Review of "San Antonio On Wheels" by Hugh Hemphill
By Ed Conroy, Special to the San Antonio Express-News

Ed Conroy is a San Antonio writer and development
director for the Southwest School of Art & Craft.

Published in the San Antonio Express News on Sunday 6/28/09

Hugh Hemphill's magnificent obsession with transportation has led him, as might well be expected, to produce a richly textured account of the evolution of wheeled transport on San Antonio's streets, and the town's transformation by the automobile.

As manager of the Texas Transportation Museum, and a lifetime enthusiast for cars and trains, Hemphill is uniquely qualified to tell this tale, and he obviously takes great pleasure in doing so.

"San Antonio on Wheels" is clearly the product of a significant amount of archival research — for the level of historical documentation and anecdotal detail he brings to this work is amazing, and often fascinating.

For example, after a short introduction paying homage to the heritage of horses, oxen and mules as bearers of four-wheeled vehicles, Hemphill informs us that, in 1901, when the first gasoline-powered "horseless carriage" came to town, there were 65 blacksmiths, three carriage painters and trimmers, four wagon makers and vendors (whom he names), 10 livery stables, and nine harness and saddle outlets.

Hemphill's attention to detail gets full throttle in his subsequent chapters on bicycles, velocipedes (an early kind of bicycle or tricycle) and high wheelers; horseless carriages proper; the selling, racing and building of automobiles in San Antonio; streetcars, fire engines and trucks; and his ode to the open road, titled "Driving Beyond San Antonio."

Through a wonderful marriage of the book's generally very good photos of early bicycle and auto enthusiasts, dealers and racers with his carefully organized text, Hemphill constructs an engaging narrative that brings the early days of motorized transport to life.

For San Antonians whose family histories go back generations, the book will be of particular interest, for Hemphill provides personal introductions to the people who made the transportation revolution happen in the Alamo City, and the stories of their own cars and car trips.

On Page 9, for example, we see two 1898 photos of Lewis Birdsong at the Roach & Barnes bicycle shop on West Commerce Street. On Page 19, a sharply focused 1910 photo shows the formally dressed Birdsong, now a dealer in Maxwell's, seated behind the wheel of an elegant Sports Roadster. Birdsong was both a noted auto dealer and racer.

I was amazed to find my own grandfather, Thomas Leo Conroy, mentioned in the book. Hemphill illustrates the poor condition of outlying roads in 1904 by recounting the tale of his trip with friends in his 24-horsepower "Green Man" to Pleasanton, which ended up in mild disaster. After getting stuck in sand, and running out of gas, they were towed home by a boy driving a mule wagon!

And, as Red McCombs notes in his Foreword: "My father was a country boy, born and raised on a farm. His dream was to someday be able to ride in a car on wheels. He fulfilled that dream at the age of 19, when the Ford dealer in the small Texas town of Spur allowed him to apprentice and develop his skill as an automobile mechanic ... I guess the apple didn't fall far from the tree, because, as his oldest child, my business career has been built around the sale of automobiles."

From the first, Hemphill notes, automobiles brought people together, either to race them, or to take trips together, as did the San Antonio Automobile Club. Everyone with the means wanted a car, and there was no lack of local and regional builders, who assembled cars from parts. His tales of local and regional auto builders, particularly the Lone Star manufacturers, who had their factory opposite Brackenridge High School, provide a glimpse of a largely unknown facet of local business history.

Hemphill also relates how the trolley system eventually became a bus system under pressure from car and bus makers, and throws light on the development of the "Old Spanish Trail," a southern-state, transcontinental highway that was a progenitor of Interstate 10.

"San Antonio on Wheels" is at its best in the romantic early years of our grandparents' and great-grandparents' love affair with the automobile.

When recounting events of later decades of the 20th century, the narrative flies over the treetops. While Hemphill gives credit to VIA as an award-winning public transportation system, there is little information on the debates over light rail of the past decade or advocacy for progressive mass transit development in his narrative. His account of Toyota's decision to locate to San Antonio is surprisingly rather brief.

Readers looking for thoughtful reflection on the problems brought about by local suburban development without adequate road and other infrastructure construction will be disappointed.

Nevertheless, as a long, prose love-poem to motorized transit in this city, "San Antonio on Wheels" cannot fail to move the heart of anyone who loves his or her car.
"San Antonio On Wheels"
is published by Maverick Publishing of San Antonio

 

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