(Digital Collections) Hidden in Plain Sight: A Springtime Brazos Flood, 1908

The Brazos River at flood stage, 1908
(Click to enlarge)

For residents of early twentieth-century Waco, the Brazos River was a study in contrasts. It provided a reliable source of potable water for myriad daily uses, but its temperamental nature made it prone to violent floods that damaged property and took lives. The Brazos could be both savior and destroyer, a source of community pride – embodied in the suspension bridge built across it in the 1870s that still stands today – and of widespread destruction.

This panoramic view of the Brazos in flood stage was captured on May 24th, 1908. It is actually a series of five individual photos that were printed and pasted together onto a cardboard backing to create the appearance of a single, panoramic photograph. That approach accounts for the somewhat distorted and disjointed nature of the image when viewed as a whole. But owing to the technology available at the time, it is an effective way to capture a stunning view: the Brazos River at a flood stage level of 36 ft. 8 in. – the “highest ever recorded” according to a note written on the print.

Notes on the print also reveal the image was captured by a photographer from The Kodak Place who mounted the steps to the top of the Crow Brothers Tower to capture the scene. The Crow Brothers were long-time Waco launderers who had taken up residence in the former courthouse at 2nd and Franklin Avenue.

The scene captured by our anonymous photographer on May 24th is one of great devastation. The focal point of the photo is the river itself: a shining path stretching the entire length of the scene, it is easy to note how the Brazos has surmounted its banks and intruded into the city itself, especially east Waco along Elm Street. This low-lying region of the city contained a mix of industrial and residential buildings in 1908, much as it does today. Wacoans unlucky enough to find their dwellings on this side of the river repeatedly bore the brunt of the destruction left behind after one of the Brazos’ many floods.

A closer look at the various bridges across the river give some context for just how high the river had risen on this particular date. First up (from left to right in the photo) is the “iron” bridge (today’s Washington Street bridge), built less than a decade prior to the date of this photograph.

Washington street / “iron” bridge

Next is the suspension bridge, a sight familiar to residents of Waco since the 1870s. Although its facade was covered with stucco and “updated” in the 1970s as part of the American bicentennial celebration, its iconic towers and unsupported span are instantly recognizable. Also visible in this photo are ads on the bridge’s downtown side for the Miller-Cross Company and the Sanger Bros. dry goods and clothing store.

The suspension bridge

Finally, this view of two railroad trestles a bit further down the river shows two important links in the city’s commercial viability being seriously threatened by critically high water levels.

Railroad trestles

The photo below – of another Brazos River flood, this one in December 1913 – gives us a closer look at flood waters lapping the bottom of a railroad trestle as dozens of spectators risk being swept away for a chance at a first-hand perspective. Water levels for this flood were nearly identical to those from the 1908 flood pictured in the panorama above.

Spectators line a railroad trestle to view the flooded Brazos River, 1913

While nature’s destructive power is the central player in this panorama, it also bristles with small details about a prosperous Texas town at the dawn of the twentieth century. Scanning the image, we see the names of local businesses on buildings, signs and fences, including:

  • The Morning Star Lunch Room
  • Pippin & Fuston, Horses and Mules
  • T.J. Cunningham
  • Louis Lipshitz (A family name associated with a present-day business located on Elm Avenue)
  • Riverside Livery Stable
  • D. June Machinery Co.
  • Industrial Cotton Oil Co.

Advertisements for Miller High Life beer, Lawrence Barrett and Mild Havana Cigars and the National Biscuit Company (now known as Nabisco) can also be spotted in the image.

Lastly, in the center foreground of the image is a single railcar sitting on a siding. It bears the name “Missouri Kansas and Texas,” the well-known “Katy” railroad with a major presence in Waco for decades.

An M-K-T boxcar on siding

While the obvious occasion of this series of photos was the record-breaking flood, the wealth of detail available to modern viewers helps us construct a better mental image of what Waco looked like on a late spring day during one of its most productive decades. And though the Brazos would continue to flood until engineers built a series of dams decades later, the people of Waco continued to rebuild after each one, proving their tenacity in the face of great difficulty.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this closer look at another of the panoramic treasures from the holdings of The Texas Collection. There are dozens of large format photos in the collection, with more being digitized and added online regularly, so be sure and check out http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu for more great photos.

Images enhanced for online presentation. Digitized from original prints housed in the photographic holdings of The Texas Collection. Visit The Texas Collection online at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas for more priceless Texana.

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