Historic East Waco
Compiled by Randall Scott April 5, 2020

Just across the Suspension and Washington Avenue Bridges from Downtown Waco is historic East Waco. On the east side of the river, Elm Street is the main street and for many years was the only highway leading travelers out of Waco to points north and east. In the 1800s, Elm Street was the dusty road that led into Waco from the north and east. As time went by, Elm Street was a highway that became Highway 31/Bellmead Drive. Just before getting to Bellmead it forked and travelers could veer to the left to go north up the Dallas Highway.

This area known as East Waco is rich in history. “The history of Waco, before the Civil War, was really the Tale of Two Cities — Waco Village and East Waco. Waco Village was a town of prosperous businesses, comfortable hotels and humble churches (First Methodist, 1850; First Baptist, 1851; and First Presbyterian, 1855, to name a few). It even boasted some institutions of higher learning, such as Waco University (founded 1856) and the Methodist Female College (founded 1857). On the other side of the Brazos River, however, connected only by ferry, lay East Waco. Known as the home of some of the grittier industries — cotton mills and brick kilns, for example — the small residential settlement had a few businesses that traded goods and livestock with its neighbors across the water…The (Civil) war had left both sides of the Brazos hurting, he wrote, but when John Baylis Earle’s cotton mill in East Waco returned to production in 1866, jobs began returning. That year, entrepreneurs chartered the company to build the Waco Suspension Bridge and the Waco Tap Railroad Co. made plans to bring a spur from Bremond to East Waco.” (1)

In 1867, Rufus Burleson began church services in homes in East Waco. This church was formally organized in 1868 as East Waco Baptist Church. In 1878, it built a new sanctuary at Dallas and Rusk Streets, and in 1895 it built a new sanctuary at 500 Turner Street. It changed it’s name to Turner Street Baptist Church in 1913 but continued meeting in the 1895 sanctuary, after an arsonist fire in 1951, it moved into their youth building that had been built in 1947 while the sanctuary was rebuilt. Just seven months after they moved into their new sanctuary in 1952, the 1953 Waco tornado heavily damaged their new building. In 1960, the Greater Mount Olive Baptist Church bought their building and Turner Street Baptist Church changed its Westwood Baptist Church after it moved to west Waco at 7509 Fairway Road, where it stands today. (1)

John Wesley Mann (1838-1909) had moved to Waco from Tennessee in 1858. He left to fight in the Civil War and, when he returned, started working as a brick-maker. In 1868 he married Cemira Twaddle and bought land on the east side of the Brazos River. He soon started a brick-making business on that land and built a beautiful Italianat-style home, which was completed in 1874. Today, we know that home as East Terrace. East Terrace was donated to the Waco Historical Foundation by the F.M. Young and his brother. From the enormous brick kiln on that property, bricks were made that were used in the construction of the Suspension Bridge, as well as many other buildings in downtown Waco and Central Texas. The bricks were known for their pink color, which came from the use of the clay from the Brazos River banks. (2)

The Suspension Bridge was completed in 1870, and the City of Waco annexed East Waco in 1871. In 1872, the railroad made its way to East Waco, creating jobs and new opportunities for businesses there. In 1874, gaslights were installed in East Waco. The gas lines had been installed when the Suspension Bridge was built. In 1884, East Waco Elementary, the first public school in Waco built with tax dollars was built at 400 Turner Street. (1)

In 1881, Paul Quinn College opened in East Waco at 1020 Elm Avenue. In 1872 the African Methodist Episcopalian Church founded the Connectional School for the Education of Negro Youth in Austin as a means to provide education to former slaves. Five years later, the campus moved to Waco, where it occupied a small building located at Eighth Street and Mary Avenue until an increase in funding allowed the school to relocate to a new facility on Elm Street. In 1881, officials renamed the school for Bishop William Paul Quinn, a Methodist missionary. (3) It made Waco a better place, and touched countless lives. After 109 years, it moved to Dallas in 1990, where it continues to operate today. On the grounds of the Paul Quinn Campus in Waco, Rapaport Academy now operates and is educating leaders for the future. (3)

