Progressive Era, proponents of good government licked their wounds and regrouped throughout the Twenties. At decade's end, events woke reformers from their slumber. The machine's attempt in 1928 to unseat veteran Representative Harry M. Wurzbach of Seguin backfired ingloriously. Outraged by blatant vote fraud, Congress set aside Wurzbach's apparent defeat at the hands of Augustus McCloskey and reseated the incumbent after a thirteen-month investigation. San Antonio's needs, understandably, were not his highest priority thereafter. The onset of the country's worst economic nightmare and municipal officials' seeming inability to deal with its impacts further weakened the ring's standing with voters.

Sensing the machine's vulnerability, a coterie of business figures convinced of the need for change began weekly discussions at the Menger Hotel on how best to proceed. Led by banker Walter W. McAllister and attorney Maury Maverick, the Wednesday Club, as the small group became known, threw down the gauntlet in 1930. The insurgents demanded honest elections and the end of corrupt machine rule. To this end, they formed the San Antonio Citizens League as their electoral arm and put forward a complete slate of reform candidates for county offices. Voters embraced the challengers. League-sponsored candidates seized the majority of offices and exercised control of Bexar County government for the next six years. Most prominent of the new officials was Tax Assessor-Collector Maverick. Repeated attempts to wrest control of municipal offices from Mayor Chambers, successor C. K. Quin, and machine-backed commission incumbents between 1931 and 1935 ended in failure. Nonetheless, reformers, backing the unlikely candidacy of Maury Maverick, denied Quin and the machine a seat in the House of Representatives when redistricting gave San Antonio its own congressional district in 1934.

The Alamo City thus became one of the state's greatest Depression-era enigmas. Texas could boast of no city more conservative in its politics than San Antonio nor no member of Congress more genuinely liberal than her new representative to the nation's capital. As a freshman, Maverick quickly assumed leadership of young turks in the House attempting to "out-Roosevelt Roosevelt" and drive the New Deal further to the left. His was the sole southern vote in Congress for proposals to make lynching a federal crime. Votes for the Patman Bonus Bill, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act legitimizing unions and collective bargaining tested conservative constituents' patience. Yet Maverick continued to vote his conscience regardless of political consequences back home. His eager co-sponsorship of President Roosevelt's controversial court reorganization proposal alienated numerous reformers and supporters in San Antonio. Support for Roosevelt's equally controversial wages and hours legislation infuriated area businessmen intent on keeping labor costs down. More than any other issue, however, Maverick's embrace of organized labor doomed any hopes he may have entertained for a long-term congressional career. He supported unionization of San Antonio's public school teachers, embraced the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and publicly sided with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and impoverished pecan shellers led by Emma Tenayuca in strikes against some of the region's most powerful financial interests. While energizing San Antonio's small core of committed liberals, Maverick's belligerent attitude and bellicose rhetoric enraged foes and alienated ever-greater numbers of all-important swing voters.

By 1938 Maverick's controversial politics and personal aversion to fence mending resulted in his ouster from Congress. In a nominating primary fraught with fraud, invective, and red-baiting, machine candidate Paul Kilday bested the beleaguered incumbent by fewer than five hundred votes out of nearly fifty thousand cast. Many of his friends felt the defeat had been inevitable and, in large part, self-inflicted. Congressman Lyndon Johnson of Austin, for instance, noted sadly: "Maury got too far ahead of his people." Drawing upon historian Robert McElavine's characterization of Herbert Clark Hoover, Maury Maverick was "..that rarest of politicians, a man of principle." Like Hoover, it wasn't that his principles were wrong or bad, only the times and his refusal to budge an inch to curry favor with voters. Said Maverick: "It was a miracle that I got elected in the first place."

