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Early On, Cockrell Fought To Keep Locks In Mission Reach Plans

Looking at the Museum Reach today, it’s hard to even imagine the way it looked eight years ago.

"It was a trapezoidal ditch, with a very little water that ran down the middle of it," said architect Irby Hightower, who co-chaired the San Antonio River Oversight Committee with former Mayor Lila Cockrell.

That committee was the liaison between government entities and contractors, plus the stakeholders and interested parties. In between the original concept and 2007, a problem emerged: Project estimates skyrocketed. County Judge Nelson Wolff said the bids caused everyone to step back, take a breath and re-evaluate priorities.

"When we got the bids back to do the Museum Reach, it was almost twice as much as we anticipated it to be," Wolff said.

One aspect of the Reach was a particular challenge:

“The main thing that hung people up is that there is some fall in the river, about 9 ft., and people didn’t know what to do about that,” said former Mayor Phil Hardberger.

The question was how to deal with that elevation change between the Pearl and the Brooklyn Street bridge. There were options to manage that change -- a dam being one -- but the most expensive way had been chosen: a lock.

Here’s how the lock would work: Barges would enter the lock and doors would close behind them. River water would be injected into the lock, raising the barge up 9 ft. in a few minutes. Then the doors would open on the other side, and the barge continued upstream.

"Lila Cockrell was -- well she tells a great story but it’s true: When we were trying to decide what to do on that Lila came into my office once, literally in tears, and said, 'Please build the lock!' " Hardberger said.

"I absolutely did not cry, but he might’ve thought I was going to," said Cockrell of the brief meeting.

Recollections differ on that pivotal meeting, but Cockrell said the important thing is this: "Before I left his office I had a promise."

"She convinced me," said Hardberger. "We built the lock and I’m really glad we did."

Wolff also has a story about the locks and Hardberger: 

"He (Hardberger) said, 'How much do you think the Taj Mahal cost to build?' And I said, 'I have no idea.' And he said, 'Who cares? It’s one of the greatest architectural pieces in the world. This river will be thought of in that similar vein.' "

While not the Taj Mahal, the lock just past the Brooklyn Bridge is a very fascinating piece of engineering, and has become an attraction in and of itself.

Now that that the lock decision was out of the way, the actual design and engineering of the rest of the Museum Reach was next. The firm selected was Ford, Powell and Carson and the Museum Reach soon proved it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill job.

"The project had to be designed almost literally foot-by-foot. Every aspect of the project had to be treated individually and uniquely," said John Mize, who was project manager for the Museum Reach.

They encountered a few things they didn’t expect.

"The contractor found a dam that dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s," said Mize.

And there was this surprise about Boone Powell, the primary designer of the Museum Reach.

"Boone pretty much drew the entire project, the whole 6,900 feet of it by hand," Mize said.

So it turns out the Museum Reach was designed not in the world of computers, but with pencil on paper.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii