April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
If you want to visit the relic itself, you must go to San
Antonio. But to get the feel of what it was like for Crockett and Travis and the rest, you should drive west into the Texas prairie.
You can tell the difference with a single touch. The stone wall of the actual Alamo, in the center of downtown San Antonio, has a cool, clammy feel, due mostly to the surrounding skyscrapers and tourist attractions casting mountainous shadows over their new dominion. But the Brackettville “Alamo,” facing steady sun and wind-driven sand, is warm and gritty to the touch, and its solitude in the sandy prairie of South Texas gives a flavor that matches our expectations.
The original chapel building, the visual image most often associated with the Alamo, still stands on Crockett Street in downtown San Antonio, an American shrine preserved and protected by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas since 1905. The chapel turned fortress receives more than three million visitors a year. Inside, even on the busiest tourist days, the scene is hushed. No running children, no flashbulbs popping off (taking photographs of the chapel interior is strictly forbidden), but only quiet conversation and soft footfalls, as if in recognition of the 189 men who gave their lives for Texas independence.
Step outside the main chapel, however, and the sense of serenity is shattered. The chapel stands not far from a clamorous commercial street, and leaving it is like walking from a confessional into a casino. Picturing this building as the lonely outpost that in 1836 held out for thirteen days against General Santa Anna’s force of at least twenty-five hundred troops requires a stupendous effort of the imagination.
Some 125 miles to the west, however, 7 miles north of the small Texas town of Brackettville, the feel of the past remains easily attainable. The original movie set created for John Wayne’s 1960 epic The Alamo attracts visitors year-round. Brackettville’s “Alamo Village” contains not just the chapel building but the entire mission compound, constructed true to size as it stood during the fight, complete with adobe brick walls and massive fortified gates.
The Alamo Village cost more than one and a half million 1958 dollars and covers four hundred acres of the nineteen-thousand-acre ranch of J. P. (“Happy”) Shahan, a Texas cattleman who took an active part in recruiting Wayne to build and film his Alamo project on this site. More than two years in the making, the re-creation of the Alamo fortress exactly as it appeared during the 1836 engagement was done with scrupulous accuracy. Striving for authenticity, Wayne and his art director, Al Ybrarra, insisted on using adobe bricks for most of the construction, necessitating the employment of artisans from Mexico who still knew how to make them. Almost a million bricks eventually went into the village. For the main chapel building, measurements were taken to the inch from the original, and cut stone put in place piece by piece assured an almost flawless replica.
Nearby, Wayne also built a small town to play the part of a dusty 1836 San Antonio. Not merely typical Hollywood set facades, this is a village of twenty-nine complete buildings, including saloons, general stores, churches, and other carefully reconstructed period structures. Numerous movies, commercials, and television shows, among them Lonesome Dove , have been shot in this secluded location.
Getting to the Alamo Village is an experience in itself. The two-and-a-half-hour drive west on Highway 90 from San Antonio offers little to see but Texas desert sand patrolled by the occasional tumbleweed. Not a sightseer’s dream, perhaps, but to anyone even remotely interested in this piece of American history, the rewards are well worth the trip. From the rusty hinges on the main gate to the roving cattle that sometimes get up close and personal with visitors, the Alamo Village is a definitive Old West experience for the interested traveler.
For here in the desolate Southwest Texas prairie one can easily imagine the desperation of the battle: the steadily advancing Mexican troops, their endless columns kicking up dust storms that cloud the horizon, while the small garrison distributes its meager forces and awaits the inevitable. All that’s absent is the crack of Tennessee muskets and the deafening cannonade of Santa Anna’s guns. That, and the honking horns and tour buses that now keep the original Alamo under perpetual siege.