In 1891, The Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, “The Katy” came to Waco. Bellmead was the beginning of the South Texas District. A large railyard was built there in 1912. “This yard had the capacity of 1,148 cars, and the facilities included a 15-stall roundhouse and an 85’ turntable—big enough for the locomotives in use on the line at the time.” In 1923, the yard expanded to include the locomotive construction shops, which were primarily for overhauls and rebuilds. The building was 425’long and 225’wide. A 150-ton crane lifted the cars from the incoming track so that they could be repaired. “In addition to the main shop and power house, there were several outlying buildings that served various functions: a blacksmith shop, and a metal casing shop. All of the buildings were collectively known as the ‘Warden Shops’. Nearly two miles of track linked the various shops within the Bellmead yard….World War II was probably the most important time for the Warden Shops…By 1949, the “dieselization” of the railroad was in full swing. Steam locomotives were on their way out, and the fancy new diesel technology required a lot less maintenance than cantankerous steam locomotives…In 1949, the large repair shop in Parsons, Kansas became the sole repair shop for diesels…In 1960, Katy closed the shops at Bellmead.” (4)

In 1902, the Washington Avenue Bridge was completed, giving additional traffic support between East Waco and Downtown Waco. “The Washington Avenue Bridge is a steel, Pennsylvania through truss bridge that spans the Brazos River and connects East Waco to downtown. Before the construction of the Washington Avenue Bridge, the Waco Suspension Bridge, built in 1870, offered the only reliable way for individuals to cross the river. However, by 1900 Waco was a booming city, and another bridge was necessary to lighten the load on the thirty-year old structure. Construction on the Washington Avenue Bridge began in 1901 and was completed in 1902, with John Wharton Maxey of Houston as the lead architect, and John H. Sparks from St. Joseph, Missouri, as the contracting engineer. Once the bridge was completed in July of 1902, it was tested by sending five vehicles from the city fire department, including engines, hose carts, and wagons, across at varying speeds. At one point they went as fast as if they were traveling to an actual fire. The bridge passed this test and was opened soon after that. At the time, the Washington Avenue Bridge was the sixteenth longest bridge of its type in the United States and the longest Pennsylvania through truss in Texas and the rest of the Southwest.” (5)

Around 1912, a park was created on the east side of the Brazos River. It was initially named Mackey Park, named after Waco City Mayor J.H. Mackey. It had a large bandstand and playground. (6) Beginning in the mid-1940s it began to be called both Mackey Park and Bledsoe-Miller Park, after singing legend Jules Bledsoe and World War II hero Doris Miller. By 1950, it is known exclusively as Bledsoe-Miller Park.

Soon after World War II began, General Tire opened on the east side of Waco to manufacture tires for the military. “In 1944, the General Tire and Rubber Plant of Waco was created-approximately 1.1 million square feet on 139 acres of land in East Waco. After the war, General Tire reimbursed the government for the plant’s construction and began manufacturing passenger tires. It quickly became one of Waco’s largest employers with over 1400 employees.” (6) In 1985, the plant was renovated and updated, but soon thereafter the announcement was made that the plant was closing. In 1995, Clifton Robinson and Bland Cromwell purchased the plant and donated much of it to Baylor. It later became BRIC-“Baylor Research Innovation Collaborative”. (7)

James Connally Air Force Base was a United States Air Force base located northeast of Waco, Texas. The airport opened May 5, 1942 as Waco Army Air Field and was the headquarters of the Army Air Force Central Instructors’ School during World War II. It was deactivated after the war in 1945 but was reactivated in 1948 as a pilot training base under the Air Training Command. Waco Field was renamed for Colonel James T. Connally who had been killed in Japan in 1945. The airport was initially called Connally Air Force Base but the name evolved to also include his first name. In the years that followed, it was used extensively for military purposes. In 1965, the Air Force began sharing the base with the State of Texas, the latter having established the James Connally Technical Institute (JCTI) of Texas A&M University. which would eventually become the main campus and headquarters of Texas State Technical Institute (TSTI).It was closed as a military base in 1968. In 1991, TSTI was renamed Texas State Technical College (TSTC). (8)

East Waco was always prone to flooding during heavy rains due to its lower elevation. The three worst flooding years that left parts of East Waco underwater were 1885, 1913 and 1936. With the construction of the Lake Whitney Dam and the new Lake Waco Dam, those flood waters have been made more controllable.

