‘American Venice’ Explores Complete History of the River Walk

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A steam fire engine pumps floodwaters from a downtown basement in San Antonio, October 1913. Historic photo courtesy of Lewis Fisher.

A steam fire engine pumps floodwaters from a downtown basement in San Antonio, October 1913. Historic photo courtesy of Lewis Fisher.

Lewis Fisher started as journalist at the San Antonio Express-News in 1969 and has since become an author, historian, and publisher. At the root of his accomplishments are his skills as a journalist: inquisitiveness, keen observation and thorough research.

An alchemy occurs when Fisher takes on a task. He has revived memories that would be otherwise forever lost to time and he has built a publishing company that specializes in doing this for a variety of historical subjects, opening up passages across space and time for readers to explore.

His 10 books result from careful excavation and research of San Antonio history to tell stories of the San Antonio Missions, the Spanish Acequias, Charles Guenther, the Alamo, and the city’s historic plazas and River Walk.

“(You have to be) patient while tracking stories down to their original sources. Then you have to synthesize large amounts of information to make it readable and easily understood, and tuck interesting but tangential details back in the footnotes,” he said.

The finished flood chanel of the San Antonio River through downtown in 1930. Historic photo courtesy of Lewis Fisher.

The finished flood channel of the San Antonio River through downtown in 1930. Historic photo courtesy of Lewis Fisher.

Fischer founded Maverick Publishing Company in 1996 with his wife, Mary, who is a member of the renowned Maverick family of San Antonio. He will continue to work as an editorial advisor to Trinity University Press, which acquired the company in late 2014.

(Read more about the company acquisition here on the Rivard Report.)

The first book to be published under the Maverick Books imprint is Fisher’s newest book, “American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River.”

Lewis Fisher at his computer. Photo by Casey Howell.

Lewis Fisher at his computer. Photo by Casey Howell.

With two books previously published on this subject, “Crown Jewel of Texas” (1996) and “River Walk: The Epic Story San Antonio’s River” (2007), Fisher is the leading authority on the evolution of San Antonio’s most celebrated – and developed – land feature. San Antonio’s $12 billion tourism industry thrives because of the River Walk and the institutions it connects such as the Alamo.

Richly illustrated “American Venice” includes new historical images and documents the Museum and Mission Reach portions of the River Walk, which, according to Fisher, makes it “one of the most spectacular linear parks in the world.”

“American Venice” provides a detailed account of the River Walk, from the city’s founding to modern improvement projects. Throughout these two hundred years, citizens have fought to keep it from being an open sewer, save trees along the bank, clear trash from the river, and beautify its banks. There are accounts of outlawing nude bathing on the banks in the 1850s and restricting chain restaurants in the 2000s. All along, these fights have been accompanied by the predictably unpredictable South Texas droughts and floods. We witness a long line of San Antonio mayors wielding their power to start, stop, and restart flood control and river improvements.

A postcard from San Antonio, described as the "Venice of America." Image courtesy of Boston Public Library. https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:zk51w360b

A postcard from San Antonio, described as the “Venice of America.” Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Fisher traces the visionary talent of Robert H. H. Hugman, who played a vital role in the River Walk’s initial design conception. Hugman proposed that San Antonio incorporate its Spanish heritage in the same way the New Orleans benefits from its French origins, and he is responsible for much of the original work, including Arneson River Theater and Rosita’s Bridge. Fisher also explains the vital role played by the Works Progress Administration in the River Walk’s early history, contributing 21 blocks of sidewalks, stairways, dams and landscaping.

“Much of the new material covers the eventful eight years since my earlier book came out, in particular the remarkable story of how the River Walk was extended from three to fifteen miles. That came from newspaper files and interviews with key figures in the expansion,” Fisher said. “I tweaked existing historical background with new perspectives, notably from a couple of oral history interviews with Robert Hugman, the original designer of the River Walk.”

Fisher says the number of illustrations have doubled from his last book to 419.

“Many new ones are photographs of the new sections, but there are also a great many historical images previously unpublished. A trove provided by a collector in Houston includes an image of the first ‘steamboat’ on the San Antonio River, the Hilda, a small boat rigged up with a steam engine and paddle wheels by an equipment supplier on Houston Street in the 1880s,” he said. “Buried in a collection at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, I found images of boat concessions at the Houston Street Bridge in the early 1900s, a time you don’t think of as having had such amenities.”

