The Waco Suspension Bridge over the Brazos River is indicative of the life span of many historic bridges in Texas. The heavy wooden decking has traversed time from the thundering hooves of longhorn cattle moving up the Chisholm Trail to the soft patter of designer footwear of modern joggers.
Completed in December 1869, the Waco bridge is a beautiful symbol of man's struggle to tame new frontiers. The twin square Medieval-style towers that suspend the cables that hold the bridge 40 feet above the river served as welcoming gates to the downtown area for more than a century.
In fact, the bridge contributed to the settlement of Waco. When the bridge opened, it was the only all-weather crossing on the 840-mile Brazos River, the longest and largest river in Texas. Before the bridge was constructed, the best way to cross the often capricious river was by an old wooden ferry.
With the completion of the bridge, Waco became a center of commerce. When it opened on New Year's Day, 1870, the 475-foot bridge was the longest single span suspension bridge and the third largest suspension bridge in world.
Waco businessmen began working on the bridge in 1866, but the economic woes of Reconstruction delayed the project until 1868. When work finally began on the bridge, much of the materials and the designer had to be imported from New Jersey. More than 2.7 million bricks for the bridge were manufactured locally.
The local bridge company hired Thomas Griffith to design what was then a new style of suspension bridge. The young engineer had several unique problems to solve, including getting tons of materials from the Texas coast to the Texas frontier. The nearest railroad stopped in Millican, a 100-mile ox cart trip southeast of Waco. Griffith later went on to supervise construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York (completed in 1883) using many of the problem-solving skills he learned in Waco.
For 20 years the bridge was privately owned and had a 24-hour toll keeper. In 1889, McLennan County bought the bridge for $80,000 and transferred the deed to the city for one dollar, with the condition that the bridge be operated as a free public highway.
In 1971, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and is now part of the city's expanse of hike and bike trails. In recent years, the bridge has been the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization project that includes a river walk and parks.
On the western bank is Indian Springs Park, where Spanish explorers found a Waco Indian village. On the eastern bank is Martin Luther King, Jr. Park with its terraces and view of downtown.
Down river, the riverwalk connects the bridge to the Texas Ranger Museum at Fort Fisher next to the modern I-35 bridge over the Brazos River. Plans are underway to extend the riverwalk upstream to join with the trails at Cameron Park, a 416-acre preserve that includes the zoo.
The Waco Suspension Bridge is on the edge of downtown at University Parks Drive between Franklin and Washington streets. For more information on Waco, call or visit the Tourist Information Center on I-35, 800/922-6386.
It is interesting to note how the longest river in Texas came by its name. The Brazos begins in New Mexico and cuts the state nearly in half after crossing the state line near Clovis, New Mexico, and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Brazosport.
Legend says that the Colorado and the Brazos rivers were inadvertently switched by a mapmaker in Spain. One account says the names were switched when Spanish miners at the San Saba mine headed toward the Waco Indian village looking for water. On their way, several men and beasts perished from thirst and the precious bullion was buried. When they reached the stream, they called it Brazos de Dios or Arms of God.
Before that the Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his wandering band of thirsty men were guided to the river by Indians on the Llano Estacado where they named it Brazos de Dios.
At the other end of the river a similar story survives. A Spanish ship was being tossed about by a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. The crew had exhausted their supply of drinking water when a sailor spotted a muddy streak in the water. The ship followed the brown water to the mouth of the river and named it Brazos de Dios for the long brown arms that guided the crew to safety.
Coming up this weekend...
Regional Christmas Lighting Tour includes 11 towns in the northern Hill Country, Nov. 29-Jan. 1. 830/997-8515.
Winterfest on trade day weekend in Gonzales brings special events to town along with tours of Pioneer Village Living History Center, Nov. 29. 830/672-6532.
Rockn' Texas Rhythm n' Blues fills the Luckenbach Dance Hall with Monte Montgomery, Nov. 29, beginning at 9pm. 830/997-3224.
Harbor Lights Festival in Corpus Christi features events for the children, a lighted boat parade, and fireworks which can be viewed from the U.S.S. Lexington, Dec. 6. 512/985-1555.
Dickens on the Strand turns the harbor area of Galveston into a Victorian village, Dec. 6-7. This was recently named one of the top 100 events in North America by the travel industry. 409/765-7834 or http://www.galvestonhistory.org.
Eagle Tours happen every Saturday in December at Fairfield Lake State Park. 903/389-4514.