Streets became cleaner; city was no longer as isolated
Cars put one-horse town of S.A. on the road to the future.
When the first automobiles — or “horseless carriages” as they were called — arrived in San Antonio, residents were more than ready.
San Antonio literally stank, especially during the heat of summers, because of the animaldrawn buggies, carriages, streetcars, omnibuses and delivery vehicles.
“The arrival of the automobile got rid of all the horses, mules and oxen, making San Antonio more sanitary. The blight of manure on the streets, the disease and the flies, went away,” said Hugh Hemphill, Texas Transportation Museum manager and author of “San Antonio on Wheels.”
A San Antonio banker, J.D. Anderson, purchased the first gasoline-powered car in San Antonio in 1901, Hemphill said. It was a Haynes-Apperson model. Anderson in 1903 became one of the 13 original members of the San Antonio Automobile Club.
During the summer of 1902, the Crothers & Birdsong bicycle store purchased the gasoline-powered Curved Dash Oldsmobile, the nation’s first mass-produced car.
Lewis Birdsong and Frank Crothers assembled the Curved Dash Oldsmobile in a backyard. They added oil and fuel and used a hand crank to start the one-cylinder engine under the seat.
They drove around in the yard before taking the car onto the few paved streets at the time, including South Alamo, going 12 mph. They made it to a horse racetrack on McDonald, now Riverside Park, and “raced” the vehicle up to 30 mph.
“On the way back to the house, they were stopped by someone who offered to buy it. In one day, these young men had built it, learned to drive it and sold it, in the process becoming San Antonio’s first automobile dealer. They then ordered another one,” Hemphill said.
The San Antonio Automobile Club scheduled activities that helped popularize the auto for a still skeptical public. Members organized group excursions. One of the club’s tasks was to bring election results from outlying counties to the San Antonio Express newspaper.
Year by year in the first decade of the 1900s, carmakers nationally struggled to dominate the burgeoning industry, a competition famously won by Henry Ford. The Ford company opened an agency in San Antonio in 1908.
“The (agency) building was literally in the shadow of the Alamo,” at 720 E. Houston St., Hemphill said. The first Model T’s in San Antonio were sold and serviced there.
“The introduction of the Model T democratized vehicle ownership. A middle-class person could reasonably expect to own an automobile,” Hemphill said. “The Model T was not only a low-budget car, it was made of steel, not wood.”
The automobile revolution was on, driving change in San Antonio.
“The automobile didn’t just make it easier to get around town, it made San Antonio less isolated from the rest of the country once the Old Spanish Trail Highway and other roads, predecessors of the interstate highway system, began linking San Antonio with other cities in the 1920s,” historian and author Lewis Fisher said.
“Earlier, the automobile changed the face of the city as increased traffic caused the city to widen the narrow Spanish streets. It was usually done by forcing property owners on one side to shear off their facades and build new ones farther back,” Fisher added.
“The automobile helped accelerate the development of suburbs, the wealthy suburbs and the less-wealthy suburbs,” Hemphill said. “It also allowed for zoning, with heavy industry, warehousing and manufacturing moving from the city center. Before trucks, these businesses had to be downtown because that’s where the railroads were. So automobiles made the city cleaner.”
Lewis Birdsong races a Maxwell in 1910. In a backyard in 1902, he helped assemble a Curved Dash Oldsmobile, the nation’s first mass-produced car.
Ford’s first San Antonio agency operated next door to the Alamo church building. Model T’s sit in front.