The Alamo: Frontier Outpost to City Center, 1865–1890

By: Dr. R. Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation

The Alamo’s days as a military outpost were drawing to a close. The end of the Civil War occasioned the return of the United States Army to San Antonio, including its reoccupation of the old church and Long Barrack. Soldiers also returned to the line of western forts abandoned at the start of the war. Although settlers still faced raids from hostile Indians, Texas was transforming from a raw frontier to a landscape dotted with established cities, towns, farms, and ranches. Even San Antonio, which had existed for nearly one hundred and fifty years on the leading edge of the Spanish/Mexican/Texan/U.S. frontier, began to reflect this change.

Several factors revived San Antonio’s fortunes. The return of the U.S. Army brought stability to the region as well and resurrected a local market for corn, hay, and cattle. Moreover, in the few first years after the war, San Antonio became a cattle town as south Texas ranchers moved herds north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. The town’s merchants outfitted trail bosses and drovers with necessary supplies for their drives, which could last between three and four months. During this era the city council passed ordinances designed to regulate rowdy cowboy behavior such as “immoderately riding or driving” animals through the streets and plazas. Notices also went out to warn freighters and cattlemen that they could no longer park wagons in the city plazas overnight. The arrival of the railroad to San Antonio in 1877 also impacted the city, as it transformed San Antonio into a rail head, meaning that cattle could be shipped out and goods shipped in. The train also began to bring an increasing number of travelers attracted to San Antonio by its exotic location and historic past.

San Antonio’s newfound prosperity affected the Alamo. The location of the old mission and fort made its grounds desirable real estate. Councilmen and merchants sought to transform the mission’s footprint from its industrial park-like existence into something more suitable for a growing, prosperous city. In 1871, the Catholic Archdiocese, which still owned the property, sold the central portion of the old compound — today known as Alamo Plaza — to the city. The city removed the old granary located at the southern end of the compound and put a city run meat market in its place.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Alamo Plaza.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 27, 2017.

As the decade progressed, the U.S. Army concluded that it needed to consolidate their facilities in one location instead of renting various properties around town. City leaders arranged for the military to move to an isolated spot located a mile to the north. The army’s 1877 move to Government Hill marked the beginning of what would become Fort Sam Houston. With the army out of the Church and Long Barrack, these structures became available for sale as well. A merchant named Honore Grenet purchased the Long Barrack and converted it into a large store. His heirs sold the property to the firm Hugo & Schmeltzer in 1882. In 1883, the State of Texas purchased the church intending it to be maintained as a memorial honoring the men of the Alamo who died on March 6, 1836. The legislators then granted the city of San Antonio custody of the site.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Old Alamo Store, Great Stone.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 27, 2017.

Elsewhere in the old mission compound, Samuel A. Maverick, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence who had represented the Alamo defenders at the Convention of 1836, purchased the northwest corner lot in 1849 to build a new home for his growing family. He also purchased several of the former mission houses that made up the old west wall, using the locations for his expanding businesses. Maverick’s sons commissioned noted architect Alfred Giles to design “The Crockett Block,” which was erected in 1882 and still stands today. In 1855, another business opened near the Alamo, William A. Menger’s beer garden and boarding house. By 1859, the Menger Hotel offered customers upscale accommodations.

Menger Hotel, circa 1860.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, San Antonio’s city council made a concerted effort to improve the area surrounding the Alamo, enacting stricter fire codes and requiring business owners around the plaza to keep their property clean and swept. By 1878, the horse drawn street cars of the San Antonio Street Railroad Company carried riders between Alamo Plaza and San Pedro Springs. Four years later, San Antonio could boast of a new Opera House located just off the plaza. More improvements followed. Public water closets appeared on Alamo Plaza in 1887 to accommodate the many tourist who now converged on the town. By 1890, the plaza was paved with mesquite blocks and bordered by new sidewalks. Landscaping, including an ornamental fountain with piped in city water, completed the plaza’s new appearance.

As the nineteenth century ended, San Antonio no longer resembled the small Spanish frontier outpost it had once been. The town had become a major city with all of the hallmarks of a modern metropolis of the era. The rush for modernity had not been without a cost, though. Many of the city historic structures — including the Alamo — faced destruction as the city reinvented itself.