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Washington Avenue Bridge

The Waco Steel Bridge

Washington Avenue Bridge

Primary Photographer(s): Nathan Holth

Bridge Documented: March 1, 2008

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Facility Carried / Feature Intersected
Washington Avenue (Elm Street) Over Brazos River
Waco: McLennan County, Texas: United States
Structure Type
Metal Pin-Connected Pennsylvania Through Truss, Fixed and Approach Spans: Metal Deck Girder, Fixed
Construction Date and Builder / Engineer
1901 By Builder/Contractor: John H. Sparks of St. Joseph, Missouri
Rehabilitation Date
Main Span Length
450.2 Feet (137.2 Meters)
Structure Length
567.0 Feet (172.8 Meters)
Roadway Width
21.7 Feet (6.61 Meters)
1 Main Span(s) and 2 Approach Span(s)
Inventory Number

Historic Significance Rating (HSR)
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Bridge Documentation

View Archived National Bridge Inventory Report - Has Additional Details and Evaluation

View National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form For This Bridge

With a construction date of 1901, this massive 450 foot Pennsylvania truss main span forms a bridge that is noteworthy for an extremely long span length for a simply spanning truss bridge. When first built, it was claimed to be the longest known simply spanning truss bridge in the world, although it apparently in reality fell short of that somewhat. It was however the longest span simple truss in Texas. With a complex truss configuration, built-up beams featuring extensive lattice and v-lacing, and decorative portal and knee bracing, this bridge is very beautiful. It is also an extremely old example of a bridge spanning a distance of over 400 feet. The bridge features deck plate girder approach spans at either end of the bridge, and the main truss span is seated on large caissons. The bridge features decorative shapes on the knee and portal bracing. On the portal bracing star-shaped cutouts are present. The historic integrity of the bridge is excellent, with no major design or character-altering alterations observed. As such, this bridge is among the most noteworthy historic bridges in Texas.

The historic significance of this bridge has been recognized, and in 2009 a project was begun to rehabilitate this bridge for continued vehicular use and completed in 2010. The bridge was repainted from a silver color to black, which was found to be the original color of the bridge. The rehabilitation appears to have been a very high quality rehabilitation, and the historic integrity of the bridge appears to have been maintained. Original pedestrian railings remain on the bridge. The former non-original vehicular guardrails were replaced with stronger guardrails, which are a low profile design that does not detract from the historic appearance of the bridge and should also protect both motorists and the historic bridge. The original plaques on the bridge were repainted, and a new plaque was also placed on the bridge listing it as a bridge on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge was also changed from carrying one-way traffic to carrying two-way traffic. The city of Waco deserves to be thanked for choosing to preserve this beautiful and important part of our transportation heritage.

This bridge is connected with a very sad chapter in Waco's history. In 1905, Sank Majors, an African American who had been placed in jail to await a retrial for being accused of raping a white woman. was broken out of jail by an angry mob. However a mob of people angry at all this formed and actually broke Majors out of jail, took him to the newly completed Washington Avenue Bridge and hanged him. (Source: Waco Tribune Herald Archive). Looking at the bridge today it is equally as hard to believe that these sort of barbaric things were going on at the same time that these sophisticated bridges were being built, as it is to believe that anyone would use such a beautiful structure for something so horrible.

Bridge Summary From National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Bridge Description

The Washington Avenue Bridge (1902), a pin-connected, steel Pennsylvania through-truss, spans the Brazos River north of downtown Waco, Texas. The bridge is located 200 yards west of the Waco Suspension Bridge (1870; NR 1970). Built for two-way access, both traffic lanes on the bridge now run in one direction (southwesterly), carrying vehicular traffic from Elm Avenue to Washington Avenue. Pedestrian traffic continues in both directions. The length of the main span is 450 feet. Two approach spans measure 67 feet on the east side and 40 feet on the west, resulting in a total length of 557 feet. The total width, including roadway and sidewalks, is 411/2feet. At its highest point, the truss is 60 feet above the road surface. In excellent condition, the Washington Avenue Bridge maintains a high degree of historic integrity.

