In today’s #FridayDHSpotlight, we welcome Char Miller, the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College , who introduces us to his fascinating work uncovering otherwise hidden histories concerning the great 1921 flood that devastated San Antonio, Texas.
The keys were a clue that something was amiss.
Still inserted in the lock of the front door of Ben Corvo’s fruit market at 422 St. Mary’s Street, employees of the Hughes Auto Livery spotted them while in the process of clearing out their nearby shop in the horrific aftermath of the September 9-10, 1921 flood that tore apart San Antonio, Texas. More than 60 people died in the deluge.
The flood had begun on Friday evening with heavy rain lashing down over the San Antonio River watershed, and by 10 p.m. St. Mary’s Street had become a river. Within two hours raging waters were crashing through downtown and devastating portions of the west side neighborhood where the Corvo family lived. Some of the livery’s personnel, as they had headed home through the wind-whipped storm, stopped by the fruit market to check on Corvo. He asked that the men escort his son to safety, but indicated “he would remain in the store a few minutes longer in an attempt to save some of the property.”
Those minutes cost Corvo his life. But his demise was not immediately known because the flood took out power and telecommunications for two days, and the city imposed a strict curfew that blocked access to the badly damaged downtown. It was not until the morning of Sunday, September 11th, that some of the livery staff workers returned to inspect the damage; as they swung past Corvo’s shop, they spied his keys.
Fearing the worst, the men sprang into action: “Hammering their way through the front of the building, rescuers attacked the wreckage…and after a search that continued into the middle of the afternoon the body was located beneath debris that filled the rear of the building.”
Corvo was like many others who lost their lives in the worst flood in San Antonio’s history. Churning with street pavers, furniture, trees, and boulders, the flood undercut houses, buildings, and bridges and killed many who lay asleep in their beds. Others, who had managed to escape their battered dwellings, were sucked into the maelstrom. Corvo was not alone in being trapped by the debris’ pounding force.
As the floodwaters ebbed they left behind towering mounds of flotsam and jetsam, an urban moraine: “Here and there where driftwood is piled up in some places as high as twenty feet, are beer kegs, babies’ high chairs, victrolas, butchers’ meat blocks, bed steads,” the San Antonio Express observed. This “conglomerate mass of wreckage,” was mute testimony “that the elements when loosed from the gates of hell, are no respectors of persons, class or creed.”
The San Antonio Express was not wrong that death is the great equalizer, but in this particular case those killed were overwhelming Hispanic-surnamed and lived in some of the city’s poorest, west side neighborhoods. This distressing reality is a critical focus of my new book on the 1921 flood that probes the enduring mark it left on the city’s built environment and political landscape and reveals how these deep social divisions were replicated and reinforced in San Antonio’s subsequent flood-control policies and politics.
These themes have gained visible expression as a result of a generous DH@CC grant that has underwritten work of a dynamic project team. Led by Claremont Graduate University student Sarah Osailan, it includes three Environmental Analysis majors: Katie Graham (Scripps’19), Anam Mehta (Pomona’21), and Natalie Quek (Scripps’19). In spring 2019 they drew on two key sets of data that offer an innovative and visual record of the immediate aftermath of the 1921 flood:
- Flood fatalities: local newspapers recorded the names and addresses of those who died in the flood and I developed a spreadsheet of this information so that the team could overlay this data via GIS on to a 1909 street map of San Antonio; another map that displayed the many creeks and rivers that cut through the then-largest city in Texas; and a third that the US Geological Survey published detailing how the floodwaters surged through the city. The resulting digital map—which locates who died where and includes any relevant mentions of the deceased in local newspapers—underscores the contention that these fatalities reflect the spatial injustices and economic disparities that plagued San Antonio across the twentieth century.
- Government documents:
- The US Geological Survey produced a striking map of the flood shortly after the waters receded, and it details the consequences of this disaster to an urban landscape built into the floodplain of the San Antonio River.
- The US Army’s data makes the same case by different means. Its airplanes, stationed at Kelly Air Field, were sent aloft to take photographs of the damage. These images, never before published, capture the 1921 flood’s impressive power as it battered the community and its assets, human and structural.
Digitizing this data also lays the foundation for analyzing how the city of San Antonio responded to this disaster, a set of reactions that would shape its environmental politics and policies for the next 50 years. Although all residents wanted floodwaters controlled, which would be tamed, and thus what portions of the community would be protected, would be decided in the political arena that Anglo commercial and business interests dominated. The elite successfully pressed for the construction of the Olmos Dam (1926) just north of the city, which ever since has defended the downtown business district. But they expressed no such concern for managing the San Pedro, Martínez, Apache, and Alazán Creeks that had been responsible for so many deaths in 1921. Those with power and privilege deliberately ignored the interlocking problems on the Latino west side that flowed from poor drainage, bad housing, and inadequate sanitation. These discriminatory downstream consequences, channeled along ethnic and class lines, continually resurfaced until the mid-1970s when a west side parish-based organization known as COPS (Communities Organized for Public Services) challenged Anglo domination of local politics, created a more representative city council, and brought much-needed flood control to oft-inundated neighborhoods. In doing so, COPS and its allies managed to resolve many of the key injustices that the 1921 flood had exposed.
 “Store Owner Found in River,” San Antonio Express, September 11, 1921, 2.
 San Antonio Express, September 11, 1921, 2.
 San Antonio Express, September 11, 1921, 4.
Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College. His most recent books include San Antonio: A Tricentennial History, The Nature of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice, and Political Change, and Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. The California Dream. He is grateful to DH@CC for its support and the amazing team of researchers: Sarah Osailan, Katie Graham, Anam Mehta, and Natalie Quek.