By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph and postcard collections. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” blog series that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, street scenes, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.
Waco’s Washington Avenue Bridge
The Washington Avenue Bridge opened at a time when the Suspension Bridge was the main crossing point over the Brazos River in the Waco area. In operation since 1870, the Suspension Bridge had become over used and needed relief from the constant traffic and congestion. Waco was growing rapidly, and according to the Texas State Historical Association: “Waco’s population grew from 3,008 in 1870 to 7,295 by 1880; by 1900 there were 20,686 people living in the city, making it the sixth largest population center in Texas.” Consequently, the city needed a new and reliable way to cross the flood-prone Brazos River, and the Washington Avenue Bridge was welcomed as a great addition to the city’s dated infrastructure.
Completed in 1901, the Washington Avenue Bridge stretches a total of 557 feet across the Brazos River in Waco, Texas. It is situated directly alongside the Waco Suspension Bridge and connects Elm Street to Washington Avenue. According to the National Park Service, “at the time of its construction, it was the longest single-span truss bridge in the southwest.” Additionally, today, the National Parks Service states that the Washington Avenue Bridge is the longest and oldest of this type of vehicular truss structure still in active use in the United States. Its deck is made of concrete, the main structure is steel, and its substructure is both concrete and steel. It was built by J.H. Sparks of St. Joseph, Missouri, costing $93,300 to construct. The bridges’ chief engineer was John Wharton Maxey of Houston. When built, the bridge was jointly owned by both McLennan County and the City of Waco due to both entities contributing $50,000 apiece to cover construction costs.
At the time of construction, its primary use was intended for horses and wagons as well as pedestrian traffic. However, it is evident that its engineers had the foresight 120 years ago to design it with the future in mind as it has remained suitable for most forms of vehicular traffic to this day. This does come at a cost as the old bridge has seen many automobile related accidents over the years causing potential damage to its structural integrity. Further, when the bridge was first built there were no guardrails installed leaving the structure and its trusses vulnerable to this type of damage. As a result, the bridge has undergone the installation of at least two different versions of guardrails and the raising of its curbs. It has also had modifications and additions to its pedestrian walkway allowing safe passage for countless walkers and cyclists throughout the years.
The bridge continues to be well-preserved as it has since its construction by the City of Waco and McLennan County. This includes continual structural maintenance, corrosion work, and resurfacing to keep it safe for generations of travelers. Its biggest overhaul was in 2009 at a cost of nearly 4.8 million dollars. The restoration was performed by the Texas Department of Transportation’s Bridge Division Team. The team brought the bridge back to its original black finish from its later silvery-grey color. Additionally, the overhaul included: “Removing the traffic railing and replacing it with a new crash tested rail, removing and replacing the concrete deck and sidewalk, repairing and replacing steel bridge members (less than five percent of original material replaced), cleaning and painting all material, and reinstalling and painting the existing pedestrian bridge rail.” This 2009 restoration proved to be a great success, and the City of Waco deemed it safe for continual usage for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and now after 120 years, it still serves a vital role in connecting people and businesses on both sides of the Brazos River in this city.
The “Then” picture in the image sequence above shows the Washington Avenue Bridge by an unknown photographer in about 1903. Source: General Scrapbook Collection #3991, Box 1 Folder 1, The Texas Collection, Baylor University. The “Now’ image is of a similar view of the same but from the Waco Drive Bridge and taken in October 2021, by GH.
This image is from a crop of a larger Fred Gildersleeve photograph taken from the rooftop of Waco’s Alico Building in about 1911. It is looking to the east of the city towards the Brazos River and the Washington Avenue Bridge can be seen to the right of the image. Washington Avenue is visible in great detail and this street was once occupied by many equestrian related businesses including stables and blacksmiths as can be seen in the image. This photograph was digitized from Fred Gildersleeve’s original 8×10-inch glass plate negative (hence the fine detail and ability to crop). Source: Gildersleeve-Conger collection, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Conger, Roger N., Waco, TX. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/waco-tx, Accessed November 2, 2021.
United States Department of the Interior National Parks Service: National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Washington Avenue Bridge, https://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/NR/pdfs/98000143/98000143.pdf, Accessed November 2, 2021.