Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Then & Now: Draining the river

By Scott Huddleston
January 01, 2005

Express-News file photo
A pistol from the late 1800s and an arrowhead

that's several thousand years old are among the
many items, both trash and treasure, recovered
from the San Antonio River near the start of each

If the San Antonio River could talk, it would have many stories to tell.

And for at least a few days at the start of each year, some of its many tales surface in the form of trinkets, relics and other forgotten pieces of the past, when a 2 1/2-mile section of the river downtown is drained for cleaning and maintenance.

For decades, the annual draining of the river, one of the state's top tourist draws, has allowed crews to remove trash and treasure, check the river's downtown floodgates and repair crumbling walls on its banks.

American Indian ceramics and arrowheads, musket balls that might have been fired during the battle of the Alamo and stone tools at least 2,000 years old are among the many artifacts that have been dug up from the muddy riverbed.

Modern souvenirs pulled from the 4- to 5-foot-deep channel include cell phones, diamond engagement rings, cameras, baby strollers, jumper cables, a perennial collection of silverware and plates from restaurants, and folding chairs from river parades.

A few Timex watches have reportedly emerged, still ticking. In rare cases, wedding rings and other items of value have been returned to their owners.

City workers try to minimize the impact on fish, by moving tilapia, bass and other species to areas not fully drained. And crews have moved larger fish, including a carp weighing an estimated 15 pounds and an 8-pound bass.

In January 1987, businesses on the river started the annual Mud Festival. The lighthearted event includes crowning of a Mud King and Mud Queen. It was created to keep people coming to the River Walk even while it lacked its reflective waters and charm.

Freezing weather in some years has forced postponement of the river draining to protect plants on the banks.

In 1990, archaeologists hoping to find a cannon from the Alamo began digging for artifacts during the annual cleaning.

According to articles in the San Antonio Light, the 1836 diary of military surgeon Dr. J.H. Barnard stated that Mexican soldiers dumped artillery from the Alamo into the river after hearing that the Texians had won the war for independence.

Unlike the Thames River in London and the Seine in Paris, the San Antonio River's downtown reach, where early inhabitants lived, can be drained to reveal clues about the past, Wayne Gronquist, president of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, a nonprofit archaeological group, told the Light in 1991.

"This part of the river is archaeologically very significant," he said. "It really tells the history of San Antonio."

The Austin research group, using magnetometers to find iron deposits, dug near bridges and other sites where items could have been left in the river more than 150 years earlier.

One item found in 1991, a 1790 coin commemorating the 1788 coronation of King Carlos IV of Spain, was thought to have been made near Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Most items of interest were donated to the University of Texas at San Antonio. The Austin group unearthed dozens of artifacts, but not a single cannon from the Alamo battle. It conducted its fifth and final river dig in 1994.

City crews found a 1955 military ID card one year and returned it to its owner.

"That was pretty cool," Lincoln St. George, river operations superintendent in the city Parks and Recreation Department, told the Express-News last year.

By 1997, river maintenance officials were reporting less trash left on the river bottom. Yet a television, old skateboards and a rubber turtle were among the items pulled from the river last year.

This year's draining is set to begin Tuesday and end by Jan. 13, weather permitting. St. George said he often gets calls about lost jewelry, cell phones and other items. Most of the time, they're goners.

"We return things we've found, but we don't get shovels and go dig for things," he said last week. "If it's a ring, the mud's so thick, it's usually lost. If it's a cell phone, we may find it, but it's not gonna work."

The Mud Festival, including a ball, mud royalty coronation, arts and crafts fair, and a parade, is set for Jan. 12-15. To learn more, call the Paseo del Rio Association at (210) 227-4262, or go to its Web site.


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