The internet has provided another new source of images.

“Since the dawn of photography, soldiers and tourists have been taking home snapshots of the riverbanks, eventually including the River Walk. Dealers buy the photos from their estates or estates of their children and grandchildren and put them up for sale on eBay, usually with little identification. A bumper crop of such images over the last few years has added unexpected breadth to visual portrayals of the River Walk,” Fisher said.

“American Venice” documents, step by step, how the River Walk transformed through the years to become a primary destination for 11.5 million people each year. With specific details about how “persistence politics” worked to achieve this major project, it will be an invaluable resource for other cities wanting to learn from the process. In “American Venice,” Fisher provides evidence of how the River Walk is a lesson in “environmental preservation and restoration, water conservation, neighborhood renewal, historic preservation and inspired public art.”

"American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River" by Lewis F. Fisher. Publisher: Maverick Books/Trinity University Press, Jan. 2014.

“American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River” by Lewis F. Fisher. Publisher: Maverick Books/Trinity University Press, January 2014.

Fisher started both his newspaper and publishing companies because he observed a need for them in San Antonio.

“I was struck by the lack of a paid circulation suburban newspaper in San Antonio, of the type that I had worked for in college in upstate New York. So after a couple of years at the Express, I decided to seize the opportunity and started the North San Antonio Times, which grew into a large group of suburban weeklies.” Fisher published these for 21 years before leaving the business and writing his first historical book. He was hired by the San Antonio Conservation Society to write “Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage.”

“I did not write the history of the (Conservation Society) but the history of the historic preservation movement in San Antonio. In the process of that I discovered all sorts of myths and misinformation about San Antonio that everybody believed but the documentation (shows) happened quite differently,” said Fisher.

During his days as a journalist, he learned the skill of how “to be skeptical without being cynical. There’s usually a kernel of truth in there which originated the story,” he said.

Fisher’s deciphering takes years of painstaking research through forgotten old card catalogs, microfilms and oral histories.

“It’s there, if you dig, and you know where to look,” Fisher said.

This dedication has made Fisher’s own books and Maverick Publishing Company a success. Fisher’s newspaper experience taught him that “relevant images, properly cropped and displayed, are of great importance. Some seem afraid to alter a photo, and leave in extraneous details that confuse the viewer and sacrifice impact. Whenever I deal with an image, I think of the words of Edmund Arnold, one of the nation’s great newspaper designers, who in his seminars would always emphasize, ‘Crop ruthlessly, enlarge generously.’”

Another lesson Fisher applies is that “journalists are not allowed writer’s block.”

So when he wrote “Chili Queens, Hay Wagons and Fandangos,” Fisher said, “I started with dozens of images on my screen and no idea of how they would work together. I felt frozen.

“You start by pulling out a few images and group them together, see a few more relationships and group them somewhere else and pretty soon everything flows. I ended up with a book with unique—and dramatically illustrated—perspectives on the last years of the Old West in San Antonio as portrayed on its signature Spanish plazas,” he said.

While working on his first book, he realized that “once the whole process was uncovered and laid out, it became an incredible story of the civic consciousness and the civic responsibility that people felt for saving the river and preserving it.”

With that observation, Fisher may as well have been describing his own story.

*Featured/top image: The finished flood channel of the San Antonio River through downtown in 1930. Historic photo courtesy of Lewis Fisher.

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2 thoughts on “‘American Venice’ Explores Complete History of the River Walk

  1. It would be fascinating to hear Fisher’s assessment of the current building boom that is wildly altering view sheds along the linear park. it would also be nice to show a running meter as to how many apartment units we are adding monthly to the urban core. Robert Rivard, has anyone mapped all the new units and what’s coming on line? And proposed? We see the stories individually, so it would be nice to put it out there graphically for your readers. I know the King William Association commissioned an intern to study our historic district and document open and vulnerable lots, conditions of houses. Zoning, roofing types, etc. With MAPS! Very good perspective for us as we along the river and the Acequia Madre are always part of this saga. What will the river look like in 20-50 years? Predictions?

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