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Stories Added - Thursday, March 6, 2008
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The Alamo: No back door but rumors of one linger
Polk County Enterprise - March 2008
Three Alamo expressions are almost universally known: “A line in the sand,” “Remember the Alamo,” and “The Alamo had no back door.” The world will never know whether Col. William B. Travis used his saber to draw a line on the ground and invited all who chose to fight to the death to cross it. But the expression endures as resolutely as our memory of the siege that ended on the morning of March 6, 1836. The second leg of the triad, “Remember the Alamo,” is welldocumented as the last three words hundreds of Mexican soldiers heard before they died at the hands of Sam Houston’s vengeful army during the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
But who first noted that the old Spanish mission in San Antonio had no back door? And what if the Alamo did have a back door, or at least a secret escape route? On Sept. 15, 1894, the Eagle Pass Guide reprinted a story from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “The Alamo’s Secret Passage.” The piece began: “There has been a tradition among the Mexicans of this city [San Antonio], since the early part of the present century, that the old Alamo and Conception Missions are connected…by means of an underground passage, and a discovery has just been made … which leads to the belief that the tradition is well founded.”
A few days earlier, the story went, workmen digging a well on the farm of one Walter Scott, just south of town, struck a layer of rock. “After penetrating this barrier they came upon a passage which is about 8 feet in height and 5 feet wide,” the story continued. “The sides are walled with rock slabs, and the bottom seems to be laid with a material resembling cement. The passage runs in a north and south direction, and at the time the discovery was made it was half filled with water, it being just after heavy rains…. The top of the passage is about 12 feet from the surface. It is in direct line between the two missions, and Mr. Scott is thoroughly convinced that he has at last discovered the long-lost passage, and that upon further exploration he will bring some wonderful things to light.”
The story said a brief exploration of the passage had been made, but no one had gone very far because of the water. The unidentified author of the article said secret passages were common in the missions of Mexico and the Southwest and that they were “constantly [being] discovered and explored, even at this late day, and in some of them immense amounts of treasure have been brought to light.” While that’s possible, the notion of secret tunnels is a definite folk tale sub-category, often connected with the broader treasure story genre. The idea behind the tunnels, of course, is that they were used as escape routes in the event of Indian attack. The story went on: “When the Franciscan Fathers came to the new world they found many enemies …with which to contend in their work of advancing [religion] and civilization.
They built these missions and fortified them so that in case of attack from the savages or other …enemies they could make resistance. [It]…is a well-known fact that in many places in Mexico they were successfully used in turbulent times, and when the attacking party would enter the religious edifice it would be found deserted.”
The passages were both wellbuilt and well-disguised, the story noted. “Another thing that lends color to the theory that the Alamo and Conception Missions are connected…,” the story said, “is that in the north wing of the Alamo in one of the cell-like rooms that was formerly occupied by the severe and sober-appearing monks, there is a spot about five feet square in the cement floor which within the past few years has sunk several inches, and when one walks upon the spot there is a hollow sound.…” Should the existence of a passage running three miles from the Alamo to Mission Conception be proven, the story said, “the discovery will also reveal that the Texas martyrs who lost their lives in the Alamo, had they known of the existence of this outlet, [could] have saved their lives by escaping through it.” None of the basic Alamo histories mention anything about a tunnel ever having been found, though scholars do believe some of the Alamo defenders tried to escape once they realized they had no hope of survival inside the mission.
The underground rock-lined structure found in 1894, assuming the story wasn’t made up, might have been a remnant of the Spanish irrigation system that connected to the San Antonio River. As for the “back door” line, it is variously attributed to the late Maury Maverick Jr. or some unnamed member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Supposedly, when President John K. Kennedy visited the Alamo in 1960, he asked following his appearance to be escorted out the back door of the old mission. “There is no back door to the Alamo,” Kennedy learned. “That’s why they were all heroes.”