Journal Of The Life And Culture Of San Antonio

Bowens Island

“Would that you could make us a visit, for humble as the cottage is and its surroundings, my children –when writing—style it the cottage of content…”

— John Bowen to Sam Fisher, 1860

 

Bowen's Island as "an island of content" dates back to earliest times of Indians, of entradas, of Canary Islanders, of Texas Revolutionaries, of slave-holding Knights of the Golden Circle, of disastrous floods, and of change from its pastoral beauty to towering business buildings.

Bowen's Island, no island at all, was actually a natural peninsula, a five-acre tract bounded by the river on three sides and on the fourth by the Concepcion Acequia. It was shaded by pecan and fruit trees, by wild mustang grapevines and flowering magnolias.

Bowen, for whom it was named, had come to Texas from Philadelphia via South America. He had crossed Texas with his brother in the 1820s and returned there to make his home after living in Venezuela for seven years. In 1840 Bowen and his wife Mary Elizabeth bought the island from Canary Island descendant Maria Josefa Rodriguez de Yturri for $300. The Bowens built a seven-room home on the island for their family of seven children, and then built waterwheels to help irrigate their farm and Mary's herb garden. Bowen died at the end of the Civil War and was buried on his island.

In later years, the property changed hands many times, until 1928, when James H. Smith and J. W. Young, an attorney, acquired part of the land and began the Smith-Young Tower, now known as the Tower Life Building. Designed by Robert Ayres and his father Atlee, the thirty-five story building remains today the tallest office building in the city, rising above A. B. Frank Company, and the $2,500,000, two-hundred-fifty room Plaza Hotel, and the Federal Reserve Building (now the Mexican Consulate), all designed by the Ayres.

Simultaneously, in 1928, the City of San Antonio embarked on a flood control project to carry flood waters past the Horseshoe Bend of the river. Walsh and Burney Contractors undertook to construct the deep-walled, concrete-lined channel from just north of Commerce Street to Nueva Street. The project included such changes in the river course that it eliminated the peninsula of Bowen's Island, and the land became a focal point of San Antonio's business development east of the Bexar County Courthouse.

Where once John and Mary Bowen's "Cottage of Content" housed their seven children, there is now an historical marker surrounded by an herb garden with water cress, wild parsley, yerba buena (mint), cilantro (wild parsley), cared for by the San Antonio City Public Service whose building overlooks the river and the small herb garden.

--Mary Ann Noonan Guerra,

excerpted from: The San Antonio River,

(San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1987)