Waco Suspension Bridge

In the years leading up to 1870, the Brazos River proved to be both a blessing and a curse to the city of Waco. During that time, no bridges spanned the eight hundred miles of river flowing through Central Texas, forcing cattle drivers moving up the Chisholm Trail to find shallow fording areas. Waco's shallow banks provided one of these opportune locations, and the Chisholm Trail brought a great deal of trade to the small city. Yet the river also posed a serious transportation issue for merchants and travelers. Although Waco pioneer Shapely Prince Ross ran a ferry for those wishing to cross, the river became impassable for days or even weeks during flood season.

It became clear that a better means of crossing the river was necessary, both for locals and those passing through. The close of the Civil War, however, left the city of Waco and McLennan County without funds for such a project. Plans to build a bridge across the Brazos initiated in 1866, when the Texas State Legislature granted a charter for the foundation of a private company, the Waco Bridge Company. The charter provided the Waco Bridge Company a monopoly on transportation across the river for the next twenty-five years, allowing no other bridges to be built within five miles of their bridge. A budget of twenty-five thousand dollars was set for the construction of the bridge, and after much deliberation, the shareholders chose the steel cable suspension bridge design due to its cheapness and ease of transport. In 1868, John Roebling & Son, best known for their later construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, provided the parts for the bridge. After the parts arrived in Waco by oxcart, local labor began to assemble the suspension bridge. By the time the bridge opened to through traffic in 1870, it was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River.

The economic benefits of the bridge immediately became visible to the city and surrounding area. In the following decades, Waco became the capital for cotton and cattle in Central Texas, rivaling Dallas in size by the 1900s. Built just at the edge of the business section of the city at First Street and Main Street, the Suspension Bridge stimulated the growth of Waco by providing a steady stream of traffic through the city. The bridge itself also supplied economic revenue. The 1866 charter allowed the Waco Bridge Company to charge a toll as long as the company properly maintained the bridge. The bridge collected enough in tolls in the first year of operation to completely pay off its mortgage.

The toll quickly became unpopular, and many began searching for ways to circumvent it. Ultimately, McLennan County bought the Suspension Bridge from the Waco Bridge Company for a sum of $75,000. It was then sold to the city of Waco for one dollar, with the provision that the city would maintain the bridge and eliminate the toll.

Many citizens called for the “unsightly bridge” to be removed in 1913. Rather than tear down the historic bridge, the city re-floored it, stuccoed over the red bricks, and replaced its wooden trusses with steel. Over the next century, the bridge underwent renovations several more times and continued to serve vehicular traffic until 1971. By that time, other options for crossing the Brazos River existed, such as the Washington Avenue Bridge and the Herring Avenue Bridge.  Today, the bridge serves only pedestrian traffic. It is the centerpiece of Indian Springs Park on the river, and stands as a reminder of Waco’s rich history.

Images

Postcard (early 1900s)

Postcard (early 1900s)

Originally the four support towers were made of bricks formed from sand brought out of East Waco. Each of these towers stood nearly fifty feet tall. In 1913, the brick towers were stuccoed over and steel beams replaced the wooden trusses. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Souvenir Postcard

Souvenir Postcard

For the first twenty years of its existence, the suspension bridge had a toll. Tolls were collected via a bucket on a string lowered down from one of the towers. The toll keeper and his family lived in the red brick building seen in the right-hand corner of this postcard. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Gateway to Waco

Gateway to Waco

By offering safe passage over the Brazos, the Waco Suspension Bridge facilitated not only casual strolls but also commerce. Local businesses paid for advertising space on the walls of the bridge's gateway in the hopes of gaining new customers from the busy crossing. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Panoramic Postcard (1910)

Panoramic Postcard (1910)

The daily toll rates on the Suspension Bridge made it quite profitable. Pedestrians paid five cents, and those on horseback or in carriages were charged ten cents. Any loose cattle or livestock cost five cents per head. The Waco Bridge Company reported that it made approximately $25,000 each year in collected tolls. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Promenade in River Park

Promenade in River Park

When the cattle drives ended around 1890, many Wacoans wished for the “unsightly” bridge to be torn down. Therefore, the city began a period of renovations geared toward making the bridge safer and more aesthetically pleasing. River Park encouraged Wacoans to see the Suspension Bridge as an attractive destination for a scenic stroll. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Security Across the Brazos

Security Across the Brazos

In the early twentieth century, the Waco Suspension Bridge provided safe passage across the oftentimes volatile Brazos River. During the 1936 flood, the bridge enabled citizens to evacuate East Waco when the brand new Washington Street Bridge was closed due to high waters. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Proud Centerpiece

Proud Centerpiece

Today, the Waco Suspension Bridge stands as the focal point of two parks: the Indian Spring Park commemorating the birthplace of the original Waco settlement, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the north side of the bridge. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Chisholm Trail Festival

Chisholm Trail Festival

In 2010, the McLennan County Historical Commission presented the Chisholm Trail Festival, “Across the Brazos at Waco.” At this event, cowhands herded around forty longhorns across the Suspension Bridge in commemoration of the historic cattle drive trail. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Audio

Walking to School on the Swinging Bridge

Vivienne Malone-Mayes tells about how the Waco Suspension Bridge would swing when a large amount of students walked across it in the 1940s. | Source: Malone-Mayes, Vivienne Lucille, interviewed by Rebecca M. Sharpless, August 5, 1987, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Circus Could Not Cross

Marian C. Butler tells a story of the first circus that came to Waco, and the effort it took to get the animals across the river. | Source: Butler, Marian C., interviewed by Janelle Easely, January 29, 1976, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Caleb Vinson and Amanda Sawyer, “Waco Suspension Bridge,” Waco History, accessed July 26, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/24.

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