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'Eva VanderHoeven never drove her 1906 Woods Electric Victoria EV again after dragging a man by his suitcoat across Alamo Plaza'
Autos ignited momentous change in San Antonio
August 5, 2017 David Hendricks
[images / Texas Transportation Museum
Members of the San Antonio Automobile Club are shown crossing the rocky Cibolo Creek bed on a club trip to New Braunfels in 1904
Lewis Birdsong is shown with a 1904 Curved Dash Oldsmobile on tour across Texas
San Antonio auto pioneer Lewis Birdsong races a Maxwell vehicle along Blanco Road in 1910
Auto racing caught on quickly in San Antonio. Shown are cars racing in 1906
Ford's first San Antonio "agency" operated next door to the Alamo church building, shown with Model T cars in front
A newspaper advertisement reports the arrival of an electric car in San Antonio in October 1899
Hugh Hemphill, author of "San Antonio on Wheels," looks at a 1920 remodeled Ford Model T speedster at the Texas Transportation Museum, which Hemphill manages
/ David Hendricks /San Antonio Express-News
A 1924 Ford Model TT truck is on display at San Antonio's Texas Transportation Museum
/ David Hendricks /San Antonio Express-News
A 1918 yellow Oldsmobile Model 37 speedster is on display at San Antonio's Texas
/ David Hendricks /San Antonio Express-NewsTransportation Museum
When the first automobiles — or “horseless carriages” as they were called — arrived in San Antonio, the city’s residents were more than ready.
San Antonio literally stank, especially during the heat of summers, because of the animal-drawn 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.”
As in other cities, too, the automobile transformed San Antonio in many other ways, guiding its daily life, growth and commerce.
Hemphill cannot fully document it, but he believes the first horseless carriage to make a San Antonio appearance came in 1897.
The Montgomery Ward company that year purchased two electric-powered cars and conducted a tour in Texas to show them off. San Antonio staged a large international fair each year in those days, and Montgomery Ward was a main participant. It is documented that the two Montgomery Ward-owned autos were seen in Houston and Dallas in 1897, and they almost certainly came to San Antonio, too, Hemphill said, because San Antonio was the second-largest city in Texas after Galveston at the time.
A San Antonian named George Lutz built a prototype steam-powered vehicle the next year, in 1898. He started a firm called the Lutz Steam Co. to build and sell the vehicle, but it was gone by 1899. No photo of the vehicle exists. Lutz re-appeared in 1917 in Buffalo, N.Y., still trying to build steam-powered autos, but production never materialized beyond a possible second prototype.
In 1899, though, another electric vehicle arrived, announced by an advertisement in San Antonio’s The Daily Light newspaper placed by Staacke Bros., a livery company that sold and serviced buggies and carriages. The electric car was probably a Studebaker, since Staacke Bros. sold Studebaker wagons.
The newspaper ad, dated Oct. 20, 1899, reported that the batteries had not arrived with the vehicle. “The wheels have wooden spokes and rubber tires. The lights on either side of the dashboard are lighted by electricity,” the ad stated.
“We don’t know what happened to it,” Hemphill said. “Without the batteries, there was no article about its performance. We don’t know if it was sold, and how the batteries were charged.”
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.
But 1902 was a big year for autos in San Antonio, thanks to downtown bicycle stores. The Roach & Barnes store at 218 W. Commerce St. in February put on display a steam-powered Locomobile built in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
A few months later, 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 were young men in their early 20s who had read magazine accounts of autos but had never seen one. They assembled the Curved Dash Oldsmobile in a backyard at 708 Marshall St. after it arrived by a horse-drawn wagon in a crate. They added oil and fuel and used a handcrank to start the one-cylinder engine under the seat.
They drove around in the yard before taking it onto the few paved streets at the time, including South Alamo Street, going 12 mph. They made it to a horse racetrack on McDonald Street, now Riverside Park, and “raced” the vehicle up to 30 mph.
“Birdsong and Crothers had a great day. 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 formed in 1903 and scheduled activities that helped popularize the auto for a still-skeptical public. Members organized group excursions. The first involved 12 vehicles that traveled to the Medina River and back on a road toward Corpus Christi.
A second club task was to bring election results from outlying counties to the San Antonio Express newspaper. The third excursion, with only three cars, went from downtown San Antonio to New Braunfels, the main difficulty crossing the dry, boulder-strewn Cibolo Creek bed.
In later years, club members went on to establish the first road maps and advocated with San Antonio’s local governments for better roads and for driving rules. The first locally issued regulations in 1910, Hemphill said, included the rule to “drive on the right side” of the road. “These early motorists took over the mantle from the cyclists to improve the roads,” Hemphill observed.
In 1904, Birdsong and friend Welcome Smith embarked on a promotion tour throughout Texas with a Curved Dash Oldsmobile, sending reports to newspapers along the way. Their car was the first view for many Texans in smaller towns of a “horseless carriage,” Hemphill said.
The first asphalt in San Antonio, which came from a mine near Uvalde, was put down on the downtown corner of St. Mary’s and Market streets as a test section, Hemphill said.
The first recorded San Antonio auto accident occurred after a San Antonio lawyer, T.T. VanderHoeven, purchased a 1906 Woods Electric Victoria for his wife, Eva. On her first try at driving the car, Eva somehow dragged a man by his suitcoat across Alamo Plaza. She never drove the vehicle again, according to Hemphill. The settlement: a new suit for the victim.
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.
Ford found success across the nation and in San Antonio first with the still-pricey Ford Model N. The Ford company opened an agency in San Antonio in 1908 with the Model N, the same year the more affordable Model T was introduced.
“Here’s the interesting thing. The (agency) building was literally in the shadow of the Alamo,” at 720 E. Houston St., Hemphill said. The first Model T’s were sold and serviced in San Antonio 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, accelerating the pace of 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,” said historian and author Lewis Fisher.
“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, making old landmarks unrecognizable. A rare downtown exception was Losoya Street, which for one block has surviving landmarks that still give a sense of what streets were like a century ago, and, by necessity, is one way,” 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.”
A cleaner San Antonio also had a more mobile citizenry, freeing the city to grow as never before. The San Antonio of the 1800s and its smells were gone forever.
[© 2017 Hearst Communications]
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