Bridge Street

Bridge Street holds an important legacy of connecting North, South, and East Waco, and serving as a center of community for the city’s many ethnic groups. Known as Main Street during Waco’s early days, this historic street earned its new name after the construction of the Waco Suspension Bridge around 1870. Over time, many of the wooden buildings lining Bridge Street became so dilapidated that the street earned the nickname Rat Row. A fire devastated the street in 1871, and businesses rebuilt using stone, thereby improving the image and stability of Bridge Street.

The majority of the African American community worked in businesses on Bridge Street during the nineteenth century.  After the close of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, African Americans hired themselves out in Waco in positions according to the skills and experience they possessed. Most worked as laborers and servants, though many worked in positions such as farmers, schoolteachers, and carpenters.  

Near the turn of the century, Bridge Street emerged as the center of the minority-owned business community and became a communal gathering point. According to the Waco city directory, African American-owned barbershops emerged on Bridge Street as early as 1877, and several Chinese laundries and a Hispanic grocery store opened in 1892. Over the next decade, the number of minority-owned businesses increased rapidly.

On the weekends, Bridge Street filled with families and citizens from all over Waco. Restaurants, taverns, hotels, and theaters offered entertainment and enjoyment, while doctors, dentists, grocers, tailors, and other business owners met the community’s other needs. Bridge Street also served as the center for several African American newspapers for Waco, including the Waco Messenger.

Tragedy struck Waco, and Bridge Street, in 1953. A tornado tore through downtown, taking one hundred and fourteen lives and destroying many businesses. Several buildings on Bridge Street collapsed, injuring or killing the people within. Businesses closed, leaving the lots vacant for several years. A few, such as the Mecca Drug Store, found the funds to rebuild. The citywide urban renewal project tore down the remaining buildings on Bridge Street in 1968, leaving only City Hall standing.

Today, many lament the way in which urban renewal displaced Waco’s minorities through the destruction of Bridge Street. Though the buildings no longer stand, Bridge Street remains an important part of Waco’s history. Not only did it provide a place for Waco’s minorities to engage in commerce in the heart of downtown, but it served as a communal gathering place in which respite from prejudice and segregation could be found in the mid-twentieth century.

Images

Bridge Street

Bridge Street

The construction of the Suspension Bridge marked Waco's shift from a small frontier town to a thriving urban center. Bridge Street, know before the bridge's construction as Main Street, prospered due to its proximity to travelers entering and leaving Waco. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Fred R. Gildersleeve View File Details Page

Suspension Bridge (1916)

Suspension Bridge (1916)

Foot traffic and automobiles traveling westward across the Waco Suspension Bridge were afforded direct access to Bridge Street. Note the electric lights fitted to the bridge to better serve evening traffic. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: E. C. Blomeyer View File Details Page

A Communal Gathering Point

A Communal Gathering Point

During the week, primarily Wacoans frequented Bridge Street. However, on Saturday afternoons Bridge Street filled with families from the surrounding rural communities who traveled into the city to shop for groceries, catch a movie, or eat in a restaurant. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: John Bennett View File Details Page

Respite from Prejudice

Respite from Prejudice

Bridge Street provided a communal gathering place for Waco's minorities. Businesses such as the Gem Theater, an "exclusive colored theater," offered respite from prejudice and segregation during the mid-twentieth century. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

A Devastating Force

A Devastating Force

After the tornado of 1953, many businesses were unable to rebuild due to the high cost of meeting the city's requirements for steel-framed buildings. Many lots remained vacant over the next few years until 1968, when urban renewal tore down the remaining buildings on Bridge Street. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Audio

Bridge Street in the 1920s

Lonnie Belle Hodges describes her job on Bridge Street and the Easter Parade. | Source: Hodges, Lonnie Belle, interviewed by Vivienne Lucille Malone-Mayes, August 30, 1990, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Looking the Other Direction

Ernestine G. Anderson speaks of why her mother and grandmother would not let her go down Bridge Street when she was a child. | Source: Anderson, Ernestine Garrett, interviewed by Lois E. Myers, March 30, 1999, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

A Gathering Place

Ernestine G. Anderson explains how her and her family were able to congregate around the shops near Bridge Street and walk through the front doors. | Source: Anderson, Ernestine Garrett, interviewed by Lois E. Myers, March 30, 1999, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

An African American Community

Curtis Lee Wilburn tells about how African Americans socialized around Bridge Street and how he could always count on running into someone he knew. | Source: Wilburn, Curtis Lee, interviewed by James M. SoRelle and Bettie Beard, October 27, 1984, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amanda Sawyer, “Bridge Street,” Waco History, accessed July 22, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/49.

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