By Tyler Bui | Staff Writer, Video by Sarah Gill | Broadcast Reporter
The Waco Suspension Bridge will close for two years as it undergoes renovations to ensure the safety and preservation of the bridge. The bridge, a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, is one of Waco’s most well-known spots.
From tortilla tossing to Ironman Waco, the suspension bridge is home to a variety of Waco traditions. Built in 1870, the bridge has a rich history not only for Waco, but also the Baylor community.
Tom Balk, senior park planner for the City of Waco, will oversee the rehabilitation of the bridge. The project is expected to last 24 months and cost $5.4 million.
“It’s a special project in my career because it’s a lifetime project that I won’t get to work on again,” Balk said. “Somehow I had the good fortune to be tapped for our generation to figure out what this bridge needs and to make sure it’s taken care of on our behalf.”
He explained the bridge’s significance to Waco and why the community has put so much effort into maintaining the historical landmark.
“The suspension bridge has a super long history in Waco; it’s part of why Waco has grown as a city—it’s central to everything,” Balk said. “It was the first crossing of the Brazos [River] way back in the 1800s when they built it. It’s definitely a piece of architecture worth reinvesting in as needed.”
The project is anticipated to begin sometime in late November or early December. During the rehabilitation project, both the suspension cables and parts of the deck will be replaced.
“To replace the support system of a suspension bridge — the very thing that’s holding it up—we’re going to have to close the bridge down during that process,” Balk said. “It’s going to be lengthy. To take the cables out, we will have to create mid-river supports and prop the bridge up to take the tension off the cables. [Then we will] completely remove the cables, ship in the new cables, string them back across the river and reinstall everything.”
The wood panels that serve as the bridge’s deck system will be partially replaced with concrete to prevent damage to the steel structures underneath the deck of the bridge.
With the bridge being over 100 years old, Balk said that the Waco community has made a commitment to preserve it by any means possible. Since the bridge was built, it has been reassessed every 30 years or so to ensure that it maintains its beauty and condition.
“This wasn’t a scripted thing — it’s just that every 30 years or so, people notice that it’s not looking its best,” Balk said. “At those junctures, the community has brought in structural engineers or historic architecture specialists to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and tell us what it needs.”
Balk explained that the bridge’s history dates back to the late 1800s, and that the bridge impacted the growth and expansion of Waco.
“The bridge coincided a lot with the cattle history of Texas. People were trying to cross their cattle right where the bridge is because the landscape supported that,” Balk said. “Some of the pioneering investors of Waco took it upon themselves to invest in a bridge—there were no railroads here and there were no roads here, so it was kind of a crazy idea at the time because it was the frontier.”
Once the bridge was built, people rushed to cross their cattle over the Brazos River.
“The bridge company charged a toll for every cattle that crossed the bridge. They made their money back and eventually they deeded it over to the county and the county deeded it over to the city. This was all in the early 1900s,” Balk said. “Since then, Model Ts have been photographed on the bridge—early car history—and then in the ‘70s, they eventually closed it to vehicle traffic and opened it just to pedestrian traffic.”
Today, the bridge serves as a central part of the Waco park system and is a popular spot for recreation. The student tradition of tortilla tossing is one of the many activities that will be affected with the closing of the bridge. Waco sophomore Bethany Johnson reflected on the many purposes the bridge serves for the community.
“The suspension bridge has been here ever since I moved to Waco when I was 4,” Johnson said. “I’m disappointed because I think it’s such an important part of Waco—people go tortilla tossing there and to just hang out on. I know people who have even gotten married there. It’s a big part of the Waco culture.”
Santa Barbara, Calif., sophomore Kaitlin Cameron said tortilla tossing on the suspension bridge helped her feel more welcome at Baylor as a freshman. She visits the bridge often and said it will be missed during the two-year project.
“I think it’s really going to affect campus, not only for tortilla tossing but because it’s just a place where people go— I even just ran on the bridge tonight. I’m there almost every day and it’s just a big part of Waco,” Cameron said. “It’s something that connects you with Waco, gets you off campus and connects the [community] together.”