Brazos River

The Brazos River proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Waco, providing a constant water supply, means of transportation, and fertile farming ground, but also serving as a site of frequent flooding and destruction. This tension shaped the history of the communities which developed upon the banks of the Brazos.

The longest river in Texas, the Brazos is 840 miles long and drains an area of 41,700 square miles. Spanning from its headwater source in New Mexico to where it drains into the Gulf of Mexico, the river flows through varying terrain, from canyons to the rolling plains of West Texas to its meandering course through the relatively flat Coastal Plain.

Efforts to improve the Brazos and to make it navigable were begun as early as 1870. McLennan County cotton planters began looking for a water route to ship their produce at lower prices than railroads could offer. Barges and steamboats, notably the Kate Ross captained by early Wacoan Shapley Prince Ross, plied the river for a while until the channel shifted and more railroads came into the county. A bridge constructed in 1870 spanning the banks of the Brazos increased the amount of commercial activity within the city.

Notable attempts to build a series of locks and dams on the Brazos were made under the terms of the River and Harbor Act of 1905 and later under a New Deal project in the 1930s. However, the river shifted its course multiple times and floods wrecked construction sites.

Frequent flooding made life near the Brazos River a struggle for many Wacoans. On May 27, 1885, a tornado and flood resulted in the deaths of eleven people and $300,000 in property damage. In 1913, tumultuous flood waters inundated much of East Waco and took the lives of two people. The flood which occurred in September of 1936 resulted in $1.5 million in property damage in the county, especially in East Waco, although no lives were lost.

A United States Army Corps of Engineers study in 1937 recommended a series of dams on tributary streams of the Brazos and a major dam at Whitney on the main stream as the best means of controlling floods. World War II intervened, but in 1946, the first tributary dam was begun in Belton, and soon thereafter the Whitney Dam began to rise on the Brazos. The Flood Control Act of 1954 authorized a dam on the Bosque River at Waco, and as well as several others in different cities in line with the 1937 study.

When Waco Dam was finished in 1965, it completed, with the Whitney Dam, the major flood control instruments to protect Waco and the lower Brazos Valley. The floodplain at Waco became available for development. In 1967 Waco voters approved a $1.5 million bond issue to build a channel dam to create a bank-level lake through the heart of the city for recreation and beautification purposes. Lake Brazos was filled in 1972.

The Brazos River Authority, an independent organization established by legislation in 1929, continues to develop and manage the waters of the entire Brazos River basin. Today, the river continues to serve as an important water source for power, irrigation, and other resources for Waco and McLennan County, as well as other regions throughout Texas.

Images

Legendary Origins

Legendary Origins

Myth and legend surround the origins of the river's name. Some believe it most likely that Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his men gave the river its name. The Spanish were lost and wandering, on the verge of perishing form thirst, when a gorup of Native Americans led them to a small river which they dubbed "Los Brazos de Dios," or the "Arms of God." The same name often apears in other accounts of Spanish explorers. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Baptism in the Brazos

Baptism in the Brazos

Wacoans used the Brazos River for a large variety of purposes, including religious rituals. Here, a group of Baptists wade into the river in order to baptize new congregants. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Recreation and Leisure

Recreation and Leisure

The river served recreational purposes as well, when not bursting with dangerous flood waters. This photograph of young men and women canoeing in the Brazos River appeared in a Baylor student’s 1908 scrapbook. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Valuable Route

Valuable Route

Prior to the Civil War, the Brazos River served as one of the most important means of transportation in the state, and Waco sat as one of the major trading ports along its banks. Efforts to ease the difficulty of transportation along the river continued for many years. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Lock and Dam (c. 1914)

Lock and Dam (c. 1914)

Though the river provided many useful benefits, the dangers of flooding proved a constant worry. Beginning in the early twentieth century, efforts shifted from making the river more navigable to the construction  | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Commemorative Postcard (c. 1906)

Commemorative Postcard (c. 1906)

The suspension bridge, constructed as a means to provide traders and travelers with a safer way across the river and into the city, became a point of pride for Waco. Beautiful scenes of the serene river with the suspension bridge in the background frequented cards and postcards such as this one. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Aerial Photograph (c. 1918)

Aerial Photograph (c. 1918)

Aerial photographs such as this one clearly show the way in which the city grew up along the banks of the Brazos River. This photograph, one of the first aerial photographs of Waco, was taken by an army air corps aerial photographer while stationed at Rich Field in Waco, Texas. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Flooded East Waco (c. 1936)

Flooded East Waco (c. 1936)

Frequent flooding often interrupted life throughout the city and was particularly difficult for citizens of East Waco. The worst floods occurred in 1913 and 1936. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Brazos River (c. 1916)

Brazos River (c. 1916)

The river served as a point of interest for many people throughout the city, and famous Waco photographers often featured it in their work. E. C. Blomeyer (standing on the bluff above the river) took many photographs of the Brazos River. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Audio

Activities at the Brazos in the 1920s and 30s

Charles Ray Jaynes speaks of the things he did while visiting the Brazos river with his brother in the 1920s and 30s. | Source: Jaynes, Charles Ray, interviewed by Dave Sikkema, July 26, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Having a Ball at the Brazos

Frank Curre Jr. speaks of swimming and fishing at the Brazos as a young boy in the 1920s and 30s. | Source: Curre Jr., Frank and Dorothy Head Powell, interviewed by Mark Firmin, January 28, 2009, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Low Water Level

Frank Curre Jr. and Dorothy Head Powell tell about the times when the water was low enough for them to walk across the river. | Source: Curre Jr., Frank and Dorothy Head Powell, interviewed by Mark Firmin, January 28, 2009, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Strictly Forbidden in the 1960s

Paul M. Barron speaks of how the Brazos river was forbidden from swimming in because of local lore about quicksand, undercurrents, and whirlpools. | Source: Barron, Paul M., interviewed by Stephen Mayes Sloan, October 20, 2009, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Dayton Kelley, ed., The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas, “Brazos River,” Waco History, accessed May 23, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/128.

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