A Bridge for 1000 Hooves

I love learning historical tidbits, and getting to see pieces of history still standing is even better. Last month, my daughter and I met in Waco for a girls getaway weekend. Now that Bethany is working on her PhD at Texas A&M, I don’t get to see her very often, so we started a tradition of getting together for a weekend each semester.

She loves history as much as I do, so we skipped the shopping at the Magnolia Silos in favor of touring historic homes and walking along the Brazos River to visit the Waco Suspension Bridge. Unfortunately, the bridge was closed to the public for refurbishment, but we still managed to get a few pictures.

What is really fascinating about this bridge, however, is it’s history. It wasn’t built for man, you see. It was built for cattle.

In the mid-1800s, cattle was king in Texas, and cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail were essential for bringing those cattle to market. However, crossing the Brazos River was a difficult endeavor. No bridges spanned this river across central Texas, so trail bosses had to find shallow places to cross. With the unpredictability of Texas weather, those places became moving targets. One of the most stable locations to ford was Waco.

At the Civil War, Texas granted a charter to a private company called the Waco Bridge Company and promised them a monopoly on transportation across the river for 25 years if they would build a bridge. No other bridge could be built within five miles. The company hired New York civil engineer Thomas M Giffith to begin plans for the bridge in 1868. Griffith was a skilled engineer, having designed the first bridge to span the Mississippi in 1854. Griffith opted to build a suspension bridge and brought parts in by oxcart. His bridge was completed in 1870, and at the time was the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi.

The Waco Suspension Bridge wasn’t only used for cattle drives, of course. It became the main crossing point for travelers of all sorts and allowed Waco to become an economic capital for central Texas. Not only did the bridge bring merchants, farmers, and ranchers into Waco, but the bridge itself became an economic boom. The charter granted the Waco Bridge Company permission to charge a toll. Pedestrians paid five cents, and those on horseback or in carriages were charged ten cents. Any loose cattle or livestock cost five cents per head. The Waco Bridge Company reported that it made approximately $25,000 each year in collected tolls and paid off its mortgage in the first year of operation.

Tolls were collected from a bucket that would be lowered from one of its towers. If you look at the bottom right of the above photograph, the brick section with steps leading outside was where the toll keeper and his family  lived. As one would expect, this toll quickly became unpopular. The county eventually bought the bridge for $75,000 and then sold it to the city for $1 with an agreement in place that the city would eliminate the toll and maintain the structure.

Eventually, the monopoly time frame expired and other bridges sprang up. Bethany and I saw remnants of a railroad bridge platform as well as a trestle bridge that was built in 1901. The trestle bridge had a section open to foot traffic, so we walked across that bridge and got some lovely shots of the river.

With all the traffic coming across the suspension bridge, enterprising local merchants figured out how to take advantage of this prime real estate. As you can see in the picture below, large advertisements hung from the the brick walls.

In 1913, citizens decided they no longer cared for the unattractive bridge since other options were available and asked for it to be torn down. Thankfully, the city preserved this historic bridge, choosing to beautify it by stuccoing over the brick and replacing the wooden trusses with steel. Cars were permitted over the bridge until 1971. Since then, it’s been open to pedestrian traffic only.

In 2010, however, cattle once again made their way across the Waco Suspension Bridge. During the Chisholm Trail Festival, cowboys herded 40 longhorns across the bridge to commemorate this fascinating piece of Texas history.

Do you find old bridges romantic or nerve-wracking?

Do you have any historic bridges in your area?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

32 thoughts on “A Bridge for 1000 Hooves”

  1. I love old bridges and find them fascinating. Living on the East Coast, we have lots of historical bridges. I especially love the covered bridges of Lancaster County.

    In Delaware, where I grew up, Cooches Bridge is important–it was the site of the only battle in Delaware during the Revolutionary War. Though, I don’t remember if current bridge is the original bridge. And the Cooch family owned the adjacent property through nine generations till they sold it to Delaware in 2018.


  2. Vermont is known for its covered bridges. I grew up near 2. One just down the road about a quarter mile from my house. Where I live now there are about four or five within 10 miles. The Bridge of lights and flowers is in the town I live in. The bricks have names of different people who lived and died around town. I love covered bridges, Old barns, and old houses with architectural design on them.

