Across the street from the Alamo, on the very spot where Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis established his headquarters and wrote his famous letter pledging to fight until “victory or death,” the scratchy voice of an actor in a top hat, wig, and blood-spattered tuxedo shirt beckons tourists into Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. His name is Stumpy. A shabby sidewall of Ripley’s Believe It or Not faces what was once the southwest corner of the old fortress, where Alamo defenders positioned their largest piece of artillery, an eighteen-pounder. This was probably the cannon that Travis fired in reply to Santa Anna’s demand for surrender. The City of San Antonio erected a small plaque here a few years ago, but hardly anyone notices it amid all the commercial junk. In the early 1900’s San Antonio’s famed British-born architect Alfred Giles turned the Alamo’s west wall into a handsome row of buildings, but over the years the ground floors have been taken over by a sad assortment of tawdry curiosities, such as the Tomb Rider 3D ride and arcade and the Guinness World Records Museum. A little farther down Alamo Street are the Louis Tussaud’s Plaza Wax Museum and the Ultimate Mirror Maze Challenge. Three million people visit the Alamo every year, and hundreds of thousands of them must pass along this sidewalk without realizing its historical significance or recognizing that this portion of the most iconic location in Texas has been allowed to go to seed.
In July I visited the Alamo in the company of Gary Foreman, a filmmaker and historical preservation specialist who splits his time between Chicago and San Antonio. For more than a quarter of a century, Foreman has been protesting the degradation of this site, trying to get someone to listen. Occasionally, someone does. Back in 1984, when Greg Curtis was editor of this magazine, Foreman enticed him to tour the Alamo too. Dismayed by the negligence and the lack of respect for the history that he found in abundance, Curtis concluded that “little effort is made to explain what the Alamo was and what happened there.”
Though things have improved somewhat since then, Foreman remains disgusted by the level of neglect in Alamo Plaza. “Texas invests very little in its historic assets,” he told me. “Not only are we not protecting our heritage, we are losing billions in tourist revenue. People come here looking for the American West, not Ripley’s.” Foreman, who is 58 years old, became obsessed with the Alamo as a Wisconsin schoolboy in the fifties, watching Fess Parker in Disney’s Davy Crockett miniseries. “My generation learned American history from television,” he says. “For some reason, the Alamo resonated with me.” Foreman moved to San Antonio in 1984 and since then has remained a part-time resident. Last spring, he and a group of historians armed themselves with old maps, research materials, tape measures, and a permit from the city and retraced the original boundaries of the Alamo compound, redefining (and in some cases correcting) history.
Their project was long overdue. Visitors seldom fail to remark that the Alamo is so much smaller than they imagined, but that’s because they are looking only at the church and the long barrack, where Davy Crockett and a handful of defenders made their last stand. Most of the fighting actually took place at the now nonexistent walls surrounding Alamo Plaza and within the plaza itself, which stretches as far west as the wax museum and as far north as the U.S. post office. The post office covers the site of the old north wall, the traces of which are outlined in stone along the crosswalk on Houston Street. As waves of Santa Anna’s troops stormed the Alamo in the early-morning hours of March 6, 1836—they came from the direction of what is now the parking lot of the Scottish Rite Cathedral—they were slaughtered in great numbers by a battery of eight-pound cannons fired through embrasures in the top of the north wall. After two failed attempts, they finally breached the wall. Travis, shot through the head, fell about twenty feet from the post office’s southwest corner, near what is now a stairwell leading to a nondescript side entrance.
This was the crucial turning point. Once inside the walls, the Mexican soldiers killed the gun crews before they could spike the barrels of their cannons, then wheeled the intact battery to the area of Alamo Plaza now occupied by a cenotaph—a giant stone monument to the fallen defenders—and blasted off the doors of the church and the long barrack. The breach of the north wall was the beginning of the end—or more accurately, the end of the beginning—of the Republic of Texas. Yet the only clue that anything important took place here are two tiny bronze indicators on the sidewalks on either side of the post office, noting “Alamo Mission original property line.”
Another bronze marker, on the opposite side of the plaza, at the old south gate, denotes the site of the low barrack, where Jim Bowie, sick and no longer able to defend himself, was killed. The Texas Historical Commission erected the plaque in 1996, after archeologists discovered the foundation of the low barrack. The south gate was guarded by an earth-and-log redoubt, manned by an unknown number of Texans and two artillery pieces. Crockett and his “Tennessee boys” defended a low barrier called the palisade, connecting the south wall and the church. As was the case along the north wall, the carnage at the south gate was horrendous. Those who survived the attack on the walls retreated to the long barrack and the chapel, where they were killed minutes later. In about the time it takes to play half a football game, all 189 defenders of the Alamo were dead.
Considering the abuse heaped on it through the ages, it’s a miracle the Alamo survives at all. The Catholic Church hadn’t even completed work on the church in 1793, when it decided to close the mission.