Civil War-era tannery in Brackenridge Park marked the earliest industrial complex in San Antonio

In July 1863, midway through the Civil War, the Union Army defeated Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Miss., effectively taking control of the Mississippi River, cleaving the Confederacy in two and leaving 50,000 soldiers stranded on the west side of the river.

Left on their own to supply shoes, harnesses, saddles and other leather goods for these troops, Confederate army quartermasters turned their attention to a tannery being built near San Antonio, on land that today is part of both Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Zoo. 

The story of this tannery has long been known, but new details have recently been teased out with publication of the book “Brackenridge: San Antonio’s Acclaimed Urban Park” (Trinity University Press, $37.95) by local historian Lewis Fisher.

“The tannery is the earliest industrial complex built in San Antonio,” said Fisher, who has written several books on the city’s history. “And it wasn’t a homespun operation. It was planned and built by West Point-trained Army engineers, employed about 100 people and was a major economic engine during the Civil War.”

It was also an important touchstone in the history of African Americans in San Antonio. While most of the workers were Confederate soldiers and conscripts, records indicate that, for a time at least, the Army rented 40 enslaved people to work at the factory. There was also a Black mother and daughter who served as cooks and three enslaved people working in the stable and blacksmith shop.

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Historian Lewis Fisher points out a section of the San Antonio Zoo where a Confederate tannery once operated. Fisher is author of “Brackenridge: San Antonio’s Acclaimed Urban Park,” a history of the park that includes the story of the tannery. 

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

“But this apparently wasn’t enough because the officers in charge were always writing their superiors asking for more Negroes,” Fisher said. “We have no records indicating whether they got them, perhaps because the Army couldn’t afford to pay the slave owners to rent them.”

The tannery, located on a 10-acre tract west of the San Antonio River, operated from 1863 to 1865 and for a short time following the war. Beyond some stone-lined sluiceways and trenches, there are few visible signs of it today, although experts believe more remains may be below ground. Whether these will ever be uncovered is an open question.

Hide tanning is a water-intensive business which is why the tannery was built close to the San Antonio River and and acequia dating from 1776. The man who selected that site was 37-year-old U.S. Army Maj. Thornton Augustine Washington, a West Point graduate and great-grandnephew of President George Washington. A member of the U.S. Army at the onset of the war, Washington resigned his commission to become an officer in the Confederate army.

In addition to raising dams to increase water flow to the tannery, Washington also oversaw construction of more than half a dozen buildings, including a combined dormitory and dining hall, a shoe shop, a tailor shop and a stable and corral. But the center of the operation was the 80-by-265-foot tannery building located on the east side of a sluiceway connecting the acequia to the river.

Historian Lewis Fisher peers through a fence outside the San Antonio zoo near a historical marker where a Confederate tannery operated during the Civil War. The tannery utilized water from an existing acequia, parts of which are still in existence today.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

It was a state-of-the-art facility, with 100 vats embedded in the limestone floor where tough, hair-covered animal hides were soaked in various caustic mixtures to become workable leather in only 12 weeks instead of the usual 18 months — all for about half the cost of leather on the open market.

At its height, the tannery processed as many as 1,500 hides a month, which were supplied by brokers, yet it rarely operated at more than half capacity. Union blockades made smuggling equipment and supplies difficult and hazardous. 

Also hampering the work was a near-constant shortage of workers. In September 1864, for example, Washington wrote to the quartermaster in Galveston begging for help acquiring “the service of 25 or 30 Negroes.” More workers, he promised, would at least double the tannery’s production. 

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Portions of the San Antonio Zoo (pictured) and Brackenridge Park was once a short-lived tannery built by the Confederacy during the Civil War according to historian Lewis Fisher, author of “Brackenridge: San Antonio’s Acclaimed Urban Park”

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

By early 1865, Washington wrote complaining about difficulties feeding the workers he did have.

This “risked having to close the tannery for want of food,” Fisher writes in “Brackenridge.” “Whether or not rations ever arrived to keep the tannery open is moot. Four months later, news reached Texas that the war was over.”

Following Appomattox, the tannery was taken over by the Freedmen’s Bureau, a branch of the U.S. Army responsible for overseeing matters relating to formerly enslaved people and lands and properties abandoned or seized during the war.

“Some of the former slaves apparently took the trade they’d learned at the tannery into freedom,” said Everett Fly, a professional landscape architect and advisory member of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy. “City directories listed the occupation of several African Americans as ‘bootmaker’ in the years following the war.”

The majority of the Confederate tannery buildings were located where the zoo’s education center and Discovery House buildings now stand.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

After leasing the property for about a year, the bureau put the tannery and its adjacent steam-powered sawmill up for sale. But because the land had been city-owned, San Antonio officials threatened to sue to stop the sale. Negotiations were underway when, in May 1868, a calamitous storm hit the city, with wind, rain and huge hailstones. The tannery building as well as the remaining equipment were all destroyed.

In 1870, the Freedman’s Bureau agreed to sell the property to the city for $22,500, with $6,000 of that, plus stone salvaged from the tannery, going to build San Antonio’s first school for Black children at the corner of Convent and Rincon (now North St. Mary’s) streets.

Fisher said he was working on the book when he called the National Archives and talked to an archivist who sent him a link to the scanned papers of Washington. He used that to look through the official records of the Confederacy to find “tidbits” he wove together to write a more complete history of the tannery, both during and after the war.

“It was a matter of asking questions and asking questions until you stumble on something and you get this great feeling of discovery,” he said, describing what it was like to uncover little-known information about the tannery. “Suddenly, you’ve got a story to tell. I couldn’t believe that this information had never been turned up before.”

Flamingos are seen in the San Antonio Zoo at the site of what was once a tannery located on a 10-acre tract west of the San Antonio River.

Kin Man Hui/Staff photographer

Fisher believes the majority of the tannery buildings would have been located at the sites of the zoo’s education center and Discovery House buildings. 

While there are no plans to do any sort of exploration of the area, the zoo’s chief executive officer Tim Morrow said the zoo would cooperate with any such efforts.

“Whenever we do any work here, we have an archaeologist on site,” he said.

He noted that previous work has uncovered historic structures such as the tannery sluice gates and portions of the historic Upper Labor Acequia that supplied water to the tannery and flushed out into the river. | Twitter: @RichardMarini