The area surrounding the Washington Avenue Bridge is predominately flat, with a sharp drop at the riverbank. The bridge is level with the elevation of the surrounding roads. The river, on average, is approximately 380 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Both banks are sandy at the surface, covering a thick layer of shale containing interbeds of soft chalk. The riverbanks in the vicinity of the bridge are public park areas.

The bridge's substructure consists of four piers, 96 inches in diameter, one under each inclined end post (Figure 3). The piers are poured-in-place concrete, with the top 20 feet clad in 3/8-inch rolled steel plate. Each pair of piers is braced and cladded with 3/8-inch steel plates and angles, riveted diagonally between the them. The bracing is placed only at the top 18 feet of each pier (Figure 4). The inclined end posts are attached to the piers with a 6-inch diameter steel pin. On the west side the connection assembly is bolted to the top of the pier (Figure 5). To accommodate expansion and contraction the pinned connection assembly on the east side is allowed to slide on rails that are anchored to the top of the piers (Figure 6).

The loads imposed on the deck of the bridge are supported by two top chords, braced with perpendicular and diagonal struts, constructed of angle and lattice bracing, (Figure 7). The top chord is made up of 16 individual girders, all pin-connected (Figure 8). The girders are composed of 13 individual steel members (Figure 9). The overall dimensions of the top chord are 323/4" x 26".

Two types of vertical members transfer the loads from the decking to the top chord. The primary vertical members define the individual truss panels, and terminate at the point where girders in the top chord meet (at each bend in the top chord). The secondary verticals are at the center of each truss panel. The primary verticals are made of two channels (C-12 x 25), which are braced with lattice cross-bracing (Figure 10). The secondary verticals are made of two parts. The first spans from the floor beam to the pin connection at the mid-point of the truss panel. This section is constructed the same way as the primary verticals. The rest of the vertical member is made from four angles (5" x 3" x 3/8") which are braced in the center (Figure11).

The diagonal members are designed to act in tension only. They are constructed with 11/8" x 63/16" eye bar in the two center panels, and 13/8" x 7" eye bar in the remaining panels. These eye bars are pinned: at the intersection of the first primary vertical member and the top chord; at the center of the truss panel with the secondary vertical member; and at the intersection of the lower chord, and the second primary vertical. Pins of 41/2-inch diameter are used throughout this assembly, except at the lower chord, where 5" pins are installed (Figure 12).

The structural members that make up the supports for the decking consist of: floor beams, fabricated from steel plate and angles measuring 48" high; stringers; lower chord, made up of six eye bars (11/16" x 6"); and bottom lateral bracing, (5" x 3" x 3/8"). The floor beams are riveted to the vertical members, while the lower chords are connected to the verticals with 5" diameter pins (Figure 13).

The pedestrian railing is original but has been modified (Figure 14). A postcard postmarked April 27, 1911, shows a railing with round ornament at each post just below the handrail (Figure 15). The railings currently measure 401/2 inches high, but a 1901 article in the Waco Weekly Tribune, noted that the railings were four feet high. A pipe railing (also visible in Figure 15) was also removed at an undetermined time.

Braces between the vertical members and the struts feature modest ornamentation. At each end of the bridge, a five-point star is cut out of each metal portal brace. The interior braces feature trefoil and tear drop patterns cut out of the center (Figures 16 and 17).

The original roadway width of 24 feet was reduced to 211/2 feet after the installation of 321/2"-inch high guardrails, installed to protect truss members from vehicular impact damage. The guardrails are mounted with four bolts into the concrete decking, and on the main span they are also bolted to the main vertical members of the truss (Figure 18). Illinois Steel USA manufactured the steel guardrail sections, but the installation date and contractor are unknown.

