When my mother’s family would journey to the big city of Waco from their home in Mexia back in the 1920s and ’30s, they would cross the Brazos River on the famous Waco Suspension Bridge. Even at that time, the stately river span had been conveying travelers for more than half a century.
Built in the late 1860s, the 475-foot bridge opened to horses, wagons, livestock, and foot traffic in 1870. It closed to automobiles and other vehicles 101 years later, and in the fall of 2020, it also closed to foot traffic for an extensive rehabilitation costing somewhere around $14 million.
This weekend, the Waco Suspension Bridge reopens with a Friday evening “Brazos Nights” concert at the adjacent Indian Spring Park. The celebration will feature R&B/soul singer-guitarist Jackie Venson, hometown group Mariachi Azteca Waco, and Western swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, who will likely reprise the classic “Brazos River Song,” a tune that Wheel leader Ray Benson says he “learned as a little kid.” Some 150 lighted drones will create a dazzling aerial display of imagery associated with the bridge’s history.
Then on Saturday morning, a ribbon-cutting ceremony precedes a “symbolic cattle drive’ across the historic bridge, recalling the days when cowboys and Longhorns were funneled across the Brazos on the Chisholm Trail. Local food vendors and family fun will be on hand as well.
Poets, artists, and songwriters, having long found inspiration at the bridge, will especially welcome the reopening of their muse. Musician Hannah Read, who formed her band Lomelda in Waco, once wrote about the bridge in a song: “The night I rode my bike down University Parks/To the suspension bridge/To await the dawn/ Standing above that river/I knew it wouldn’t be long.”
The current rehab of the bridge began around 2017, when Waco officials contacted Sparks Engineering of San Antonio to conduct a structural review of the vintage span. “The city had done basic maintenance over the years, but a full restoration had not been performed since 1914,” company president Patrick Sparks told me in a recent phone interview. “We recommended a complete rehabilitation, to be done in phases. But the city, much to their credit, decided to get it all done at the same time.”
As part of their task of reviewing the structure and consulting throughout the project, Sparks Engineering did a deep dive into the bridge’s history, including its original construction and the 1914 rehabilitation. Along the way, they corrected some long-standing misconceptions. “For one thing,” Sparks said, “it had long been believed that John Roebling—whose company built the Brooklyn Bridge after his death in 1869—either built the Waco Suspension Bridge or supplied materials for it—but there is no indication either of those things are true.”
The actual connection to Roebling, Sparks concluded, comes from the fact that Thomas M. Griffith, the New York engineer hired by the Waco Bridge Company to lead the original construction project, had been associated with Roebling.
For several years after its opening, according to one Wacoan’s remembrance, buckets were lowered from the bridge’s brick towers to collect a toll and to discourage stickups for the proceeds. Eventually, ground-level structures set up on either side of the bridge were used as toll booths. After ownership of the bridge was transferred to the city of Waco, the unpopular toll was discontinued. As the first bridge over the Brazos, the Waco Suspension Bridge helped guide the Brazos River outpost from a frontier village to a thriving crossroads of commerce and culture.
By 1913, however, some residents failed to behold the beauty of the bridge, and there was talk of demolishing the iconic structure. Fortunately, city leaders instead gave the bridge a makeover. They stuccoed over the red brick (one source says there are 3 million bricks), replaced the decking and trusses, and generally beefed up the bridge to accommodate increasing automotive traffic. The redo also gave the bridge its distinctive art deco look.
Hopefully, the refurbishment will keep the structure in good condition for another century. Much like the earlier fix-up, the latest restoration replaced old cables, anchorages, and trusses, as well as bearings on the towers where the cables are draped over big cast-iron saddles. Gibson and Associates of Balch Springs, which served as general contractor for the job, also replaced the bridge’s timber decking with concrete and laid tropical hardwood on the sidewalk.
“We did things like bring the guardrails up to modern code, but in general we kept everything as close to the 1914 version of the bridge as we could,” says Sparks, who adds that “working on one of the most significant historic bridges in Texas was a very rewarding project.”
Waco residents are excited that the historic bridge is finally reopening. I am, too. As a frequent Interstate-35 trekker between Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, I often stop and walk out on the suspension bridge to stretch my legs and watch the river flow. Gazing upon its timeless waters, my mind wanders, and I sense the presence of ancestors and others gone before. All drawn to this place, coming and going on journeys future and past, we cross the Brazos at Waco.
“Brazos Nights” at Indian Spring Park on April 21 gets underway at 7 p.m. The Waco Suspension Bridge ribbon-cutting ceremony begins at 11 a.m. on April 22. More information can be found here.