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Historic Transportation

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“East or west, desert, mountains or gulf, the marks of the padres and the conquistadores are there to make men pause and try to peer into that courageous past.� Excerpted from The Story of the Old Spanish Trail by Harral Ayres

The Old Spanish Trail Traveling in the Footsteps of Padres and Conquistadores


By Pamela Murtha

ounded in 1915 and headquartered in Mobile, Alabama, the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA) was dedicated to the establishment of a coast-to-coast Southern highway from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego, California. As was common with “good roads” organizations of that era, the OSTA did not actually raise money to build the roadway but lobbied for state and federal funding while publicly promoting the named highway. The Association’s first convention gathered 419 representatives from Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and the group soon added members from Texas, New Mexico, and California. These delegates were a mix of state and local politicians, members of chambers of commerce, newspaper reporters, civic leaders, and good roads enthusiasts. The proposed route for the transcontinental highway was designed to align with the region’s Spanish Colonial history, lending a cultural identity that the organization hoped would help in promotion and funding for the project. The roadway from Florida to the Texas border roughly followed expeditions charted by Hernando de Soto, Alvár Núñez, Cabeza de Vaca, and Pánfilo Narváez. Segments within the Lone Star State aligned with portions of long-established trade and immigration routes, cattle trails, military roads, and stage lines associated with Spanish exploration and colonization. The OST highway was an ambitious undertaking—spanning nearly 3,000 miles across eight states,

with the added challenge of traversing impassable swamplands in the southeastern portion and bridging five major waterways that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Given these barriers, construction of the route would be expensive, and state governments were reluctant to provide financing. The organization initially concentrated on marketing the Old Spanish Trail as a coastal military highway. With World War I underway in Europe, the idea of promoting the route as a benefit to the defense of the American homeland had some merit, but ultimately the campaign failed to garner federal funds. By the time the OSTA held its national convention in Houston in May 1919, little progress had been made on the highway, and the organization had lost the initial enthusiasm of its membership. A new direction was needed, and the Lone Star State would prove to be instrumental to the completion and branding of the Old Spanish Trail. During the Houston meeting, delegates split the association into four regional divisions, selected new leadership, and moved the national headquarters to San Antonio. That choice was fitting because nearly 1,000 miles (one third) of the proposed Old Span- Opposite: The Old Spanish ish Trail wound its way Trail Restaurant in Bandera through the Lone Star is one of the few businesses State. The transconti- in existence today with its nental roadway entered original name, a result of OSTA Texas at the Louisiana efforts. Photo by Texas Deborder east of Orange, partment of Transportation. Vo l u m e 3 2 0 1 5 |



Left: Harral Ayres had the creativity and vision to bring the goals of the OSTA to fruition. Photograph undated, from the Louis J. Blume Library, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio.

went through Houston, west to San Antonio, and terminated in Del Rio. In 1917, the Texas Highway Commission designated this section of the Old Spanish Trail as State Highway 3, but nine years later, the route moniker changed to U.S. Highway 90 as part of a national highway numbering system. However, as mapped by the OSTA, the planned highway would extend to El Paso and consist of two alternate trunklines west of the Alamo City—one via Del Rio, Alpine, and Van Horn, and the other that passed through Kerr ville, Junction, and Fort Stockton. There were also several proposed loops off of these main routes, including one as far south as Brownsville and another running along the Rio Grande down to Opposite, top: “The Creed of Mexico. Overall, the the Trail” was a way to urge coast-to-coast course motorists to be good stewards encompassed 1,600 of the “riches of history, legend, miles of alternative sentiment, and natural beauty” “tributaries and tourfound along the route. Bottom, ist loops.” right: The trademark designs The Association’s for route markers, posts, special complex mapping of the shields guided motorists travelOld Spanish Trail was ing along the OST. Images courintended to bring the tesy of the Old Spanish Trail automobile traveler to Association Archives, Louis J. areas of the South and Blume Library, St. Mary’s UniSouthwest that were versity, San Antonio. Originals in desperate need of in color. the economic boon



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that new or improved roads offered. Capitalizing on the region’s Spanish heritage was the lure to attract tourism. Yet, during the first four years, OSTA leadership neglected to promote that concept. The appointment of a new managing director, which came on the heels of the Houston convention’s sweeping changes, ultimately put that strategy back in play. The task of moving the highway project forward fell into what proved to be the very capable hands of Harral B. Ayres, a New Jersey native who lived in San Antonio after retiring from a career in banking and finance. During Ayres’ decade-long tenure, the managing director used his business acumen to launch a well-organized lobbying campaign that advanced construction of the OST. Even more so, his innovative approach to heritage tourism and highway beautification crafted what Texas Governor Pat Neff called in a 1924 speech, “the oldest, most historic, enchanting romantic highway that crosses the American continent.” The achievements of the OSTA in building the Texas portion of the route ref lects Ayres’ strategic leadership. From the national office in San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, the organization successfully lobbied the Texas Highway Commission to recognize and fund the named route. In 1921, the state agency’s inclusion of State Highway 3, the section from Orange to Del Rio, as part of the Federal Aid Highway System, opened up an important line of funding. Ayres then engaged the Association’s network of resources to petition for state financing of the road west of San Antonio. In a 1925 letter, he advised Judge Coke Stevenson, OSTA vice president for the West Texas division, to gather a “delegation arranged in each town and county from Boerne to Balmorhea, or from San Antonio to El Paso, and meet with the highway commission.” He also offered Stevenson assistance from OSTA headquarters to prepare a “well-formulated” appeal to the Texas Highway Commission. In 1922, Ayres spent several months in Washington, D.C., obtaining a Congressional “Declaration of Respect” that helped the OSTA promote a “heritage” roadway to its membership and the various state highway commissions. Of equal importance, the managing director secured an endorsement from the United States Bureau of Education, which added the Old Spanish Trail to its recommended public school curriculum on the national highway movement. These achievements reignited enthusiasm among the Association’s membership and good roads supporters.