The two largest business areas of East Waco were on Elm Street and Clifton Street. Alamo Courts Motel opened in 1929 at the 900 block of Elm and was opened until the mid-1950s. In 1950, College View Court Hotel opened at 1129 Elm Avenue and was open until the 1970s. In 1934, a new Brazos River Bridge was opened at LaSalle Avenue, carrying Highway 77 and 81 traffic. This diverted much traffic from Elm Street. In 1951, Waco Drive Bridge was opened and the new Waco Drive, which carried Highway 84 traffic brought much relief to the traffic flow of Waco. Unfortunately, it was devastating to the businesses of Elm Street and East Waco. The Herring Avenue Bridge was opened in 1971, as were the two Lake Shore Bridges, connecting East Waco to North Waco. The Franklin Avenue Bridge was also completed in 1971, but wasn’t opened until 1973 when Lake Brazos Drive was completed and Taylor Street reconstructed. (9))

Today, there is new life in East Waco. The threat of serious flooding is gone. The Rapaport Academy on the grounds of Paul Quinn College continues to grow and carry on the tradition set forth by the College that once stood like a shining light in East Waco. Churches and schools continue to flourish. Historic homes are being cared for by new owners. New businesses are opening…many of them in the buildings that were a part of the community a hundred years ago.

(1) “Brazos Past: Tracing East Waco’s Roots” by Teri Jo Ryan. The Waco Tribune Herald, August 7, 2010.
(2) “John Wesley Mann” biography by Robert William Marshall. www.masonic.org
(3) “Paul Quinn College” by Brandice Nelson. From WacoHistory.org
(4) “Katy’s Warden Shops at Bellmead: A Lost Gem” by Cameron Talley. From “Waco Heritage and History” Fall, 2012.
(5) “Washington Avenue Bridge” by Kathleen Young. From WacoHistory.org
(6) “Municipal Hand Book of the City of Waco” (1912) by Mayor J.H. Mackey.
(7) “General Tire Plant Reborn for Exciting New Purpose” by Donald B. Davis. From “Waco Heritage and History” Fall, 2012.
(8) “James Connally Air Force Base” on Wikipedia.
(9) Waco City Directories and various newspaper articles.

1867-Rufus Burleson began conducting Baptist Church services in homes in East Waco.
1868-John Wesley Mann started making bricks
1868-East Waco Baptist Church was organized. Pastor
1870-Suspension Bridge Built
1871-Waco annexes East Waco
1872-First Train arrived in East Waco.
1874-Gaslights in East Waco
1874-Mann Family moved into East Terrace house.
1878-EWBC builds a new church at Dallas and Rusk streets.
1881-PQC moved into new facility on Elm Street.
1885-Flood in East and Downtown Waco
1891-The Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, “The Katy” comes to Waco.
1895-EWBC builds a new church at 500 Turner Street and becomes Turner Street Baptist Church in 1913.
1900 Mackey Park
1912-Katy Rail yard established at Bellmead
1913-East Waco Flood
1923-Katy Rail Yard expanded to include construction shops for overhauls and rebuilds.
1929-Alamo Courts opened 900 block of Elm Avenue until the mid 1950s.
1934-Highway 81/77 Bridge (LaSalle Avenue Bridge) completed, diverting traffic from Elm Street.
1936-East Waco Flood
1940s-Mackey Park beginning to be referred to as “Bledsoe-Miller Park”
1941-45 very busy years at Katy Shops.
1944-General Tire opened.
1949-Katy moved most operations to Kansas
1950-College View Court Hotel opened-until the 1970s. 1129 Elm Avenue
1951-Waco Drive Bridge (Hwy 84) completed, diverting traffic from Elm Street.
1960-Katy shops closed.
1971-Herring Avenue Bridge completed and opened.
1971-Lake Shore Bridges completed and opened.
1971-Franklin Avenue Bridge completed, but not open until 1973 due to construction of Taylor Street extension and Lake Brazos Drive.
1985-General Tire was renovated and updated. Soon after, closure was announced.
1990-Paul Quinn College moved to Dallas.
1995-Clifton Robinson and Bland Cromwell purchased General Tire plant and donated much of it to Baylor. It later became BRIC-Baylor Research Innovation Collaborative”.