San Antonio transportation: From oxcarts to motorcoaches

SAN ANTONIO – Today’s major cities tended to sprout along transportation corridors such as oceans, rivers and railroads.

Painter Bus Lines photo credit: Uvalde Public Library

San Antonio, one of the country’s leading tourism and charter destinations, somehow survived for nearly two centuries despite a lack of remotely reasonable transportation access. The city was placed here because it was precisely in the middle of nowhere.

During the Spanish era of Texas history, San Antonio was the midway point of the trail linking Nacogdoches in the east and Eagle Pass, on the Rio Grande River, to the southwest.

“San Antonio was halfway between Eagle Pass and Nacogdoches, which was the fullest extent of the Spanish Empire,” said Hugh Hemphill, an author of transportation history and manager of the Texas Transportation Museum in San Antonio.

Eagle Pass is 143 miles away, which then was considered “a relatively easy distance” by the transportation standards of 1691, when the first Spanish explorers arrived, Hemphill said.

While the San Antonio River provided a source of water, “It was not navigable. There was very little transportation by river and canal in Texas. It was a difficult place to get to.”

The first trade passing through San Antonio was carried on two-wheel carts pulled by oxen.

“An oxcart might travel 10 miles on a good day, but there weren’t too many good days,” Hemphill said. “The terrain was difficult, the weather was difficult.”

In addition, he said, “It was insecure because a lot of Native Americans were being pushed west and there was no police or army. That is where Texas got its reputation for lawlessness. All these people who were shoved into Texas didn’t want to be here and were extraordinarily unhappy with white people.”

The next upgrades from ox carts were horse-drawn wagon trains and stagecoaches.

“If a wagon train covered 10 miles a day that was optimum,” Hemphill said. “To do that they would have to switch out the horses at least twice. It could take three months to get from San Antonio to California by stagecoach.”

The first passenger service from San Antonio to California earned the nickname “Jackass Express,” he said. “At a certain point the route went across the desert so everyone had to leave the wagon and cross the desert on the backs of donkeys. On the other side of the desert they would get on another wagon.”

Mail and stagecoach service to Houston was established in 1847. The first expedition seeking service to El Paso left San Antonio in 1848 but couldn’t get there.   Mule-drawn omnibuses began carrying riders within the city in 1871. The San Antonio Street Railway Company went into business in 1878, with its cars pulled by mules.

Texas joined the United States in 1845 but San Antonio was not truly connected to the country until 1877 and the arrival of the first steam locomotive from the East.

“San Antonio was the last major city in the United States without train service,” Hemphill said. “Even San Francisco had been connected to the rest of the country since completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.”

Rail connections were made westward to Laredo in 1881. The city’s doors were open to visitors.

“A journey that used to take months was reduced to days, sometimes hours,” Hemphill said. “The No. 1 industry in San Antonio is and always has been tourism. The railroads used to have a slogan – ‘Come to San Antonio, where the sun comes to spend the winter.’”

Electric streetcars were introduced in 1890 and the first horseless carriage arrived in 1897. All the vehicles were delivered by the railroad.

The city would not be connected to the world by decent roads for a few more decades, but the rail tourists created demand for tour buses. The first buses, operated by private carriers starting about 1910, were built in town on truck chassis.

The homemade buses held four or five rows of wooden bench seats running front to rear.

“They could carry maybe 16 people. There was a little gate of some kind or a chain to keep people in,” Hemphill said.

“They could take the buses right to the front door of the Alamo and take people to the missions on the south side to see the sights and then come back,” he said. “Most of the traveling in and around San Antonio was done on very poor unpaved roads. The farther out you got, the less improved they were.”

If the route was passable, the tourists could go as far south as Mission San Francisco de Espada, 12 miles from Alamo Plaza. The growing tourist trade also led many hotels to employ their own buses to shuttle passengers and luggage from the railroad terminals.

San Antonio’s first reliable intercity road, 16-feet wide, 87-miles long and financed with federal funds, was built to Austin in 1912. According to the Texas Transportation Museum website, the city’s first “store-bought” bus was delivered in 1923.

Pavement gave birth to intercity bus travel. The museum’s history site explains, “One of the first such companies was created by Josh Merritt in 1912 using a 1906 Packard modified to carry seven passengers.” His service ran to Houston and Austin.

One of the most significant startups was Painter Bus Lines of Uvalde. Owner Walter Painter entered the business in 1924 and drove the bus himself on 90-mile round trips to and from San Antonio. He later added routes to Eagle Pass and Del Rio. The company was sold in 1966.

The first decades of intercity bus competition were chaotic, leading the major operators to lobby the state for regulations, according to the museum history site.

There were no safety rules or insurance requirements.

“Serious contenders were thwarted in their attempts to buy and operate larger and safer buses as anyone with an old car would soon emerge to undercut their fares,” the museum site says. “Citing safety concerns, the larger operators formed a trade group to lobby for the imposition of strict regulations. Texas enacted the Motor Bus Law in 1927.”

With the business stabilized, a multicarrier bus terminal opened in 1929. Passengers could purchase tickets with connections as far away as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

San Antonio today is a major rail freight-switching center. In 2017, it attracted 29.7 million visitors who arrived by air or cruised over interstate highways in automobiles and luxury motorcoaches.

But, Hemphill said, “Without the railroads, the San Antonio we know today wouldn’t exist.”

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