A Landmark With A Legacy
What a View: Shot from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the day of the 2023 suspension bridge re-opening celebration, the Waco Suspension Bridge proudly stands for pedestrians to walk across and features McLane Stadium in the distance as well as the pylons of the former interurban bridge. Photo by Rachel Chiang
From connecting cattle to community, follow the story and impact the Waco Suspension Bridge has influenced on the town’s history.
Story By Rachel Chiang
When driving down I-35, many tourists may stop in Waco to tour Baylor University, snap a photo of the ALICO building or visit the Magnolia Silos. However, one landmark that has been home for traditions among Wacoans for generations is the Waco Suspension Bridge, which has had a pivotal role in the development of the town since 1870 when the bridge was finished.
The bridge’s conception was not introduced by the government. Instead, it began when a group of private citizens came together and called for Waco to have a world-class bridge, so they hired an architectural firm and had materials shipped from New Jersey and New York.
At the time, the suspension bridge was the only bridge than ran across the Brazos River. Prior to its construction, residents had to ride ferries to cross the river. Over the years, the bridge has become a location for the community to gather, connect and celebrate, according to an article written by The Texas Collection’s audio and visual curator Geoff Hunt.
More Than Just a Bridge: The Texas Collection’s audio and visual curator, Geoff Hunt uses the bridge for recreational use such as walks, biking and photography. Photo by Rachel Chiang
“I remember at Baylor there were sorority dances on the bridge,” Waco’s mayor Dillon Meek said. “There were parties and festivals. And in addition to that, it was just a nice place to take a stroll and walk around and see the river.”
For Meek, the bridge is especially sacred because he and his wife were married there in 2016. He said they chose the bridge because of its beautiful space in the heart of downtown.
“It was beautiful, scenic and iconic,” he said. “My wife had always dreamed of getting married outdoors, and so it was a nice place to do that.”
While Meek has a unique experience and memory attached to the bridge, many others in the community also find the bridge a special place for traditions and recreation. Hunt recalled for his senior year at Waco High School, when it was a tradition to visit the bridge after prom.
Same Angle, Separate Decades
Above: Taken in the Victorian Era circa 1900, around a decade after the bridge became toll free and open for public crossing. Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection
Top Right: In the early 1970s, the bridge served as a one-way route east. Running to the left of the suspension bridge was the Interurban Railway Bridge, which was also one way during its lifetime. Now only the pylons remain as the only remnants of that bridge. Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection
Above: Celebrating the re-opening of the suspension bridge in April 2023, members of the Waco community were able to walk across the newly refurbished bridge. Photo by Rachel Chiang
Another tradition found at the Waco Suspension Bridge is tortilla tossing. According to the tradition, students must throw tortillas from the suspension bridge and land them on the pylons that are the remnants of the former interurban bridge. If students successfully landed tortillas onto the pylon, it meant they would graduate from Baylor, while those who failed would not.
Meek said he has mixed emotions about the tradition because while he loves Baylor students finding their way down to the bridge, the city is officially not in favor of the tradition due to littering issues and health risks of local wildlife eating the tortillas.
Hunt shared a similar sentiment based on his own experiences.
“I do know that I was down there one time, and there were Baylor students throwing tortillas off of it,” Hunt said. “And there were some homeless people down there. They were quite upset that they were throwing away food—perfectly good food—off the bridge into the water.”
In 2020, the Waco Suspension Bridge celebrated its 150th anniversary, but due to years of corrosion and flooding, the city council voted for the bridge to undergo restoration and preservation, closing it off to the public for three years.
“You never like to see amenities that you cherish closed for construction,” Meek said. “But the thing worse than that would be if it wasn’t preserved for the future.”
Hunt said the restoration was a worthwhile sacrifice, but its absence was noted because all other bridges that now cross the Brazos are vehicular.
“With the hike and bike trails in Cameron Park, it was always a safe place to walk across or bike across because you weren’t competing against traffic,” Hunt said. “We didn’t have that during restoration, so it became a little more dangerous.”
When the bridge re-opened in April 2023, the city held a celebration for the occasion. The event had food trucks, a cattle drive across the bridge and other festivities.
Cattle and Cameras: During the re-opening celebration of the suspension bridge, a cattle drive was held to commemorate how the bridge was originally used. Onlookers captured on their cellphones the cattle drive across the Waco Suspension Bridge on April 22, 2023. Photo by Rachel Chiang
“It was an incredible day,” Meek said. “It was an amazing turnout of the community to come and celebrate this iconic place, and I think it was just a really thoughtfully drafted celebration.”
He said he cherishes the area, and it was a thrill to have the community come together and celebrate. He also said the bridge has become a favorite spot for his family to take walks and see the ducks and river.
“I love that it’s a part of our family’s story,” Meek said. “I love that we were there. I love the legacy of what the bridge represents and that we were a part of that, but also, it’s really meaningful knowing that there are other families that are able to have special memories be made here.”
Building Back Better: Due to constant flooding, the bridge received some touch ups from 1910-1914 which included structural support and cosmetic changes which featured a new cable system and remodeling and reinforcing of the towers. The photo was taken in 1916. Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection.
While only an engineer could know how long the bridge will last before needing renovations again, Hunt said, it should stand for generations. As a historian, he said when people think of Waco, they think about the structures such as the suspension bridge and ALICO building. The bridge not only connected East and West Waco, but also connected businesses and communities like a vital artery, Hunt said.
“It’s very much a Waco landmark, and it adds to what Waco is now,” he said. “If we did not have the suspension bridge—if the bridge was never built—Waco would be very different. We wouldn’t have a Waco we have now.”
A Walk Across History
Follow the development of the Waco Suspension Bridge and see some notable moments in its lifetime to where it is now.