San Antonio Flood of 1921
Two weeks ago – September 8 through 10 – was the anniversary of one of the worst disasters to occur in the city of San Antonio.
On one hand, the story of the 1921 flood is a relatively straightforward one of a large amount of rain causing area rivers and creeks to overflow their banks. In his work Riverwalk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River, author Lewis F. Fisher sets the stage for the flood and describes the day-by-day, hour-by-hour progression of the rising water:
Winds gusting up to ninety-five miles an hour lashed the eastern coast of Mexico as the second hurricane of the season hit south of Tampico on September 7, 1921. Inland, as the hurricane swerved sharply north, its intensity lowered to that of a tropical storm, then weakened again. In the night it swung northeastward into Texas near Laredo and headed directly for San Antonio, packing still high winds with violent, heavy thunderstorms (45)…
Advance showers on the night of Thursday, September 8, 1921, broke a dry spell of two months…Occasional hard showers followed early the next day.
The main body of the storm hit Friday afternoon. Severe thunderstorms broke out at 6 p.m…After three hours the thunderstorms ended and the rain’s intensity began to ebb. The river was four feet from the top of the plank retaining wall near Pecan Street, but residents went to bed thinking all was well…
Rain over Olmos Creek’s watershed, however, had been twice as heavy as that over San Antonio. At 9 p.m. Olmos Creek began to overflow its banks. As its waters surged into the San Antonio River, the river began rising one foot every five minutes in Brackenridge Park…
At 11:30 p.m., waters from the Olmos reached the Fourth Street/Lexington Avenue Bridge, at the northern edge of town, where the river was already two feet above its banks. An hour later, water there was up nearly three feet more.
At midnight Saturday, September 10, the river went over its banks onto St. Mary’s Street and within twelve minutes was more than six feet deep at the Travis Street intersection as six north-south streets turned into auxiliary river channels. At St. Mary’s and Houston streets, water reached nearly to the mezzanine at the Gunter Hotel (50).
By the time the river crested around 2:00 a.m. Saturday morning, roughly fourteen inches of rain had fallen on the Olmos Creek drainage area and San Antonio had received almost seven inches of rain over twenty-three hours of steady rainfall.
The damage to the central core of the city as a result of the flood was significant. A thousand acres of the city were flooded, and a three-quarter square mile area of downtown was under two to twelve feet of water. The city’s water, electricity, and telephone services were temporarily shut off. Streets, bridges, and buildings were torn apart, and damages were estimated at $3.7 million. Most tragic was the human toll: fifty-one people were confirmed dead and an additional twenty-three were listed as missing. Scholars believe that the actual number of deaths was higher than these official numbers.
This narrative of the flood and its immediate consequences is only part of the story, however. The storm itself continued northeast from San Antonio, causing damage in communities near Austin. Area residents – with significant help from federally-funded troops and equipment from Camp Travis – undertook the immense tasks of rescuing those stranded by the water, identifying and caring for the bodies of the dead, aiding the homeless and displaced, restoring city services, and clearing out debris left behind when the water receded. Taking a longer view, the story of the 1921 fits into the broader context of San Antonians’ evolving relationship with the river and the history of their efforts to utilize, bridge, control, and beautify it.
Finally, as indicated by historian Char Miller in the introduction of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio, the story of the 1921 flood and its aftermath illustrates the connection between “physical space and social structure” (13). While the damage to San Antonio’s downtown was significant, the “small creeks threading through the Hispanic west side proved as fierce and more deadly: they blasted out of their banks, crashed through the shacks and shanties, killing scores” (12). Indeed, all but four of the fifty-one confirmed deaths occurred along the San Pedro and Alazan creek systems in the west side.
As Miller asserts, “the city’s response to the great loss of life and staggering destruction was revealing.”
Determined to protect the downtown, the citizenry voted to build a dam across the Olmos Valley. Once completed, the Olmos Dam not only stopped future high waters from washing through the central district but facilitated the construction to its east and west a pair of suburban enclaves that sheltered the city’s elite. The skyline also exploded upwards, as investors poured capital into the development of tall buildings on the former floodplain; and an old idea – a River Walk – was revived, and ultimately realized, now that flood controls were in place. For these reasons the Olmos Dam is arguably the city’s most important public works project (12).
However, Miller writes in Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas that the dam was also a failure because “the decision to build it depended upon a disturbing and remarkably skewed distribution of public benefits in one of America’s poorest big cities” (64). Expanding upon this idea in On the Border, he writes that
social reformers may have clamored for flood-control projects on the West Side to elevate the waterlogged barrios and funding to build better housing for this most destitute of neighborhoods, but their appeals fell on deaf ears: on the same day that the city commissioners released $3 million for the dam’s construction, they committed a paltry $6,000 to the widening and clearing of the Alazan and San Pedro Creeks, whose rampaging waters had killed so many. This remarkable disparity in financial investment and flood-prevention technology would continue for the next fifty years; until the mid-1970s, when reenergized Hispanic voters gained political power, the management of San Antonio’s flood waters cut along sharply etched ethnic divisions and class lines (12-13).
Update, May 2011:
Thanks to the eagle eyes and detective skills of “Inside the Gates” reader Mathew Martin, we now have additional information about the first photograph included in this blog entry.
The image appears to have been taken on Houston Street between Navarro and St. Mary’s Streets, looking west. On the left are the Royal Theatre in the foreground and the Rand building (which housed the Wolff & Marx Co. in 1921) further back. On the right are the Gunter Hotel in the foreground and the Stowers Furniture Co. in the background.
Mat is the Archivist and Curator of Old and Rare Books at the Oblate School of Theology’s Southwestern Oblate Historical Archives. We certainly appreciate his help with the photograph!
References and Further Reading
C. E. Ellsworth, The Floods in Central Texas in September, 1921 (1923)
Lewis F. Fisher, Crown Jewel of Texas: The Story of San Antonio’s River (1997)
Lewis F. Fisher, Riverwalk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River (2007)
Char Miller, Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas (2004)
Char Miller, editor, On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (2005)