One of the most famous landmarks in Central Texas is the Waco Suspension Bridge in McLennan County. Waco was founded on the banks of the Brazos River just below where it is joined by the Bosque River. For years, the only crossing nearby was Shapley Ross’ ferry that connected what is now East Waco, connecting with the road extending to Dallas, to downtown Waco at the extension of Austin Avenue to the river, connecting a main route to Marlin. It was also one of several Brazos River crossings of the famed Chisholm Trail.
After the Civil War, certain Waco residents including J. W. Speight, J. B. Earle, H. M. Hood, A. J. Buchanan, O. J. Downs and J. M. Burney held a preliminary discussion to consider a project to build a bridge to span the Brazos in Waco. Following this discussion, they drew up a petition to the Texas Legislature to grant them a charter to undertake the project. On November 1, 1886, a charter was granted allowing the group to build an operate such a bridge for 25 years. The bridge could be funded as a toll bridge and would have a limited monopoly in that no other bridge could be built within 5 miles of Waco.
Speight then called a meeting to be held May 8, 1868 that was attended by himself, Earle, Downs and Burney and they resolved to create the Waco Bridge Company. It would be stock company, funded by a subscription of 2,500 shares offered for sale to the public at $20/share totaling $50,000. In the two weeks that followed, the initial offering was subscribed and the first meeting of the Company was held May 25, 1868. 57 individuals signed the minutes including Speight, his daughters Jessie and Sally Speight, local dry goods business owner Rufus C. Majors and future governor Richard Coke. Speight was nominated to serve as President but Coke also nominated and spoke in favor of J. T. Flint who would be elected president of the company. Initial directors were Speight, Trice, Coke and Wallace. Speight, Prather and Owens were appointed to draw up bylaws and Speight made a motion that Flint also be added to this group. Flint opined that he felt the bridge could be built for $40,000.
Things progressed rather quickly from this point with the selection of the New Jersey firm of John A. Roebling as designer of the bridge. Flint was authorized to go to New York City to meet with the firm, set up the contract with Roebling and order the initial materials. Engineer Thomas M. Griffith was engaged to head up the project.
The location chosen was in the same general area as the Shapley Ross Ferry boarding sites. On the west side the connecting street was redesignated as Bridge Street. About three acres were acquired on the east side from Earle’s Waco Manufacturing Company. Bids were let for the masonry portion of the contract and a local company named Trice Brothers was chosen as the supervising contractor. Trice also furnished the brick and the McCrary and O’Neal company was engaged to furnish the wooden planking. Engineer George B. Dutton who was also serving as Waco City Engineer was engaged to string the cable.
On March 15, 1869, a capital call of the last 20% of the initial stock subscription was made when it became obvious that costs were going to exceed the initial subscription of $50,000. Flint was authorized to obtain a loan for another $15,000, which he did. In addition, the company authorized a second subscription of stock to raise another $25,000.
Construction rapidly progressed toward its conclusion. One expenditure noted was the approval of $13.13 for the purchase of whiskey for the bridge hands as the project neared its end. The bridge was completed by December 1969 at a total cost of about $141,000 and the first tolls were collected January 1, 1870. Funding came from the initial and secondary stock subscriptions and from bonds and loans. The project included the toll house on the west side which still stands today.
Tolls were collected for several years, but almost immediately opposition to the toll feature began to be voiced, despite the fact that the tolls were needed to pay for the operation and cost of the bridge. The bridge company continued to own and operate the facility for more than a decade, though one by one the initial officers went on to other pursuits or left due to illness, death or other reasons. Flint resigned in November, 1873; Coke resigned because he had been elected governor of Texas; Speight died in 1888.
Other notable events in the timeline included a petition by W. A. Taylor to extend his streetcar line over the bridge, which petition was denied. In 1878, Thomas Griffith was reengaged to fix a sag that had developed in the cabling. In 1884 and again in 1885, there were floods that came close to submerging the downtown area with the flood in 1885 being noted as the worst flood in the short history of the town.
Opposition to the toll feature reached its peak in the 1880s. After discussions, effective September 1, 1889, McLennan County offered to purchase 100% of the stock of the Waco Bridge Company. The offer was accepted and control of the structure was effectively transferred on that date. The cost to the County was equal the shareholders’ investment of $75,000. Simultaneous with the above transaction, McLennan County conveyed the structure to the City of Waco for $1 and the bridge has since been operated without tolls.
The Roebling firm would go on to complete the famed Brooklyn Bridge. In the meantime, it completed other suspension bridges, but had the wire rope design not worked in Waco, the Brooklyn Bridge might have had to be redesigned. To the untrained eye, the similarities between the two structures are easily noted, though the Brooklyn Bridge is clearly a larger and more complex project. In contrast to the Waco Suspension Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge would take 13 years to complete, at an estimated cost of $15,500,000.
Over the years, the wood planking was upgraded and replaced. In 1913, the City replaced the older steel with higher gauge steel to handle the heavier traffic and trusses were added to accommodate pedestrian traffic. The brick towers were rebuilt and stuccoed, giving the structure virtually the same appearance it has today. The bridge was designated in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 on its centennial anniversary. It was retired from vehicular traffic the following year but is still in continuous use for other traffic and events.
Note: This article draws heavily from the fine work done by the late Roger N. Conger, who obtained and studied the minutes of the Waco Bridge Company and added his own research.
The two images below are used with permission from the James Jasek Waco Historic Photographic Collection.
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