A bridge to the past
The Regency Bridge spans more than just the Colorado River north of San Saba. The 65-year-old suspension bridge is one of the last reminders of a time when public-works projects were often as beautiful as they were functional.
The 340-foot-long structure with the wooden plank deck held high above the churning river by thick steel cables is pure poetry. Surrounded by rough pasture land, plowed fields, and the forest of the river bank, the bridge that links a remote section of Mills and San Saba counties is a monument to man's struggle to conquer the elements.
The bridge's survival has been due in large part to being bypassed by major highways. Featured in the opening credits of the Texas-travel television show Texas Country Reporter, the bridge has become a tourist attraction when not being used by local farmers or by partying teenagers.
It was the latter group that caused the latest closing of the bridge. On the morning of Dec. 29, 2003, the sheriff's department received a call around 2am that kids were shooting fireworks off the bridge. When deputies arrived there was no one there. They were called back four hours later along with the local fire department. A large hole had burned through the wood deck. At first arson was suspected.
A couple of days later, two youths showed up at the Mills County sheriff's department to confess to the crime. They admitted to shooting the fireworks that cold morning and said they had placed a burning log on a rock on the bridge to keep warm. Before they left they had kicked the log into the river and doused the rock with water.
Maybe the little New Year's party wasn't the brightest idea, but the two local sheriff's departments decided that stupidity wasn't a crime in either county and declared the fire an accident. County commissioners weren't quite as forgiving and said the boys might get slapped with a bill for the repairs.
Large mounds of dirt block the entrances to the bridge while the counties try to figure out how to pay the estimated $20,000 in damage. Just wide enough for one vehicle, the bridge tends to buck like a bronco when even a slow-moving truck crosses, and it swings like a ship in rough seas when a good wind travels down the river channel.
The view from the bridge may not be spectacular, but it is beautiful in its own way. Plowed fields stretch to the horizon to the north of the bridge. To the south, gnarly oaks and sharp boulders paint the cliff wall. It's a rugged but peaceful spot where you can feel the spirit of history.
Named for the abandoned farming community of Regency on the Mills County side of the river, the current bridge is the third structure in that location. The first bridge to cross the Colorado River between Mills and San Saba counties was built in 1903 but collapsed in 1924 under a herd of cattle, killing the young drover and several head of cattle.
A flood in 1936 washed away the second bridge, and it hadn't been replaced when an even bigger flood in 1938 inundated one-third of the town of San Saba. The new suspension bridge was completed in 1939 and restored in 1999.
Although it is closed to vehicular traffic for the time being, the Regency Bridge is still accepting visitors. To get to the bridge go north of San Saba on TX 16, go west on FM 500 about 19 miles to a sign on the right pointing down the dirt road to the bridge.
Texas has at least four other historic suspension bridges, with the most familiar being the bridge across the Brazos River in downtown Waco. It was built before the Brooklyn Bridge, another famous suspension bridge. Nine miles north of Albany in Shackleford County is the Clear Fork or Caldwell Ranch Suspension Bridge off U.S. 283. The Bluff Dale Cable-Stayed Bridge over the Paluxy River in Bluff Dale off U.S. 377 between Stephenville and Granbury is also a rare surviving example of a once-common bridge style. The only suspension bridge still standing over the Rio Grande is in the community of Roma in Starr County.
664th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, P.O. Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.