Alamo is still one of the most iconic images of America’s past

May 30, 2016

The River Walk is the second most popular tourist attraction in San Antonio. It is bordered by sidewalks, gardens, cafes, shops and pedestrian bridges.

SAN ANTONIO — It was, quite honestly, a bucket-list side trip.

That’s why we detoured to San Antonio on our return from Austin to Houston, to see the home of the Alamo.

Yes, that Alamo, the historic one-time Catholic mission celebrated in Texas history, on television and in movies by Fess Parker, John Wayne and Billy Bob Thornton.

I’m glad we went.

The Alamo is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Texas and gets about 3 million visitors a year. It is the best-known building in Texas, although much of the compound has been lost over the years.

It is small, but the weathered limestone facade is still one of the most iconic images of America’s past.

Today what’s left of the beloved Alamo is considered hallowed ground by many. It is a 4.2-acre shrine to Texas liberty and an emblem of the American West. Texas is very proud of the Alamo, aware of its history and imagery of doomed bravery and the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

The ruined mission is where William Barret Travis, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 186 others died in 1836, fighting for Texas sovereignty against a Mexican force of 2,600 commanded by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The defenders of the Alamo were killed after a 13-day siege.

The Alamo is in the heart of downtown San Antonio — the seventh-largest city in the U.S. with 1.3 million people and a big military presence — and surrounded by souvenir shops, fast-food restaurants and Ripley, Guinness, Louis Tussaud and IMAX tourist attractions.

Admission is free. The Alamo offers frequent historic talks and tours, but you can explore on your own. You can rent video tours or pay for personal red-vested guides. A tour takes about 90 minutes.

A sign is posted directing men to remove their hats before entering the old church, one of two still-standing original buildings. Food, drink, cellphone use, pets, offensive clothing and photographs are prohibited inside the church.

The church features one dimly lit central area, several alcoves filled with displays and two rooms of exhibits. It is known as the Alamo Shrine.

On display are items including Bowie’s famed knife, a leather wallet and buckskin vest belonging to Crockett, a sword belonging to Santa Anna and other weapons, books and artifacts. Bullet holes in the walls are still visible.

Signs are prominently posted asking visitors to refrain from touching the crumbling stone walls.

Interesting tidbit: Musician Phil Collins spent $100 million buying about 200 artifacts and documents from the Alamo battle and the Texas Revolution. Collins grew up in England watching Parker portray Crockett in the Walt Disney miniseries in the 1950s. In 2014, he donated much of his collection to the state of Texas. The items are not yet on display; a new museum is planned to display them.

The Alamo church was built by Spanish missionaries and local American Indians starting in 1724 as the chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero. It closed in 1793. The then-roofless building became a garrison for Spanish troops, then Mexican troops.

In December 1835, Texans and Tejano (Hispanics born in Texas) volunteers trying to establish a Texas republic defeated Mexican forces in San Antonio and occupied the Alamo.

On Feb. 23, 1836, Santa Anna’s army approached. The Texans sent out calls for help, but little came.

The final attack came on March 6. Several Mexican assaults were pushed back before Santa Anna’s men scaled the walls and rushed into the compound. Brutal hand-to-hand combat resulted. Santa Anna ordered that no prisoners be taken.

It is unclear who died when, where and how. Crockett may have been executed the next day, according to some accounts. Santa Anna ordered the bodies burned.

"Remember the Alamo" became the Texas battle cry.

Six weeks later, Texans defeated the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna at the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto and proclaimed a Texas republic. Nine years later, the United States annexed Texas and in 1848 the U.S. won the Mexican-American War.

The Alamo’s rustic Long Barrack, where many of the defenders died, is also filled with exhibits. Its west wall is thought to be original, although the window and door openings have been altered.

After the battle, that building was used as a warehouse by the U.S. Army. It was covered with wood and became a commercial store.

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a nonprofit heritage group, bought the Long Barrack in 1904 to keep it from being turned into a hotel. It was later transferred to Texas. It was partially demolished in 1912 in a dispute over the structure’s historic value. The state had acquired the church in 1883.

The Alamo was operated from 1905 to 2011 by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Today the Alamo — its name is Spanish for cottonwood — is managed by the Texas General Land Office.

There is a gift shop where Crockett’s coonskin caps are best-selling items. Outside are lovely plazas filled with giant live oak trees and gardens.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily at 300 Alamo Plaza. It is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas. For more information, call 210-225-1391 or go to www.thealamo.org.

Outside the chapel is the city-owned Alamo Plaza (it was initially within the Alamo’s walls). It’s home to the Alamo Cenotaph, a stone monument that honors those who died.

The biggest attraction in San Antonio, after the Alamo, is the River Walk a block away.

It is a five-mile stretch of the San Antonio River bordered by sidewalks and crisscrossed with pedestrian bridges. It is an attractive and lively oasis, the center portion crowded with restaurants, bars and hotels. It is a bit touristy but very pretty.

You can explore the River Walk on foot or enjoy a 45-minute tour by boat. Water taxi service is also available.

The channelized river was proposed in 1929 and completed in 1941 by the federal Works Progress Administration. It has been expanded several times. A total of 15 miles of river have been restored.

For more information, go to www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com.

The Alamo is the best-known of San Antonio’s Spanish missions but there are four more, built along the San Antonio River from 1718 to 1749.

The others — Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada — make up the San Antonio Missions National Park. All four are active Catholic churches. For information, go to www.nps.gov/saan.

For San Antonio tourist information, call 800-447-3372 or go to http://visitsanantonio.com.

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