The Washington Avenue Bridge was last inspected by the Bridge Inventory, Inspection and Appraisal (Brinsap) office on September 11, 1996. BRINSAP inspects, evaluates, and rates bridges. The information is stored in a computer data base, and a complete inventory of historic bridges is maintained. The records are updated every two years, and the results are submitted to the counties. The current condition of the bridge is rated as "Fair condition - minor deterioration of structural elements (extensive)." The weakest element of the bridge is the superstructure, which is also rated as being in fair condition. The main problems with the superstructure are corrosion of structural elements and cracking of certain pin nuts at the pin connections. In the final recommendations, the Washington Avenue Bridge was approved for continued use with a gross loading limitation of 32,000 lbs., and a maximum axle or tandem load of 21,000 lbs. The recommendations also call for an annual structural inspection.

All of the structural components of the Washington Avenue Bridge are original. Therefore, the annual inspections will help properly maintain the bridge by identifying any problems. The maintenance program has kept a coat of paint on the steel, and the decking in top condition. The foundations have withstood bombardment from debris floating down the flooding Brazos, and to this day show no signs of failure. The truss members are all original, with little indication of structural fatigue. The concrete decking has been replaced at least once, although the date and contractor's name have not been recorded. The only other alterations were made to the pedestrian railings and the installation of guardrails along the roadway.

At the time of its construction, the Washington Avenue Bridge was the longest single-span truss bridge in the southwest. Today, the Washington Avenue Bridge is the longest and oldest single-span vehicular truss bridge still in use in the United States. The bridge is an excellent example of a truss system popular at the turn of the century, but now rapidly disappearing from American roads. The bridge contains a high percentage of original material and is still used for its intended purpose. The Washington Avenue Bridge maintains its integrity of location, setting, workmanship, materials, design, feeling, and association, and remains worthy of preservation.

Bridge History

The Washington Avenue Bridge (1902) was the second permanent vehicular structure built across the Brazos River in Waco, Texas. The Waco Suspension Bridge (NR 1970) provided the first permanent crossing one block down river (east) in 1870. The 1902 bridge was, at the time of construction, the longest single-span vehicular truss bridge in Texas. Due to the 450-foot span, a truss system with a bowed top chord had to be used, and the Pennsylvania truss - useful in spanning great distances - was chosen. The Washington Avenue Bridge opened to traffic on June 30, 1902, forming a vital link between two main thoroughfares, Washington Avenue on the west bank and Elm Avenue on the east. The contract was awarded to J. H. Sparks of St. Joseph, Missouri, at a cost of $93,300. The railings and approach spans were constructed by Mess Hill Bros. at a cost of $1,850. John Wharton Maxey of Houston served as supervising engineer. McLennan County and the City of Waco each contributed $50,000 to meet the expenses, resulting in joint ownership of the bridge.

The Washington Avenue Bridge contributed to the rapid economic and demographic growth of Waco in the early part of the 20th century. The bridge is eligible under criterion C, in the area of Engineering, at the local level of significance, as the longest single span truss bridge in the southwest.

At the time of its construction, the Washington Avenue Bridge was a vital, reliable link across the often flooding Brazos River. It relieved the load from the Suspension Bridge, and allowed safe and fast passage for the residents of Waco, as well as visiting investors. By the turn of the century, Waco was growing rapidly, and traffic across the Brazos River had to flow as freely as its water. Today, six vehicular bridges, two railway bridges, and one pedestrian bridge cross the Brazos River along a 3 mile section of downtown Waco. At the turn of the century, however, only the Washington Avenue Bridge, the Waco Suspension Bridge, and two railway bridges (the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad and St. Louis-Southwestern Railroad), provided passage over the Brazos.

The banks of the Brazos River, at what is today Waco, were first mapped and documented by Spanish explorer Luis De Moscosco de Alvarado in 1542. At that time a small Huaco Indian village named 'Guasco' occupied the west bank. The Indians settled there because of the spring which flows to this day just downstream of the Suspension Bridge. It wasn't until 1845 that a Scottish frontiersman named Neill McLennan established the first non-Indian settlement on the west bank of the Brazos River. In 1848, George B. Erath, a surveyor, settled on the west side and in 1849 laid out streets and lots for the town of Waco. Shortly thereafter, Captain Shapley P. Ross purchased land on the banks of the Brazos River, and opened a ferry service to carry passengers and cargo across the river. The town of Waco was officially incorporated in 1857. After the Civil War, Waco was severely drained of financial resources; but the city recovered quickly due to its location along the Chisholm Cattle Trail. Large numbers of people and cattle passed through Waco and the need for a permanent structure across the Brazos River grew. With increased traffic Captain Ross' Ferry service was far from reliable since the river flooded often, sometimes making crossing impossible for several days. In 1866, the Waco Bridge Company was contracted to build a toll-financed suspension bridge.

