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OST Highlights: Texas

Work on the Old Spanish Trail took on new vigor after the Association moved to Texas in 1919. At the 1919 convention, the Old Spanish Trail Association voted to relocate to San Antonio, a city steeped in the history of the Alamo and its old missions and backed by a powerful Chamber of Commerce and good roads association. Under the direction of Harral B. Ayres, the Old Spanish Trail Association completed the highway in 1929, including building a missing link between San Antonio and El Paso.

Texas, of course, is a big state, blessed with a rich cultural heritage and wide-vista scenery, but also cursed with rampant modern blight. Comprising one-third of the Old Spanish Trail, or roughly 947 miles, the OST in Texas begins at the swampy banks of the Sabine River and ends in the bone-dry desert west of El Paso. Though much of the urban highway has been lost to progress, due to sheer size of the state, hundreds of historic spots along rural stretches of the old highway are preserved.

East Texas. Though there are traces of the old highway just west of the wide Sabine River, for practical purposes, the Old Spanish Trails begins in Beaumont, a modern city famous for its 1920s oil boom. Reflecting the boomtown era are the robust 1931 Art Deco Jefferson County Courthouse and the Kyle Block, a dazzling black tile and zinc paean to the Zig Zag style. Both the Crosby and Beaumont hotels of the Old Spanish Trail period stand.

From Beaumont to Houston, US 90, a modern four-lane highway, has obscured much of the old trail. Houston is a city in constant flux. The current Old Spanish Trail (ALT US 90), cutting a diagonal across Houston, is a 1930s realignment of the highway. Along this stretch, dozens of 1940s and 50s motels languish until the next road widening or redevelopment snuffs them out. The earlier OST followed Navigation Boulevard to Main Street, where it turned south to move through downtown Houston. In the center of Houston is the oasis-like Hermann Park, once the site of a sprawling auto camp along the Old Spanish Trail. Containing 1,000 campsites arranged like a town site, the camp was equipped with a community house, children's playground, wash racks and long-distance telephone service.

Central Texas. From Houston to Eagle Lake, the Old Spanish Trail followed what is today's ALT US 90. Bypassed sections of the original highway are located close to the railroad. At Eagle Lake, the OST diverts from ALT US 90 to follow Farm Road 102, joining the old alignment of US 90 at Columbus, a charming courthouse town accessed from the east by a 1931 steel truss bridge painted green. Beyond Columbus the OST follows a scenic two-lane highway over rolling countryside dotted with oaks and ranches. Here are the small German and Czech towns of Weimar, Schulenburg, Flatonia and Waelder. Relic sections of older highway, complete with bridges and underpasses, are proximate to the modern road. From Schulenburg, one can access the Painted Churches auto tour. The tour takes in four historic Czech churches decorated in elaborate faux-finished interiors painted by itinerant artists. At Waelder, the OST dips down to Gonzales on Texas 97, to pick up ALT US 90/US 90 into San Antonio.

San Antonio boasts not only five missions and the touristy River Walk, but also one of only three OST zero milestones erected. Located at Military Plaza, at the site of the old courthouse, the five-ton boulder of Texas granite was dedicated on March 24, 1927 by Governor Pat M. Neff and hundreds of OST delegates. Governor Neff opened his dedication with the ponderous "In the beginning God created the heaven and earth," and went on to describe the Old Spanish Trail as part of a greater "highway of human progress."

West Texas. From San Antonio, the 1920s mainline alignment of the OST ascended the Texas' Hill Country to follow US 290 to Kent, where it joined US 80 and the Bankhead and Lee highways headed toward California. The old road from San Antonio to Comfort — a delightful old German town on the Guadalupe River — is for the most part lost. An alternative is Texas 16, a narrow, winding road following the meandering course of the Medina River. This road was actually one of the so-called OST "Tourist Routes," and now leads to the Western-themed town of Bandera, which features one of the rare surviving restaurants from the era — the OST Diner.

From Kerrville, a summer camp community tucked in the upper Guadalupe River Valley, the OST climbs Texas 27 to meet I-10 at Mountain Home. Although disconnected sections of the earlier road exist, the average driver will take the interstate all the way west to Ozona. But be sure to exit at Segovia, Junction and Sonora, each containing relics of the old road. The interstate makes deep cuts through the limestone of this barren brush country of large ranches and vast distances. West of Ozona, the only city in a county as big as Delaware, is the opportunity to drive a vintage segment of the OST down the dramatic Lancaster Hill. Supporting the grade of US 290 at Lancaster Hill is a massive stone retaining wall constructed by New Deal labor in the early 1930s.

Beyond Fort Lancaster, theruins of a frontier fort, is the sturdy 1930s Live Oak Bridge and Sheffield, a near-ghost town harboring an old country hotel and garage from the OST period. After driving several hundred miles on the monotonous I-10, one is rewarded by the cool oasis of Balmorhea State Recreation Area. Built by the CCC in 1933 around San Solomon Springs, the state park offers a large swimming pool cooled by spring waters. Maintaining a constant temperature of 76 degrees, the pool is more than 33 feet deep in places and hosts a native population of fish and aquatic plants.

The cool water prepares one for the long haul across the desert to El Paso. On the way is Van Horn, a major stop along old US 90 populated with dying motels and gas stations from the 1940s and 50s. The OST entered El Paso on what is today Texas 20, passing through flat cotton-growing country just north of the border.

Drive the OST is developing narrative travelogs for each state; please see State Travelogs for more information.