The Depression era concluded with San Antonio still mired in the never-ending battle for control. No sooner had the electorate forsaken Maverick for Kilday and retrenchment than it completely reversed field. In municipal elections the following spring, voters pried C. K. Quin and the ring's commissioners from City Hall installing in their stead none other than Maury Maverick and reformers running on the so-called Fusion Ticket! It proved a brief two-year break in the machine's reign. Coming to office in a four-way contest with limited support, Mayor Maverick's abrasive personality and controversial politics soon began to take their toll despite several major accomplishments. His decision to grant a permit to members of the Communist Party to meet at the Municipal Auditorium, a gathering that ended in a full-blown riot, alienated many. Attempted charter revision shifting San Antonio to a council-manager system with single-member districts terrified both the machine and black residents of the East Side. The proposal, if adopted, would end the machine's control over patronage jobs, its very reason for being. The proposition placed before voters featured as well a gerrymandered East Side guaranteed to eliminate what little influence black San Antonians enjoyed under the existing system. Fully motivated to preserve the status quo, opponents successfully defeated the measure at the polls. Disappointed progressives held the mayor responsible in the aftermath. When his 1941 reelection bid came up short, Maverick accepted defeat with uncharacteristic grace, congratulated the victorious Quin, and retired from the electoral arena.

In retrospect, the glaring absence of political unity and common conviction on how best to attack Depression conditions was perhaps the Alamo City's most defining characteristic. San Antonio's was the politics of schizophrenia. Control was split between two adversarial camps locked in a death struggle. Dominance was at best temporary throughout the Thirties given the ever-changing preferences of the electorate. The community, unlike those in other major Texas cities, simply never made up its collective mind on a preferred approach to recovery. It, therefore, never availed itself of the opportunity to secure the New Deal's fullest assistance. Federal monies in limited quantity indeed found their way to San Antonio but their pursuit by its elected officials was a half-hearted, intermittent, and uncoordinated undertaking.

Nor was phenomenal turnover of elected officials limited to local government. Unlike Austin, Dallas, and Houston, San Antonio lacked continuous and effective representation in Washington, D. C. The seemingly constant turnover in the office of its U. S. representative proved critical in a decade where power flowed from states and localities to the nation's capital. Already alienated by the machine's attempt to supplant him with another, Harry Wurzbach of Seguin died in 1931. Successor Richard M. Kleberg of King Ranch fame resided outside Kingsville in the midst of the Gulf Coastal Plains. His focus was on South Texas ranching and agricultural interests rather than the urban needs of far away San Antonio despite its large population.

The situation should logically have improved when redistricting gave San Antonio its own congressman in the person of Maury Maverick beginning in 1934. While a native and a resident, Maverick was but a freshman, one of a legion swept into office in that year's Democratic landslide. Energetic effort could somewhat mitigate the downside of newcomer status; it could not, however, replace the immense advantages of seniority in battles for the federal dollar. Moreover, Maverick's political focus was regional and national. His efforts were seemingly split between tending San Antonio's interests and pushing the New Deal to the heights of liberalism. Increasingly, the former gave way to the latter. Maverick's polar opposite in this respect was fellow representative and friend Lyndon Johnson whose sole focus was Austin and the Tenth Congressional District. In five plus terms in the House of Representatives, he neither authored nor shepherded a piece of legislation to enactment. Rather, his forte was constituent service and spreading wide the doors to the federal treasury for relief and massive infrastructure development throughout his district. His narrow focus, extraordinary commitment, and ability to work effectively with other elected officials literally remade Austin and Central Texas. Sadly, there was no San Antonio equivalent.

The Depression environment, the country's changing politics, the activism of the New Deal, and the local machine's prolonged vulnerability provided reformers a rare opportunity. Here was the chance to crush the city-county machine, cleanse local government, and address perennial problems. Unfortunately, ideological and attitudinal differences alienated reformers one from the other, allowing the Quins and the Kildays to regroup, persevere, and reassert machine control. Of the major cities in Texas, San Antonio's response to the economic collapse was by far the most chaotic and the least coordinated. It was, as well, the least effective.


Six full decades have passed since the onset of World War II brought the Great Depression to an end. So too have the majority of those South Texans who coped as best they could with its horrific fallout. Reminders of those desperate times, however, abound in present-day San Antonio.

The military, a key player in Alamo City affairs since its founding in 1718, proved crucial to municipal survival in the 1930s. By mid-decade, federal authorities authorized expenditures in excess of $20 million for work done on area installations. In the process, two major projects significantly altered San Antonio's landscape. Few motorists approaching town today from the north on Interstate 35 probably even realize they are skirting a sprawling air force base just to the east. Nonetheless, Randolph Field, launched in 1928 before boom turned to bust, greatly stimulated the urban growth of northeast San Antonio. It proved the Corps of Engineers' largest undertaking since the construction of the Panama Canal. Workers erected five hundred plus Spanish Renaissance-style buildings, paved runways, and laid down some thirty miles of roadways over the next five years. The distinctive administration building at the facility's main entrance quickly became and remains one of the city's most important symbols.

