Waco Suspension Bridge

By: Vivian Elizabeth Smyrl

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: January 26, 2018

The Waco Suspension Bridge is a 475-foot structure that crosses the Brazos River in downtown Waco. At the time that it was built it was the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River. In 1866 Joseph Warren Speight introduced the bridge project as a way to stimulate the local economy. Several of Waco's leading citizens formed the Waco Bridge Company, which was incorporated by the legislature on November 1, 1866. The company's charter granted it exclusive rights to any bridge traffic across the Brazos within five miles of Waco for a period of twenty-five years, to be counted from the date the construction was completed. John T. Flint, president of the company, hired Thomas M. Griffith of New York as civil engineer for the project and commissioned the cables and steelwork from John A. Roebling and Son, New York, the company that later built the Brooklyn Bridge. Cedar trees from the Chalk Bluff area were floated down the Brazos for use in the foundation, and local firms were hired for the brick and wood work. Excavation of the riverbed and acquisition of building materials began in the fall of 1868. The total capital needed for the bridge was originally estimated at $40,000, but factors such as the rising rate of inflation and the instability of the riverbed combined to increase costs. The company was forced to reopen subscriptions for stock on several occasions, and sales were not completed until after the bridge had been opened for traffic. Estimates of the final cost of the project have varied; the most commonly quoted figures are $135,000 and $141,000. The bridge was officially opened on January 7, 1870, with a parade led by Kate Ross (see PADGITT, KATE ROSS), although receipts showed that there had been some bridge traffic before that date. The Waco Bridge Company set up a schedule of small tolls, from which the total collections were about $25,000 annually. Although the toll quickly became unpopular, serious plans for a competing free bridge were not made until 1886. Two years of court injunctions, reversals, and appeals ensued and ended in June 1888, when the United States Fifth District Court upheld the bridge company's twenty-five-year charter as legally binding until 1895. Although it had won the court battle, however, the company soon found that it would be politic to sell the bridge to the county. The county purchased the bridge for $75,000 in mid-1889 and in turn sold it to the city of Waco for $1, with the stipulation that the city would assume responsibility for maintaining the bridge in good repair. The bridge opened as a free bridge on September 1, 1889. It underwent extensive modifications in 1914 to allow for increased traffic. The cable system was replaced, the roadway was reinforced with steel, and the towers were rebuilt and stuccoed. The bridge served vehicle traffic until 1971, at which time it became reserved for pedestrians and special events. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and received a state marker in 1976.

Betty A. M. McSwain, ed., The Bench and Bar of Waco and McLennan County (Waco: Texian Press, 1976). James Wright Steely, comp., A Catalog of Texas Properties in the National Register of Historic Places (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1984). Thomas E. Turner, "First Across-Still Across," Texas Parade, November 1964. Richard J. Veit, "A Centennial Salute to the Free Bridge," Waco Heritage and History, September 1989. Patricia Ward Wallace, Our Land, Our Lives: A Pictorial History of McLennan County (Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Virginia, 1986).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Vivian Elizabeth Smyrl, “Waco Suspension Bridge,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/waco-suspension-bridge.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995
January 26, 2018