The suspension bridge was completed in January 1870, and was opened as a privately operated toll bridge. The county contract awarded to the Waco Bridge Company contained a clause that forbade construction of any other bridge or ferry across the Brazos River within five miles of the suspension bridge. As a result, people were forced either to cross at the bridge and pay the toll, or try fording in low water. In order to prevent fording, the Waco Bridge Company purchased the land in the vicinity of the bridge and constructed barriers. It did not take long for the public to become frustrated with the monopoly held by the bridge company, and demand that the county either buy the bridge or build a new one. In 1886, a county election authorized the county to provide a free crossing. For the next year, McLennan County failed to reach an agreement with the owners of the bridge. The county then accepted offers to construct a wrought iron bridge one block farther upstream (at the present location of the Washington Avenue Bridge). In 1888, a federal judge in Dallas ruled that the contract signed by the Waco Bridge Company was legal and binding; as a result, plans for the new bridge had to be halted. Finally, in July 1889, McLennan County officials agreed to pay the bridge company's asking price of $75,000, and on September 1, 1889, the suspension bridge became public property.

The opening of free access across the Brazos was a great relief to the rapidly growing Waco population. From 1879 to 1889, the population of Waco increased by almost 8,000 residents, spurned by the introduction of three railroads to the area. The Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the Waco Tap Railroad, construction of which was started in 1870, but never completed. The company was renamed Waco and Northwestern Railroad, and provided a link from Waco to Bremond to Houston. This connection became a vital commercial link for Waco, as Houston - already a large city at that time - supplied Waco with goods, business contacts and new residents. In 1881, a second railroad, St. Louis-Southwestern Railway of Texas, opened a track and constructed a bridge across the Brazos approximately 400 yards downstream from the suspension bridge. This company went into receivership twice before being bought out by the Southern Pacific Railway Company in 1930. The third major railroad, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (Katy), opened on January 23, 1882. Katy constructed a bridge across the Brazos approximately 300 yards downstream from the suspension bridge, and provided Waco with connections to Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin. Similar to the Southern Pacific Railroad, Katy was responsible for the movement of a great deal of goods and commerce between Waco and other major urban centers.

The population of Waco grew from 15,005 in 1890 to 24,304 in 1900. With a increasing number of residents and visitors crossing the Brazos River, a second bridge had to be added to accommodate all the wagon and pedestrian traffic. The placement of the new bridge provided an important link between the residential east bank to the industrial/commercial west side. Until the completion of the Waco Drive Bridge along U.S. Route 84 (circa 1930), the two vehicular bridges provided the only connection between the two halves of the city. Today eight vehicular bridges, and one pedestrian bridge cross the Brazos River in Waco. In 1996, the population of Waco City Proper was 104,500. In 1930, the two bridges each had to accommodate 26,424 residents; but in 1996 each of the eight bridges serves only 13,063 residents.

The Washington Avenue Bridge is an 18-panel, pin-connected Pennsylvania truss. The Pennsylvania truss evolved from the Parker truss, developed by C. H. Parker in the late 1800s. The Parker truss, in turn, was influenced by the Pratt through-truss, developed by Thomas and Caleb Pratt in 1844 (Figure 18). The Pennsylvania truss was popular between 1885 and 1910, with span lengths ranging from approximately 200 feet to 670 feet. The longest recorded Pennsylvania truss vehicular bridge, constructed in 1912 in St. Louis, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, had a span of 668 feet. At the time of its construction, the Washington Avenue Bridge was the 16th longest single-span truss bridge in North America, the tenth longest vehicular single-span truss bridge, and the longest span in the southwest (Figure 19). Many Waco residents claimed that the Washington Avenue Bridge was the longest single span in the country, evidenced by a postcard printed around the turn of the century, which depicts the Washington Avenue Bridge beneath the caption "New Bridge, longest single Span in the U. S., Waco, Texas" (Figure 20).

