Other Views of Waco

Other Views from 1873

Where is Waco?

Above: Herman Brosius (active 1870s). Bird’s Eye View of the City of Waco, McLennan County, Texas. 1873, 1873. Toned lithograph, 17.8 x 25.8 in. Lithographer unknown. Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Waco in 1873

Brosius might have taken the train from Dallas southward to Waco, where he sketched that city just as it was rebuilding from a terrible 1871 fire that destroyed the downtown area known as “Rat Row,” between First Street and the Courthouse. [1] Evident in the resulting reconstruction (and shown in the view) are some of the more substantial brick buildings that replaced the wooden structures. Fires were often good for towns, as strange as that may sound, because the business of rebuilding spurred the economy and provided enthusiasm for renewal and recovery.[2]

Waco was founded on the west bank of the Brazos River on the site of an old agricultural village of Waco Indians. George B. Erath surveyed and began selling town and “farming” lots in 1849. The village grew as the cotton economy expanded, and its location on the river became even more important when cattlemen began driving their herds north following the Civil War. A ferry operated at the site of the village that soon earned the nickname of “Six-shooter Depot,” but citizens felt that a bridge would be an economic stimulus to the community and organized the Waco Bridge Company in 1866.[3] Concluding that a suspension bridge would be the best, as well as the least expensive, they hired civil engineer Thomas M. Griffith of New York to manage the job and purchased wire rope, cables, and other materials from the firm of John A. Roebling & Son (that later built the Brooklyn Bridge). The opening of the Waco bridge in January 1870 was the occasion for a huge public celebration, despite the fact that the costs had ballooned from an estimated $50,000 to more than $140,000, and Brosius’ placement of it in the foreground of the print suggests its importance to the community. For some reason, Brosius put spires on top of the towers, but the earliest photographs (as well as other early prints) show crenellated tops on the towers.

The following year the Waco and Northwestern Railroad (usually called the “Waco Tap”) linked the city to the Houston and Texas Central at Bremond, about forty-five miles to the southeast. The railroad purchased some twenty acres of land three blocks due east of the bridge and erected a small depot there. As business began to shift to the east side of the river, several brick structures were built near the depot (bottom left corner of the print), but public outcry soon led the railroad to build a ticket office on the west side, so people would not have to pay the toll to cross the river to purchase a ticket.[4] The bridge and the railroad brought considerable business to Waco, as immigrants passed through the city to take advantage of the only bridge over the Brazos River, which was subject to sudden rises that might prohibit crossing for days and weeks at a time. And the tolls from the cattle drives, which headed up what became known as the Chisholm Trail, almost made the bridge a profitable venture during its first few years of operation.[5]

Brosius pictured the city looking southward, with the river cutting across the view and the small tributary of Barrows Branch meandering off to the southwest. The simple two-story courthouse sits in the center of the public square.[6] In the lower right-center of the print, Brosius depicted the John W. Mann house, with the adjacent brick kilns that supplied much of the brick for the bridge.