The Railroad Era and Industrial Development

1865-1910

In 1877, the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad arrived in San Antonio and sparked major growth in both business and population. Four years later, the International‐Great Northern Railroad reached the city, and several other lines followed (Fehrenbach 2009). As San Antonio expanded into a regional commercial, agricultural processing, and transport hub, services for the growing population also expanded. Infrastructure improvements such as road maintenance, water supply systems, telephone, and electric service all emerged to meet the needs of the growing city. The city’s boom period continued through the turn of the century, and by 1900, the population had risen to 53,321 (Fehrenbach 2009).

In the early 1900s, the city continued its pattern of expansion. The county’s agricultural economy grew dramatically, and San Antonio’s processing and shipping facilities developed to serve the ever‐increasing demand of area farmers. Between 1880 and 1920, the number of county farms increased by 300 percent, and the acreage in farmland more than doubled (Long 2010a). The manufacturing industry also flourished with the rise of the railroad. The most dramatic growth in the industry occurred between 1880 and 1890 when the number of people employed in factories skyrocketed from a scant 362 to over 2,500. The growth continued through the early twentieth century, reaching almost 7,000 by 1920 (Long 2010a).

Visitors can still see remnants of early rail-related processing and manufacturing facilities along the Mission Trails hike and bike trail. Significant examples along the hike and bike trail include the Blue Star Street Industrial Historic District, Pioneer Flour Mills, and the Big Tex Grain Elevator Complex. The Blue Star Street Industrial Historic District includes four warehouses built between 1917 and 1934. The buildings operated as distribution warehouses until 1985 when the property was purchased to develop a mixed-use residential and commercial complex including lofts, galleries, and artists’ workspaces. The Blue Star Art Space, a contemporary art gallery, opened in 1986 and is known nationally for its exhibits. The buildings are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Pfeiffer 1994).

The remnants of the Big Tex Grain Elevator Complex are located between the San Antonio River and the Missouri Kansas and Texas railway (formerly San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway) just south of San Antonio’s downtown and represent a significant example of an early twentieth century grain processing complex. There were several similar facilities in the city; however, this unique facility was owned by the railroad and leased to multiple tenants over the years. The tenants, including Whitley Milling Co. and McIver Milling Co., provided milling services, storage, and a variety of agricultural products for the local San Antonio market. Though most of the buildings on site have recently been demolished, the National Register of Historic Places-eligible circa 1917 terminal elevator is still standing and prominently visible from the Mission Trails hike-and-bike trail (McWhorter 2011).

Visitors to the Mission Trails hike and bike trail can also see the iconic Pioneer Flour Mills complex from the hike and bike trail. This mill was initially founded as C. H. Guenther and Sons by Carl Hilmar Guenther, a millwright who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the late 1840s. In 1878, Guenther replaced his original water-powered mill with a three-story structure that could produce a much larger amount of flour. In 1902, Carl Guenther died, and his son Erhard became president of the company, which had become known as Pioneer Flour Mill. Many of the current structures on site were built after Erhard took over the company (Watson et al., 1994). Specifically, in 1914 the company replaced its wood-frame mill with a six-story, concrete and steel building. The increased capacity was necessary to supply the new military bases in San Antonio that were constructed during and after World War I. Additional buildings included the twenty-story crenellated grain elevator tower built in 1922, the seven-story mill built in 1924, and storage tanks built in 1929 (Dinger 2007).

Big Tex Grain Complex

Big Tex Grain Complex

Pioneer Flour Mill

Pioneer Flour Mill

Image Sources

  • Big Tex. City of San Antonio Files.
  • Pioneer Flour Mill. City of San Antonio Files.
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