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A (Suspension) Bridge Over (Brazos) Water

A Look at the History and Lifespan of Waco’s Beloved Suspension Bridge

Many locals probably know their iconic Waco Suspension Bridge was partially designed by the same company that provided supplies to New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, but fewer are likely aware that it cost the city a single, solitary dollar… well, technically speaking, that is.

In the years leading up to this bargain sale, nearby cattle drivers relied almost entirely on the legendary Chisolm Trail for travel. Although the route passed through Waco’s often shallow fording, the Brazos River’s temperamental mood swings made business unreliable, difficult, and frequently dangerous. In 1866, shortly following the Civil War’s conclusion, the Texas State Legislature chartered the Waco Bridge Company, granting the enterprise a $25,000 budget, not to mention essentially a local monopoly, to construct a new bridge spanning the wild Brazos.

Making the project a reality proved even more difficult than designers already anticipated. With the nearest railroad station approximately 100 miles away at the time and the closest skilled workers located over 200 miles south in Galveston, supplies first needed to be loaded onto a steamer and ferried up to the town of Bryan. From there, the materials were transported the final 85 miles to Waco across terrible road conditions via ox-driven wagons. Meanwhile, local artisans manufactured an estimated 3 million bricks for the suspension bridge’s two tower supports.

Four laborious years later, the Waco Suspension Bridge accepted its first toll fee on January 1, 1870.

At 475-feet long, it was the longest bridge west of the Mississippi at the time, as well as the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world. During this initial era, the suspension bridge’s width essentially allowed for two lanes of traffic, be it pedestrian, stagecoach, livestock, or combination thereof. Cattle were charged 5 cents a head, with a separate toll for people passing across on foot. To say that the project received a warm welcome would be an understatement—within its inaugural year in operation, the bridge collected an estimated $150,000 in revenue, essentially paying for the entire construction project’s costs and then some.

Despite this immediate success, it didn’t take long for the Brazos River to remind locals of its remaining power. In 1885, a massive flood damaged the bridge’s east end, requiring a new steel span to be built for it. While that remains the only major natural disaster on record for the structure, it is enough to humble anyone crossing the span.

Regardless, the Waco Suspension Bridge served the nearby community and passers-by for almost two decades before being sold to McLennan County in 1889 for $75,000. In turn, the county sold bridge ownership to the town of Waco itself for just one dollar, with the agreement that the city would both maintain upkeep and eliminate pedestrian tolls.

It’s hard to find a single Wacoan who doesn’t have some connection or knowledge of the recognizable landscape staple.

Despite its success and utility, many local Wacoans were not a fan of the suspension bridge’s original appearance, and called for the structure to be removed entirely when discussions surrounding potential updates began in the early 1910s. As a compromise, planners decided to provide an aesthetic update to nearly the entire bridge when renovations and repairs began in 1913. Not only did the city stucco-over the red bricks with a new Art Deco style, but it replaced its wooden trusses with steel, as well as refloored the entire pathway.

For decades, the newly redecorated and reinforced Waco Suspension Bridge continued to provide an easy, accessible route for commerce and traffic, helping to bolster growth and innovation in and around the city. It’s iconic design and utility became a focal point of the Indian Springs Park and a signature landmark for Waco. By the time of its centennial anniversary, the Texas state historical committee decided that recent advancements in bridge development, alongside the construction of more modern and stronger projects, meant that the Waco Suspension Bridge had reached the end of its long and storied career. In 1971, the passage was finally closed to all vehicular traffic, and became solely a pedestrian walkway. By then, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places, as well as designated a Texas Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That evolution hasn’t restricted the bridge’s usage, however. Multiple public festivities and smaller, intimate events are hosted high above the Brazos River every year, and memories are made there every day. It’s hard to find a single Wacoan who doesn’t have some connection or knowledge of the recognizable landscape staple.

Courtesy of City of Waco

With each new generation of Wacoans comes a new sense of dedication to the suspension bridge’s legacy and maintenance, and the most recent community is no exception. In fall 2020, officials announced a full closure of the bridge for a new, massive $12.4 million renovation project for the structure. Unlike the 1913 undertaking, planners refrained from altering virtually all the walkway’s existing Art Deco design and flourishes.

Instead, the complicated repairs were focused entirely on structural issues. Flooring, trusses, and steel suspension cables have all been replaced and updated, while masonry, roofing, and various other architectural repairs have been addressed for the cable houses and towers. Most recently, the bridge’s temporary mid-river supports were removed as construction wrapped, requiring a team of underwater divers and a massive, 80-ton crane to accomplish—a dramatic change from the ox-driven wagons and bricklayers of over a 150 years ago.

Even with the complications of a global pandemic and more recent supply chain issues, renovations have largely continued on schedule for the past two years. When opened to the public once again, the Waco Suspension Bridge will resume its long-held role as one of the town’s most beloved fixtures and gathering places.

Designers estimate that the new work will not need repairs for between 50 and 75 years, at least. But rest assured, when the time comes, Wacoans will undoubtedly be there and ready to give the inspiring, impressive, and ingenious bridge the care, attention, and respect it deserves.

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