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Arts & Culture

City River Barges Sought A Venetian Vibe

The City of San Antonio recently revealed the new design of the city's river barges. So, what about River Barge History? The answers lie with a couple of the city's real river barge authorities, and of course, getting onto one of the barges for a tour. 

"Look on my right. Aztec Theater. Opened in 1926... ," says river barge Capt. Alfred Sanchez. 

Hundreds of people daily take the barge tour around the so-called horseshoe bend of the San Antonio River. That's the popular restaurant and bar-filled downtown loop. The rectangular,  37- by 9-foot, 35-person open-air barges weren't always there, though. They only became practical once city flood control projects stopped the cycle of deadly downtown floods, and once the city created the River Walk itself. Historian Lewis Fisher says it took an architectural visionary to conceive of the River Walk, and that was its designer Robert Hugman. Hugman saw that horseshoe bend as a kind of American Venice.

"He thought of it as a place for gondolas. And he designed the arched bridges so that they would be tall enough so that the gondolier could stand on his boat while he went under the bridge," Fisher says.

In real life, those gondolas didn't work so well. They were hard to pole with a full load of people, and the anti-flood cut-off channel was dug too deeply for poling. Consequently, the gondolas didn't last more than a few years. And then Robert Hugman was fired halfway through his project. The newly-cut limestone of the River Walk seemed garish and showy to some.

"It got to be a little too much for the city so he was dismissed," Fisher says.

But most of Hugman's River Walk architecture was already in place by then, so the city completed it in 1940. But then a huge event put its possibilities on hold.

"As soon as the River Walk was done we had World War II," Fisher says.  

And so the River Walk continued to bask in obscurity. But in the late 1940s an appliance store owner by the name of Alfred Beyer decided to try something no one else had yet on the river.  

"He thought it might bring  in some extra revenue if he dug out his basement and put in a Mexican Restaurant down beside the river. And so that's what he did."

So Alfred Beyer created the River Walk's first river level eatery--Casa Rio.

"I don't say he was genius or could see into the future. I think he was broke and desperate to try and make a living. And it worked," says Beyer's grandson, Bill Lyons.   

As an attempt to promote the river experience--and his restaurant--he got the city contract to operate the river barges. Many different kinds of barges were created during the 50 years Casa Rio held the city contract, including one with swan heads that promptly got decapitated on a low bridge. Lyons says Beyer kept on trying new ideas, including boats with fringed canvas shade-giving tops, and even those 2-person foot-powered ones.

"He did paddle-boats, and the paddle boats were very popular. Until the tour boats got so numerous that the paddle boats were obstructing the tour boats from making their tour," Lyons says.

Beyer eeked by for a decade, with one major new development. In 1958, he figured out how to serve Casa Rio dinners on the barges themselves as they floated down the river.

"There was not just anyplace in the country that had that kind of experience--where you could eat dinner on a boat...And that uniqueness was picked up by Southern Living and they put that old boat on the front cover of their magazine."

That September 1966 Southern Living magazine cover gave the Alamo City a lot of attention but it wasn't until HemisFair in 1968 where San Antonio tourism, and river barge development boomed.

Lyons says, "They designed that barge for the '68 era. And that's basically the design that we still have on the river.  We did the prototype of natural gas before we lost the contract in '95."

From poling to foot-powered to gas-powered to LPG gas, and now to its new battery power, river barge ingenuity has run the gamut. The newest iteration is the most environmentally-friendly one yet.

"The River Walk is an evolution. It did not just occur overnight. There was a lot of trial and error. There was a number of different boats tried in the past before my grandfather--he kept it going."

Houston-based Metalab designed the new battery-powered prototype, and last August the bright yellow papel picado-decorated river barge first glided underneath Hugman's arched bridges and by the Arneson River Theatre. Loren and Pamela Gideon were here on vacation and saw old and new together.

"I like it a lot better than the old one there," Loren Gideon says.

"Absolutely" says Ms. Gideon. "It's vibrant. And very fresh."

That prototype will be tweaked, then reproduced, replacing the current fleet by the city's Tricentennial in May of 2018. Somewhere in the future yet more innovation will change both the River Walk and the barges that float down it. 

Find more on the barge rides here