Expansion at Fort Sam Houston was equally important in the Depression's first years before the federal government's full commitment to engineer economic recovery through public works projects. What was by 1940 the largest army post in the United States had begun small in 1876 on city-donated land and grown slowly through the years. World War I necessitated emergency construction of the adjoining Camp Travis as an induction and training facility. Decommissioned and absorbed by the larger army installation in 1922, its hastily erected structures were dilapidated. Accordingly, the War Department sought and won $6 million from Congress in 1928 to raze and replace the makeshift structures of the last war. Construction of five hundred new Spanish Colonial-style buildings resulted in an infusion of desperately needed funds as the national and local economy collapsed. Development continued in mid-decade when the Public Works Administration (PWA) awarded $3 million to finance a new 425-bed base hospital. Completed in 1938, Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) tended to the health needs of both active and retired military personnel over the next half-century. Itself replaced in the 1980s, the Depression-era edifice possesses historic designation and awaits private sector funding for some future use.

San Antonio and Bexar County leaders turned with limited enthusiasm and success to various New Deal agencies to address area needs and attack unemployment following Roosevelt's inauguration. Given the precarious financial condition of local government, little choice existed but to grudgingly ask Washington, D. C., for assistance. Some proposals were designed primarily to put men to work. Civil Works Administration (CWA) crews, for instance, cleared city lakes and riverbeds while others did grounds maintenance at Missions San José, Espada, and San Juan. A number of efforts addressed infrastructure concerns. PWA allocations funded $200,000 in road projects in addition to the construction of Alamo Downs Raceway on the western outskirts of the county at a cost of $400,000. The most prominent structure made possible by the PWA, however, was a new post office and federal court facility located on Alamo Plaza in the heart of the city. Totaling $1.5 million and adorned with a sixteen-panel sequence of murals depicting the city's rich history, it remains operational today.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers repaired over two hundred miles of area roads, graded and paved new thoroughfares, fashioned a number of modern railroad overpasses, laid sanitary sewer lines, and rebuilt Stimson Field for use as San Antonio's municipal airport. Alamo Stadium, known as "The Rockpile" and recently rated the best high school football facility in the Lone Star State, was yet another WPA project of enduring importance. Erected between 1938 and 1940 at a cost of $500,000, the athletic complex has played host to many an epic gridiron contest through the years. Just to the east lies Brackenridge Park where federal appropriations made possible expansion of the San Antonio Zoo and construction of a magnificent amphitheater for various community functions. Citizens addressed as well the need for public housing. A local campaign spearheaded by Father Carmelo Tranchese and supported by both Mayor Quin and Congressman Maverick secured federal funds from the United States Housing Authority (USHA) to attack the city's abysmal slum living conditions. The resulting Alazan-Apache, Wheatley, Lincoln, and Victoria Courts, constructed at a cost of $10 million, provided a lucky minority of the Alamo City's inadequately housed population a leg up over succeeding decades.

While the Depression years were among the city's most desperate, they also proved a turning point in San Antonio's cherished desire to become a tourist mecca. In a very real sense, San Antonians' economic future lay in their storied past. Historic preservation had to date been an uphill battle waged almost exclusively by members of the Conservation Society. It now gained acceptability as a means of attacking unemployment largely at the federal government's expense. Preservationists with the active support of Maury Maverick secured federal dollars throughout the Thirties from a variety of New Deal agencies. Additional monies came from both federal and state sources in conjunction with the centennial celebration of Texas independence. Projects financed in this manner attacked Depression conditions, guaranteed survival of many of the Alamo City's crown jewels, and commemorated individuals and groups for their historic contributions to the Lone Star State.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, constructed in various phases in the eighteenth century and administered by Franciscans until secularization in 1824, was in desperate need of such assistance. Once it had been a magnificent complex consisting of the church with its distinctive vaulted roof, stone friary, granary, flour mill, and Indian quarters surrounded by a protective stone wall. It had, however, fallen into disrepair with the passage of time. The situation became critical with the collapse of the church bell tower in 1928.

