In the years leading up to 1870, the Brazos River proved to be both a blessing and a curse to the city of Waco. During that time, no bridges spanned the eight hundred miles of river flowing through Central Texas, forcing cattle drivers moving up the Chisholm Trail to find shallow fording areas. Waco's shallow banks provided one of these opportune locations, and the Chisholm Trail brought a great deal of trade to the small city. Yet the river also posed a serious transportation issue for merchants and travelers. Although Waco pioneer Shapely Prince Ross ran a ferry for those wishing to cross, the river became impassable for days or even weeks during flood season.
It became clear that a better means of crossing the river was necessary, both for locals and those passing through. The close of the Civil War, however, left the city of Waco and McLennan County without funds for such a project. Plans to build a bridge across the Brazos initiated in 1866, when the Texas State Legislature granted a charter for the foundation of a private company, the Waco Bridge Company. The charter provided the Waco Bridge Company a monopoly on transportation across the river for the next twenty-five years, allowing no other bridges to be built within five miles of their bridge. A budget of twenty-five thousand dollars was set for the construction of the bridge, and after much deliberation, the shareholders chose the steel cable suspension bridge design due to its cheapness and ease of transport.
The Waco Bridge Company decided to seek the services of the renowned New York firm of John A. Roeblng Company, as the firm had originated the suspension span bridge concept. John T. Flint, president of the Waco Bridge Company, hired Thomas M. Griffith, Roebling's chief engineer, as civil engineer for the project. He arrived in October 1868 to begin preliminary plans for the bridge.The Roebling Company was also commisssioned to provide cables and bridgework. After Mr. Robeling, Sr.'s death in 1869, his four sons inherited the company, now called The John A Robeling's Sons Company. Robeling's eldest son, Washington Robeling, helped finish the Waco bridge project, and was later chief engineer of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. After the parts arrived in Waco by oxcart, local labor began to assemble the suspension bridge. The bridge was officially completed and opened to through traffic in 1870. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River.
The economic benefits of the bridge immediately became visible to the city and surrounding area. In the following decades, Waco became the capital for cotton and cattle in Central Texas, rivaling Dallas in size by the 1900s. Built just at the edge of the business section of the city at First Street and Main Street, the Suspension Bridge stimulated the growth of Waco by providing a steady stream of traffic through the city. The bridge itself also supplied economic revenue. The 1866 charter allowed the Waco Bridge Company to charge a toll as long as the company properly maintained the bridge. The bridge collected enough in tolls in the first year of operation to completely pay off its mortgage.
The toll quickly became unpopular, and many began searching for ways to circumvent it. Ultimately, McLennan County bought the Suspension Bridge from the Waco Bridge Company for a sum of $75,000. It was then sold to the city of Waco for one dollar, with the provision that the city would maintain the bridge and eliminate the toll.
Many citizens called for the “unsightly bridge” to be removed in 1913. Rather than tear down the historic bridge, the city re-floored it, stuccoed over the red bricks, and replaced its wooden trusses with steel. Over the next century, the bridge underwent renovations several more times and continued to serve vehicular traffic until 1971. By that time, other options for crossing the Brazos River existed, such as the Washington Avenue Bridge and the Herring Avenue Bridge. Today, the bridge serves only pedestrian traffic. It is the centerpiece of Indian Springs Park on the river, and stands as a reminder of Waco’s rich history.