That result produced a coast-to-coast network of volunteers, from chambers of commerce and citizen organizations, to help implement the OSTA’s heritage marketing and beautification strategies. For Harral Ayres, lobbying for funding of the roadway went hand in hand with creating a trademark identity for the Old Spanish Trail. He gathered Spanish (and in some cases Anglo) history from regional archives along the route, printing those stories in travelogs and brochures. Ayres effectively crafted a romantic and often dramatic narrative. A 1924 publication advanced El Paso as “the Pass of the North, Gateway to Mexico...keypoint [sic] to a veritable empire...Cabeza de Vaca and his companions passed here in 1536.” In another annual edition, the OSTA director likened the potential of the route to that of pioneering: “The opening of the highway...will start a new national migration to settle and develop these Southern borderlands...for the migration now starting is by automobile, not by covered wagon or railroad.” Promotional materials also included OSTAsponsored maps, route markers, and landmark signs that highlighted local Spanish history and heritage. The Association hired San Antonio artist Mary Bonner to assist with the artwork and signage design, all produced w ith trademark yellow and orange colors. Ay res then made sure that the OSTA went one step f ur ther, focusing on the traveler’s ex per ience by work ing w ith chambers of commerce and local businesses to populate the highway with lodging, free tourist camps, and restaurants. Distinctive OST signs and plaques decorated establishments sanctioned by the organization. Annual travel guides advertised hospitality and merchant businesses with short, but inviting descriptions. For example, the 1923 edition showcased a mercantile company in Center Point as a place to “stop for a handshake.” These publications not only listed amenities but also romanticized the tourist experience as evidenced in this 1929 excerpt: The route of the OST across West Texas...was selected because of its unparalleled attraction for health, relaxation, and sheer joy...[it] offers the most delightful driving in Texas....It is a country that paints roses on the cheeks of children and reddens the blood of men and women. Vo l u m e 3 2 0 1 5 |



In terms of roadside enhancement, Ayres recruited community organizations in all eight states to focus on not only adding natural beauty to the landscape, but also to lobby for the removal of commercial billboards. In 1922, one of these groups was responsible for the installation of the “Avenue of Palms” lining a portion of the OST in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The Association then partnered with the Federation of Women’s Clubs in that region to have Royal Palm trees planted along 90 miles of its Mexican loop. In 1929, a decade after Ayres took the helm and 15 years after its founding, the OSTA declared that the Old Spanish Trail was complete. The roadway that stretched across the South Above: In addition to apand Southwest came with pearing in promotional maa price tag of $80 million terials, the Old Spanish Trail and was considered as the map served as Harral Ayres’ most highly engineered of official letterhead. Image all transcontinental trails. courtesy of the San AntoThough the West Texas nio Public Library, Central portion of the route reLibrary’s Texana Room. mained unpaved, Ayres



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and OSTA directors anticipated that further improvements would come, though not on their watch. After a highly publicized celebratory motorcade across the completed roadway in October 1929, the Association, as it existed, ceased operations. With his resignation, Ayres stated, “The Old Spanish Trail has been put across and that is what we set out to do.” During the next three decades, subsequent Old Spanish Trail highway associations would form and reform to promote the route and push for further road and safety improvements. None, however, would be successful in maintaining not only the physical integrity, but also the trademark identity of the named highway. These reincarnations inevitably failed because the “romance” of leisure travel was giving way to a greater need for faster, intracontinental transportation routes. Highways like the OST were built as business routes that cut through city and town centers, but by the late 1950s, modern interstates were being constructed to circumvent these heavily populated areas. Completed in the 1960s, Interstate 10 stretched across the southern east-to-west corridor,

absorbing sections of the OST. In Texas, much of the alignment from Houston to San Antonio was integrated into that new four-lane superhighway. Larger portions to the south and west of the Alamo City remained part of U.S. Highway 90/290, paralleling the new interstate. Today, interested travelers can explore the Old Spanish Trail with a click of a computer mouse thanks to the Louis J. Blume Library at San Antonio’s St. Mary’s University ( html). That institution, which houses the official records of the Old Spanish Trail Association, hosts a website that features a “Take a Road Trip” link, mixing historical narrative with images of the existing sections of the old route. America’s “highway of romance” was not the long-lasting brand envisioned by its founders. However, Harral Ayres and the OTSA developed a sophisticated marketing campaign that inf luenced modern heritage tourism programs. H * Author’s Note: The Old Spanish National His-

toric Trail, as designated by Congress in 2002, is a trade route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, in service from 1829 to 1848. At present, it does not include other trails from Texas to Florida that may have been created by the Spanish empire for exploration, military, settlement, and trade purposes. Pamela Murtha is assistant editor of Texas HERITAGE magazine. Resources: • Drive the Old Spanish Trail, www.drivetheost. com/history • The Development of Highways in Texas: A Historic Context of the Bankhead Highway and Other Historic Named Highways, the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation • The Old Spanish Trail • Texas Transportation Museum,

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Heritage3 2015 Spanish Trail  
Heritage3 2015 Spanish Trail