San Antonio's Conservation Society initiated restoration efforts with its purchase of the granary and a surrounding tract of land even as the Depression imperiled its own financial resources. The society, however, quickly found a crusader to argue its cause in governmental circles. Equally committed to the mission's rescue, Maury Maverick, first as Bexar County's tax assessor-collector and later San Antonio's congressman, proved an adept advocate. He first obtained help from the CWA in 1933. With the society footing the costs of materials, the short-lived federal agency supplied the requisite manpower to restore the granary and begin rebuilding the mission's perimeter walls. Local leaders with Maverick's support shortly thereafter secured $20,000 from the Texas Centennial Commission, partially offsetting the costs of reconstructing the collapsed bell tower and repairing the chapel's domed roof. This work was completed in 1937 at the same time that WPA personnel constructed a new amphitheater along the complex's northern wall. Dubbed the "Huisache Bowl," it has been the setting for countless plays and pageants through the years. CWA and WPA expenditures totaled approximately $200,000. In 1940 then-Mayor Maverick negotiated a long-term solution for San José's rehabilitation. Under the terms of the arrangement, title to the facility passed to the State Park Board, the Catholic Church retained the chapel and the Conservation Society the granary, with the National Park Service agreeing to pay for the completion of restoration. These structures, monuments to both local preservationists and the New Deal, attract and educate tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Trailing Dallas, Houston, and Austin in the value of approved projects, San Antonio nonetheless shared in the $6 million appropriated jointly by federal and state government for the 1936 observance of Texas independence. Among the proposals approved by the United States Texas Centennial Commission, chaired by Vice President John Nance Garner of Uvalde, were the Ben Milam Monument ($14,000), Moses Austin Memorial ($14,000), Sunken Garden Amphitheater ($62,000), and the Texas Pioneers-Trail Drivers-Rangers Memorial Building ($100,000). Another $100,000 from Washington, D. C., paid for the sculpted memorial to Alamo defenders crafted of granite and marble by Pompeo Coppini.

The Alamo, quite naturally, received major attention from officials. The state's centennial commission committed $250,000 to improvements in and around the historic structure considered San Antonio's heart and soul. The grant paid for purchase of the entire city block upon which the facility lay. The federal government supplemented the state's bequest with $75,000 of its own. These monies financed landscaping and rock walls, roof repairs, a museum for interpretive exhibits, and restoration of the Alamo acequia. Once neglected and endangered, the historic mission was thus saved and became the centerpiece around which San Antonio's tourist industry would develop in the years to come.

Preservationists and civic boosters interested in drawing visitors and their dollars downtown combined forces at decade's end, transforming a languid stream into a scenic gold mine. Named after San Antonio de Padua by Spanish explorers in 1691, the river with its distinctive horseshoe bend was both an eyesore and a source of potential danger. Neither deep nor wide, its normal volume was minimal. It turned, however, into a raging torrent when infrequent downpours inundated the city. The natural bend complicated matters in such events, impeding flow southward and driving the river from its banks. One such occurrence in 1921 left much of downtown up to twelve feet underwater, cost fifty citizens their lives, and produced demands for preventive measures.

Olmos Dam, constructed in the mid-Twenties north of town, represented but a partial solution. Plans called as well for the construction of a 650' concrete bypass connecting ends of the horseshoe. Floodgates at either end could be opened when flooding threatened, speeding floodwaters straight downstream. Real estate interests and a number of property owners called instead for the permanent elimination of the river's loop; it should be filled in, paved over, and converted into a new thoroughfare for automobile traffic.

Aghast at what he considered the river's possible destruction, architect Robert H. H. Hugman went to the Conservation Society and city officials in 1929 carrying an alternative with profound implications for San Antonio's future. His concept envisioned the multi-use development of a stylized riverwalk. Floodgates on either end of the projected bypass channel would be opened only when needed to avert flooding in severe weather. Retail shops, cabarets, cafes, and small apartments would line the horseshoe's length. Stairways at each street would afford visitors, office workers, and downtown residents access to an oasis-like corridor where they could stroll beside the historic river. There also they could spend their cash on meals at open-air bistros, an endless variety of arts and crafts from local merchants, or libations and entertainment at any of several nightclubs. With concrete walkways amid lush greenery, the proposed development would offer residents escape from the frantic activity of the commercial district while simultaneously putting San Antonio squarely on the tourist map.

