Mills and Bridges of the San Antonio River - Journal of San Antonio

Milling was a major business in San Antonio, with mills built along the river banks throughout various periods in its history.

The first millstone was included in the equipment and tools for permanent settlement brought in 1731 by the Canary Islanders. In 1789, the Franciscan Missionary President, Father Lopez, in the report of his visit to Texas observed at Mission San Jose: "Wheat is not sown, although it does well, because the Indians hold it in very low regard in comparison with corn, which is the daily bread of this land, and also because its cultivation would interfere with that of the latter, which is here considered absolutely necessary for life."

Father Lopez went on to note that a missionary at San Jose, Jose Manuel Pedrajo, had improved the products of the mission farm, even if they did not include wheat, and that he had built a mill which was principally used for corn.

The Franciscan historian Marion Habig established Pedrajo's mill as the same mill which has been restored beside the old irrigation ditch outside the north wall of the mission square at San Jose. In 1859-1864, a Benedictine, Alto S. Hoermann, who resided at San Jose, described the mill as follows: "The mill was situated on the opposite side of the ditch. The reservoir was built of rough hard rock, plastered with common mortar, and perfectly waterproof. It was supplied with water from the ditch. Next to the reservoir there was a vault built of solid tufa, which opened towards the field. The mill was erected directly over this vault, which contained the turbine. An opening near the bottom of the reservoir allowed the water to fall on the turbine from a height of about ten feet. After having furnished power for the turbine, the water flowed in a deep ditch to the fields. The mill stood on the ridge of the prairie."

In his history of San Jose, Father Habig wrote that the mill utilized not only the power derived from the flow of the water but the force given to the water by falling from a height on the turbine, thus causing it to revolve and to grind the grain between two millstones. In other words, it operated on the same principle as that of the famous Pelton Wheel, which was thought to have been a new discovery at the end of the 19th Century. In 1955, Dr. Paul L. Czibesz of the Southwest Research Institute, wrote: "The hydraulic machinery of the San Jose Mission mill is living proof that the impulse-turbine was invented a long time before Pelton had published his invention It is not an ordinary water-wheel. It is really a turbine-runner. Water-wheels work on gravity force or they use the velocity head of the water flow. The turbine wheel of the San Jose mill utilizes the impulse energy. . . It would appear that the San Jose Mission mill is nothing less than the ancestor of Pelton’s turbine."

Ernst F. Schuchard, the engineer who restored the old mill and a descendent of a prominent German miller, made the observation that the mill was a so-called Norse mill, a type which was in existence in the days of the ancient Roman writer, Pliny.

Another mill, known today as the Yturri-Edmunds House and Old Mill, is believed to also date from the Spanish mission period, with a house added later by settlers who built on the secularized mission lands. Hendrick Arnold, a prominent black settler, hero of the Texas Revolution, and a member of Stephen F. Austin's famous "300 colonists," built a mill located on the San Antonio River in the township now known as Berg's Mill, in 1837. The mill was used for washing wool.

The real boom in milling began with a German colonization enterprise which lasted from 1844 to 1847 and brought in 7,380 immigrants, most of whom settled along the San Antonio and adjacent rivers. By 1870, San Antonio had become the center of German activity in Texas and milling was the German's first-ranking industry. One of the early German flour mill houses remains today in its original location; begun in 1859 by C. H. Guenther, the Pioneer Flour Mill is one of the city's larger industries.

While mills sit alongside the rivers banks, bridges span banks, and San Antonio's central city is laced together with a series of such bridges above the winding river. With the arrival of immigrants from different parts of the world, architectural influences of "the Old Country" were in evidence. By 1891 the city boasted eleven bridges of iron and four of wooden construction.

Reference to an accident suffered by the founder of Mission San Antonio in 1719 tells of the building of this "first sign" of civilization and occupation. In his Chronica printed in 1746-1747, Father Espinosa wrote that Father Olivares "suffered an accident as he passed over a mission bridge covered with earth, which was near the mission. The beast on which he was riding broke through with one leg; and the blow that the father received as he fell was such that it broke one of his legs... After he had fully recovered, the father moved the mission to the other side of the San Antonio River, because it offered greater advantages. There the mission has continued down to the present day and enjoyed much success."

--Mary Ann Noonan Guerra,

excerpted from: The San Antonio River,

(San Antonio: The Alamo Press, 1987)

Editors Note: Readers will find a comprehensive history of San Antonio’s mills and bridges in: Lewis F. Fisher, River Walk, The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River (San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2006.)