Crossing the Brazos: Rehabilitation of the Waco Suspension Bridge

After visiting Austin, San Antonio, and Waco in December 2019, we left Texas for our drive back to Lansing, Michigan, with the intention of returning to Waco in the summer of 2020 during the rehabilitation work on the Waco Suspension Bridge. Within weeks of returning home, the world was in the grips of a catastrophe that has left this country struggling to find a way back to normal. It’s as if a major bridge suddenly failed, collapsed, its members strewn along the riverbed, lives lost, sights and sounds changed. Routines are disrupted, familiar sights disappear, habits are forced to change. As I write this, what comes to mind is a book I purchased and read while attending the 2013 Society for Industrial Archaeology conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota: “The City, The River, The Bridge, Before and After the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse.” There are parallels within this narrative to some of what we’re experiencing today, and what gives me comfort in rereading some of the chapters is that in the end, people with good intentions prevail.

We hope it will be possible to travel again and to bring you more news of the Waco Suspension Bridge rehabilitation.

We arrived in Waco, Texas, on a clear brisk cold December morning. Parking spaces along the North University Park Drive approach to the Waco Suspension Bridge were all empty, one advantage for visiting a popular tourist attraction on an offseason day. Before exploring the Waco Bridge site, we stopped at a local coffee shop near the bridge, the Dichotomy Coffee Shop on Austin Avenue. A hot coffee and breakfast snack warmed us up for a close look at the bridge and what the riveted connections might reveal of its manufacturing history.

Crossing the wide Brazos River was made easier for cattle drivers with the opening of the Waco Suspension Bridge in 1870, at the time the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River. Herds of longhorn cattle were driven across the bridge. To commemorate this history, a scene from a Chisholm Trail cattle drive was created with twenty-five longhorn cattle and three larger-than-life cowboys, all in bronze. Texas sculptor Robert Summers was commissioned for the Waco Chisholm Trail Heritage Sculptures (“Branding the Brazos”), a project completed in 2014 that has become one of Waco’s most popular historic sites.

By 1913, what some people called the “unsightly bridge” was almost replaced, but a decision was made not to demolish the historic bridge. Instead, it underwent major renovations. It was later closed for vehicular traffic in 1971 and renovated for pedestrian traffic. During our visit to San Antonio a few days before stopping in Waco, we had an opportunity to meet with Patrick Sparks of Sparks Engineering. We learned that the Waco Suspension Bridge will undergo another major rehabilitation in 2020. Patrick’s firm has done the engineering work to develop the rehabilitation design for this project and will regularly visit the construction site to monitor the progress once construction begins. I’ve worked with Patrick in the past in offering preservation workshops for the Texas Transportation Department and training a rivet crew for riveting on the San Antonio Hays Street Bridge, and I look forward to visiting Waco again sometime during the rehabilitation project of the Waco Suspension Bridge.

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historic bridge restoration