The Brazos River is the longest river in Texas. Its watershed stretches over 1000 miles, rising from hardscrabble ground in New Mexico and West Texas, curling and splashing through the green hills of central Texas, and ultimately spilling into the blue Gulf of Mexico.

Before the the extermination of the buffalo following the Civil War, the Brazos was the dividing line between Anglo-American and Tejano settlements east of the river and Comancheria—the land to the West, ruled by the mighty Comanche. When the Civil War ended in the 1860s, this dividing line shifted further west and settlement encroached onto the western plains. This created more need to cross the Brazos; however, no bridges crossed the river in the central part of the state. Instead, cattle drives along the Shawnee and Chisholm trails, stagecoaches, and other travelers depended upon ferries or low-water crossings. During the wet season, delays in crossing the Brazos could last for weeks.

In 1866 the Texas State Legislature authorized the newly formed Waco Bridge Company to raise funds for construction of a bridge crossing the river at a spot located on the edge of Waco, Texas, a small settlement of about 1500 people. The selection of the site was a logical one since it adjoined Indian Springs, a historic Indian camp ground and water crossing. This early crossing on the Brazos is documented by a bronze plaque on a large granite stone placed near the bridge by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But, back to 1866 . . .The legislative charter awarded to the Waco Bridge Company granted a twenty-five year monopoly guaranteeing no other river crossing within five miles of the new toll bridge. The Company President, John T. Flint oversaw the creation of $25,000 in funding and the hiring of a civil engineer—Thomas F. Griffith—who arrived in 1868 from New York, and began planning for the design and construction of a single-span suspension bridge.

A Trenton, New Jersey firm, The Roebling Company was selected to provide cables and bridgework. Materials were sent by boat from New Jersey to Galveston, by train to Bryan, Texas and then by ox cart to Waco. Local workers were hired for the construction. (On an interesting note, The Robeling Company subsequently built New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.)

According to the Historic American Engineering Record, the Waco Bridge’s design originally featured two castellated pink brick towers. its tollhouses featured stepped gable roofs, parapets, and round arched openings.The floor was made of timber planks. Its design was substantial looking and wide enough to handle pedestrians, stagecoaches, and lots of cattle.

In 1870, the completed Waco suspension bridge stretched 475 feet bank-to-bank across the Brazos. It was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. Tolls for the bridge were ten cents for an animal and rider, foot passengers and individual animals (including cattle) were five cents each, small animals such as hogs, goats, or sheep crossed for three cents. After one year the tolls collected allowed the mortgage on the bridge to be paid in full.

Can you imagine the sight of 3000 cattle and the accompanying cowboys lined up and crossing the bridge while it swayed with the movement of the herd and the toll taker tried to keep count? A sight to be seen!!But not everyone loved the bridge. When, after the bridge’s construction, a traveling circus came to town, the lead elephant put one foot on the bridge, stopped, and refused to take one more step. The circus ended up using a water crossing instead, and the story is that the elephants enjoyed the river, splashing and squirting water. No bridge for them!!

For almost twenty years there were on-going complaints about the tolls from travelers and locals alike. Finally in September of 1889, McLennan County bought the bridge from the Waco Bridge Company for $75,000. The county gave the bridge to the city in return for promises that the city would maintain the structure. The suspension bridge over the river became toll-free.

In 1914, the bridge was extensively remodeled to handle more traffic. According to an article on the website of the Texas State Historical Association, “The cable system was replaced, the roadway was reinforced with steel, and the towers were rebuilt and stuccoed.” Stiffening trusses were also added. In the 1940s, school children using the bridge to walk to-and-from school were notorious for making the suspended bridge swing and sway high above the water. The bridge was open to vehicular traffic until 1971, when it was converted to pedestrian use only.

In 2017, the findings of a comprehensive evaluation report by Sparks Engineering, Inc., a San Antonio-based consultant specializing in existing structures, found that “The bridge was nearing the end of its useful life, primarily because of degradation of the 1914 cables and anchor rods.” The City of Waco lost no time in contracting with the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company and moved forward with an extensive $12.5 million restoration plan and a completion deadline of late spring or early summer of 2023.

Texas’ historic suspension bridge over the Brazos remains suspended in its setting—nestled between Indian Springs Park on the west side, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on the east side. On the south side, stand bronze figures depicting a trail boss with a herd of longhorn cattle on the Chisholm trail—reminders of the bridge’s importance since its creation and bridging the more than one hundred and fifty years between the bridge’s beginning in 1870 and today.

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.