A little more than a century ago, a group of merchants and officials from the Southeastern U.S. touted the idea of creating an “Old Spanish Trail” route that would span from coast to coast.
Promoters wanted to call it the Old Spanish Trail because they thought it would symbolically follow the path that Spanish conquistadors, explorers, and missionaries would have traversed in the new America of their time.
While their history was way off, the advocates of the Old Spanish Trail were ahead of their time, and they built what eventually became the U.S. Highway 90 and U.S. Highway 80.
Roadway to history
These highways did indeed became major east-west routes for commerce and recreational travel in the nation’s emerging highway system. It also celebrated the nation’s Spanish Colonial heritage that has been preserved along large swaths of the corridor closer to the Mexican border and Gulf Coast.
Through Texas, Highway 90 connected Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso. And while much of the highway’s traffic has long shifted to the Interstate 10 corridor, communities along portions of “Old Highway 90” have never forgotten the neighborhoods, businesses, churches, schools and historic monuments that sprung up along the route over decades.
Creating a community
In the 1920s, business owners saw the corridor as the best and most scenic route to carry goods between San Antonio and West Texas. So much so that the U.S. Highway No. 90 Association was launched in 1929 to improve the road using money from the private sector.
The expansion of Kelly Air Field in the 1930s spurred further growth along the route. In the mid-1940s, San Antonio annexed what is now the Woodlawn Lake Park area. That caused further growth along Old Highway 90, which was a critical route for people wanting to travel west. Meanwhile, eastbound travelers on Highway 90 often stopped in towns like Uvalde, Hondo, D'Hanis, and Castroville for food and rest en route to San Antonio and points beyond.
The corridor also became a popular area for live music venues in the post-World War II years. Spots such as Club El Morocco and El Camaroncito hosted musicians from all kinds of genres. (If you lived in the neighborhood at the time, you also knew the best places to go dancing on a weekend.)
The music scene along parts of Old Highway 90 was so lively from the 1950s through the 1970s that it became home to the Del Bravo recording studios, where conjunto legends Flaco Jimenez and Lydia Mendoza recorded.
In the '60s, local voters approved building a new highway system, including a new Highway 90, which we now use today. Old Highway 90, meanwhile, is referred to as the “older extension.”
The closure of Kelly as an Air Force base in 2001 caused a serious downturn in commerce in the immediate area, but longtime residents and merchants still see the neighborhood as a place of cooperation, hard work, and pride.
Led by Save Old Highway 90 Alliance, the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, and councilman Greg Brockhouse, the group set about collecting video and audio recordings, photos, oral histories, and other artifacts and documents to showcase this historic neighborhood. What they found was an area steeped in culture — and community pride.
A 2018 study by the City of San Antonio's Office of Historic Preservation about Old Highway 90 contains the following entry: “The stories collected from the community reveal a tight-knit community that resembles the kind you might find in a small town, more than one that exists in a large city like San Antonio. They attended Stafford Elementary and Edgewood High School together. They work at El Capitan Drive-In Theater and other businesses together.”
“The community looks out for each other and supports each other as an extended family might do," the study continues. "This may be because so many families have co-existed for generations along the corridor, owning their own small businesses. A particular pride of the community is that their family-owned small businesses are the mainstays of the business corridor where no big-box corporate owned stores may be found.”
In honor of this historical community, the city’s Historic and Design Commission officially designated Old Highway 90 as a Cultural Heritage District in August. This is only the second designation of its kind in San Antonio; the Jefferson Heights neighborhood received the distinction in 2005.
Sharing their stories was key to clinching the designation. “You listened and did the hard work of documenting this history,” Brockhouse said on his Facebook page. “To the residents of [Old Highway 90], we all listened to you. We all thank you for fighting to preserve your past, while building your future.”
A new route forward
According to the city, the Cultural Heritage Designation could lead to a designation of a Legacy Business Corridor, which would highlight the significance of the corridor and its contribution to San Antonio’s evolution. Maria Velasquez Miller lived in the neighborhood, attended Edgewood High School, and understands this evolution well.
Growing up, she frequented El Capitan for movies, and was interviewed for one of the video “histories” recorded by the city’s OHP. “I just wish we could go back in time and everything would still be here,” she said.
One thing that many residents and merchants wish they could go back and change is the current name of part of the roadway. The Enrique Barrera Parkway, which honors the late city councilman who represented the neighborhood, has been controversial since the council approved the name change in 2015.
Opponents of the Barrera name say the change dishonors the history with which Old Highway 90 is associated. “Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard at keeping Old Highway 90’s name alive,” Judy Stewart posted on the Save Old Highway 90 Facebook. “The entire city knows this name and its location.”
While it remains to be seen if the name ever fully returns to its original moniker, the neighborhood remains an indelible part of San Antonio's history. And thanks to its new designation, everyone knows it.