Even though its maximum length status turned out to be a false assumption, the Washington Avenue Bridge is an important landmark, significant under Criterion C. This bridge played a vital role in the development of the Waco community during a time of intense growth. Local traffic depended on this reliable river crossing year round and especially during flooding seasons. Moreover, the bridge has maintained its integrity and original use, and remains the longest surviving single-span vehicular truss bridge built before 1903 in the United States.

The Washington Avenue Bridge has a high degree of integrity of location, setting, workmanship, materials, design, feeling, and association. The location of the bridge has remained the same since its construction. Due to this bridge's placement next to the famed Waco Suspension Bridge, the area between the two bridges was allocated, from the beginning, as a public park, and Waco residents and tourists still enjoy the picturesque view of the two bridges. All the structural members are original, including the concrete foundations and the approach spans. The Washington Avenue Bridge was a tremendous undertaking for a Texas city, and the fact that the bridge has remained in service is a testament to suburb workmanship.


"A New Bridge of 400 ft. Span." Engineering News and American Railway Journal (August 2, 1900):69.

Brenda, Eldon, Stephen. The Handbook of Texas, Supplement. Austin: The Texas State Historical Association, 1976.

Conger, Roger, Norman. Highlights of Waco History. Waco: Hill Printing & Stationery Co., 1945.

Coons, C., Wilbur. "Waco: A Typical Texas City." The Texas Magazine (April 1910):6668.

Kelley, Dayton. The Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas. Waco: Texian Press, 1972.

Merriman, Thaddeus; Wiggin, Thos, H. American Civil Engineers' Handbook.5th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1942.

Morrison & Fourmy Directory Co. Directory of the City of Waco 1913.Houston:Morrison & Fourmy Directory Co., 1913.

"New Brazos Bridge." Waco Weekly Tribune (July 5, 1902):8.

Prescott, Walter. The Handbook of Texas, vol. 1 and 2.Austin:The Texas State Historical Association,1952.

R. L. Polk & Co. Polk City Directory 1996, Waco, Texas. Detroit: R. L. Polk & Co., 1996.

"The New Bridge." Waco Weekly Tribune (February 8, 1902):1.

"The New Bridge." Waco Weekly Tribune (June 29, 1901):12.

Victor, Sally, S.; Hodge, Larry, D." Bridging the Brazos." Texas Highways (May 1984):1419.

Waco Times Herald (June, 16, 1967).

Other Sources

Baylor University, Waco, Texas. The Texas Collection. Files: Waco Bridges, Washington Avenue Bridge; Waco Bridges, Suspension Bridge; Waco Events, Floods; Aerial Views of Waco; Washington Avenue Bridge Post Cards.

City of Waco Engineering Office. Drawing by: A. J. Tullock Prop'r MO Valley Bridge & Iron Works.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1866-1875,.Page 36.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1884-1889, September 12, 1887, p. 381.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1884-1889, November 16, 1887, p. 419.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1899-1902, August 13, 1890, p. 232.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1899-1902, April 4, 1902, p. 537.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1899-1902, May 20, 1902, p. 578.

McLennan County, Commissioner's Court Minutes,1902-1907, October 24, 1902, p. 28.

Texas Department of Transportation. BRINSAP Record. Inspection report by Robert E. Ferrell, P. Eng. at Bridgefarmer & Associates, Inc. Inspection report of the Washington Avenue Bridge, 1996.

Texas Department of Transportation. County Maps.1994.

Texas Department of Transportation. Texas Historic Bridge Inventory. Washington Avenue Bridge File, Bridge I.D. # B00331001.

Bridge Considered Historic By Survey: Yes, this bridge is listed with reference number 98000143.


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