  3. I love old bridges.
    Phantom road going from Canon City CO to Cripple Creek, CO my husband crossed over 20 years ago and said it was scary then, we have never crossed it since we’ve been together because he does not trust it.
    Also we visited Royal Gorge Bridge and it was AMAZING.
    In Texas where I’m from down by Goldwaithe, TX is one of the oldest swinging bridges. It’s so amazing how these bridges were built over a century ago.

    • Those old bridges in the Rockies have got to be some of the most beautiful and terrifying in the world, Tonya. It sounds like I need to check out the swinging bridge in Goldwaithe. 🙂

  4. I love historic bridges! Nearby is Old Samson, a railroad bridge still in use built during the Depression. It was considered so important that during WWII, guards were posted at it to ensure no one sabotaged it. Can’t imagine anyone coming out to SW Kansas to try anything, but I suppose better safe than sorry.

  5. This is an interesting piece of history. Thanks for sharing. Glad you had a great time with your daughter. I love those times with my daughter. Yes I love old bridges. There is something romantic about an old bridge. Especially covered bridges. I can imagine the romance that happens in it. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    • I agree on the romance factor, Lori. Bridges naturally represent bringing things together, don’t they? A bridge joining two shores, overcoming obstacles along the way. It’s the perfect metaphor for romance. 🙂

  6. Have always been a little suspicious of bridges, but, as I’ve grown older, the suspicion has been countered by more understanding of bridges and so I’m not quite as suspicious, but still slightly nervous about them. Love the pictures!

    • Hi, Kay! As much as I love bridges, they do make me nervous. When we drive over long bridges that cross over large bodies of water, I have to fight the irrational fear of going over the edge and being trapped inside my car while it sinks. Drowning is my biggest fear. But give me a small wooden bridge over a shallow creek deep in the forest, and I’m in heaven. 🙂

  7. I am less than 3 miles from Parke County Indiana which has the most still used covered bridges!! And Putnam county has several that are all still being used!

  8. I like bridges! We have some here to get across the Indian River and the Banana River. The old one used to be a drawbridge, which was fun as a child, watching the bridge open and close for the boats to go through.

  9. You taught me history about my home state that I didn’t know, Karen! Wonderful post, have to share! I’ve always wanted to stop in Waco and see the Texas Ranger museum.

  10. Karen, I’ve been to this bridge and love the history. It’s so amazing. I don’t think I’d have wanted to be the toll keeper and live there on it. Must’ve been so noisy, not to mention the dirt. Mrs. Toll Keeper probably had an awful time on laundry day. Very interesting. Did you also visit the Texas Ranger museum while you were there? Like me, you’ve probably been a few dozen times.

  11. I don’t like the old bridges with the metal decking. There was one across the Hudson River on US 4 near where I grew up and it was scary. The Bridge of the Gods across the Columbia River is a beautiful old bridge between Stevenson, Washington, and Cascade Locks, Oregon, in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. It also has a metal deck and scares me every time I drive across it.

    Thanks for the history lesson on the Waco Bridge. I had never heard of a bridge built primarily for cattle drives. It probably saved human lives as well as cattle since crossing flowing rivers can be treacherous.

  12. I enjoy looking at the variety of interesting bridges we have see while traveling. I am better now, but really didn’t like going over big bridges for many years. When I was about 5, there was a bridge collapse not far from where we lived. Several cars landed in the river and people died. One was a little girl my age. We have been through Waco, but never really visited the city. Next time we are in the area, I will be looking for this bridge. Very interesting that getting cattle across the river was one of the considerations for building this particular bridge.
    In a neighboring town, they have a covered bridge that was built in 1882. It is 134 feet long and spans the Doe River. It is the oldest of this type bridge in TN and is open to only foot traffic now. It is surrounded by a park and concerts and festivals are held there. I grew up in the Northeast where covered bridges aren’t that unusual. However, we now live in NE TN which is not a place I expected to see one.

    • How horrible to have that bridge collapse, Patricia. No wonder you were leery of them. That’s like my worst fear come to life! That covered bridge you mention over the Doe River sounds so beautiful and picturesque. I’d love to see it someday.

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