Mayor Chambers and successor Quin were receptive but decided action was impossible given the city's dire financial state. Municipal government at the Depression's nadir lacked even the resources to qualify for a WPA grant to deal with river problems. The project might well have died at this point but for the persistence of Hugman and the ingenuity of hotelier Jack White. While Hugman built support through civic presentations, White spearheaded creation of a special taxing district to raise the necessary seed money. Property owners along the river organized as Special District 15 and in October 1938 authorized issuance of $75,000 in bonds backed by a special property tax imposed upon themselves. With local financing secured, Congressman Maverick importuned federal officials including President Roosevelt himself. The feisty representative would not be denied. Eventually the president relented, instructing New Deal financier Harold Ickes: "Give Maury the money for his damn rivah so he will stop bothering me!" $450,000 in WPA funding eased somewhat the lame duck representative's disappointment regarding his forced return to San Antonio.

As mayor from 1939 to 1941, Maverick oversaw and received much of the credit for the river's transformation. A thousand workers supervised by Robert Turk dredged and lined the riverbed, crafted stone walls and stairways, laid walks, and planted thousands of trees and shrubs. The Arneson River Theater, with seating for a thousand on one bank's slope and an ornate stage on the other, is perhaps the corridor's most unique feature. While $500,000 of additional work in the 1960s and the formation of the Paseo del Rio Association were necessary for the riverwalk to reach its full potential, it is today the most visited tourist attraction in the Lone Star State just ahead of the Alamo.

San Antonio's last Depression era project rescued and restored one of its oldest treasures. Originally a Coahuiltecan village, through the years La Villita had been home to Spanish soldiers, a variety of European immigrants, and by the 1930s some of the city's poorest residents. Slum living conditions prevailed at "The Little Town" and its dilapidated structures were likely candidates for the wrecking ball. The City Public Service Company had just that in mind when it purchased the site to locate electrical production facilities. Members of the Conservation Society, however, successfully rallied in 1924 to block destruction of the Cos House where Mexican forces purportedly capitulated to Texian insurgents in 1835.

While others broached the idea of restoration from time to time, it was Maury Maverick who made it a reality. The newly installed mayor engineered a land swap in 1939 giving the city title to the La Villita neighborhood. Armed with a municipal appropriation of $10,000, he persuaded National Youth Administration (NYA) officials to contribute $100,000 to restore the area. Utilizing information provided by noted historian Carlos E. Casteneda, one hundred and ten youths under the supervision of O'Neil Ford set about the task of clean up and restoration. Before the end of the Maverick administration in 1941, La Villita underwent a startling transformation. The Cos House joined a long list of historic structures rescued from the brink. Bolivar Hall, thanks to $15,000 from the Carnegie Foundation, served as an extension of the public library system. Other buildings became craft centers where NYA enrollees produced native southwestern crafts marketed by Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. Physically linked to the Arneson Theater and the riverwalk, La Villita is today yet another tourist attraction and serves as home for each April's "Night in Old San Antonio" celebration.


The collapse of the American economy beginning in late 1929, from which residents had initially believed themselves immune, impacted San Antonio more completely and for significantly longer than other major metropolitan centers in Texas. Bank and business failures, deflation, alarming levels of unemployment, and unprecedented homelessness severely tested the resiliency of citizens. Turning to local government for relief and assistance, San Antonians met with frustration. Conservative ideological leanings, decimated municipal finances, and a pronounced absence of flexibility characterized the ineffective response of local leaders. Voters, among whom a consensus on how best to proceed politically never emerged, were equally guilty of indecision and ineffectiveness. Turnover in congressional representation and unending electoral wars further complicated matters. While federal spending ameliorated the worst of the Depression, grudging resistance to and inconsistent pursuit of New Deal largesse made times more trying than necessary in the Alamo City. President Roosevelt's programs were nonetheless the means by which much of San Antonio's past was preserved and its future enhanced. The history of that era, a decade of despair, reverberates still in this South Texas giant even as a new century begins.