Until late 1869, crossing the Brazos River at Waco could be a risky undertaking. Until
then, the only way to cross was by ferry or by fording the river when the water was
low. Capt. Shapley Ross had operated a primitive ferry across the river at Waco
since 1849. But the Brazos could be treacherous after a rain and sometimes was
impassable for days at a time. Commerce, especially the cattle drives coming
through the growing town on the Chisholm Trail, needed a more secure crossing.
Waco Toll Bridge Chartered
Waco business leaders received a charter from the state in 1866 to build a
permanent toll bridge over the Brazos. Even with money scarce and interest rates
high during Reconstruction, the Waco Bridge Company sold all its stock. In mid-
1868, the company chose to work with John A. Roebling and Son of Trenton, New
Jersey, in designing and building a new suspension-type bridge. Roebling later
designed and built New York's Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, using the
same technique and style. Civil engineer Thomas M. Griffith, a Roebling employee
who had worked with similar bridges, was the actual designer and construction
supervisor of the Waco bridge.
Work began in September 1868. At that time, Waco had no machine shops or any
artisans with the skills to build a bridge of this magnitude, and the nearest railroad
was 100 miles away. The woven wire cables and other components were shipped to
Galveston by steamer, transferred by rail to Bryan, then taken by ox wagons on a
rutted, dusty road to Waco.
How It Was Built
Construction began with the excavation for the footings of the twin double towers that
would anchor the span. The towers, which required 2.7 million locally produced
bricks to construct, were topped with crenelated ornamentation resembling a
medieval castle. Workmen carried wires across the river to form the massive cables
that would support the wooden roadway.
The span was completed in late December 1869, and the first tolls were collected on
Jan. 1, 1870. The $141,000 structure – the first bridge across the Brazos – was
dedicated five days later. The main span was so wide that two stagecoaches could
pass each other, and it was 475 feet long.
Not only did the bridge company charge people to cross, but it also collected five
cents per head from cattle drovers "for each loose animal of the cattle kind" that
used the span. Since the Chisholm Trail went through Waco, a large number of cattle
lumbered across, which helped the bridge company to retire its debt. Most drovers,
however, still chose the cheaper alternative of swimming their herds across the
Bridge Transforms Waco
The Waco Suspension Bridge triggered Waco's transformation from frontier outpost
to city. The waves of immigrants heading west after the Civil War used this easy way
across the Brazos. These travelers also needed supplies and equipment of all kinds,
repairs for their harness and fresh horses and mules. Waco met their demands, and
it prospered and grew. The year the bridge opened, there were slightly more than
3,000 people in Waco. Ten years later, the population had more than doubled to
The bridge operated as a toll bridge from 1870 to 1889, when it was sold to
McLennan County. The county turned it over to the City of Waco to operate as a free
Major reconstruction was done in 1913-1914. The pier towers were rebuilt and
stuccoed, with the medieval crenelations supplanted by a much plainer design.
Stronger steel cables replaced the original ones. Steel trusses were added on both
sides to enable the span to carry heavier loads and to provide walkways. The bridge
reopened in 1914 and was used by vehicular traffic until 1971, when it was retired to
the rank of historical monument.
Today it is open for pedestrian traffic in a park just east of the Waco central business
district near the site of the original Waco Springs. The Waco Suspension Bridge is
on the National Register of Historic Places and has a Texas historical medallion.
Written by Mary G. Ramos and first published in the 1992-1993 Texas Almanac.
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|The Waco Suspension Bridge
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