The waters around Waco had quenched the thirst of ancient Columbian Mammoths, served as a critical resource to the agricultural American Indians who gave the town its name, and watered the enormous herds of cattle heading up the Chisholm Trail. King among the Waco waterways is the Brazos River.
Crossing the Brazos, however, was dangerous and difficult, which led several ambitious Waco residents to form the Waco Bridge Company in 1866 and undertake a project that would come to define their town.
It took four years to build what was-then the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. Cable and steelwork were supplied by the John Roebling Company, who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge.
When it was done, it could accommodate wagons, coaches, pedestrians, and livestock — all paying a toll — and lead right into the center of town, through Austin Avenue.
In the ten years after the bridge opened, Waco’s population increased 142% and the town boomed. In Texas tradition, a fine new courthouse was built, signaling the arrival of stability and prosperity. It seemed as if — with the opening of the bridge — technology had tamed nature.
An old Huaco Indian legend claimed that tornados could not touch down there due to the bluffs along the river. But late on a May afternoon in 1953, a two-block wide tornado tore through the heart of the town — ripping apart buildings packed with shoppers and killing 114 people and destroying many businesses. It is regarded as the 11th deadliest tornado in American history.
Even today — more than 60 years after the event — open spaces in the town seem like ghosts of what-used-to-be in the bustling town of Waco… and pose a continuing challenge to the community to bring it back, to once again take on the challenge of nature - a challenge that is continually met through community revitalization and planned growth.