History of Waco, Texas, and historical sites to visit here

Welcome to Waco, Texas, a city steeped in history and brimming with captivating attractions that transport visitors to the past. Nestled in the heart of the Lone Star State, Waco is a vibrant destination that blends modernity with its rich historical heritage.

In this article, we will delve into the captivating history of Waco, tracing its origins and highlighting key milestones that have left an indelible mark on the city. We will also explore the fascinating historical attractions that dot the city, from museums and historic villages to architectural landmarks that reflect Waco’s diverse heritage.

Join us as we embark on a journey through time and delve into the captivating history and historical attractions of Waco, Texas. But first, let’s begin with a short history of the city.

A short history of Waco, Texas

Waco, Texas, has a rich history that spans thousands of years. The area was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples, particularly the Wichita Indian tribe known as the “Waco.” In 1824, Thomas M. Duke explored the region and reported the thriving Waco village to Stephen F. Austin.

Despite conflicts between the Waco people and European settlers, a treaty was eventually made in 1825. However, the Waco people were eventually displaced and relocated north.

In 1838, Neil McLennan settled near the South Bosque River, and in 1849, Jacob De Cordova designed the first block of the city. The area was initially named Waco Village, in honor of the Native Americans who had previously lived there. The first house in Waco was built in 1849 by Shapley Ross, who is considered the city’s founder.

Waco experienced significant development in the late 19th century. The Waco Suspension Bridge, built in 1870, became an important crossing point for cowboys and cattle herds following the Chisholm Trail. The bridge facilitated the city’s growth, as immigrants now had a safe route for their carriages and wagons. Today, the bridge is a pedestrian-only structure and a registered historic landmark.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Waco had a red-light district called the “Reservation,” which was regulated by the city. In 1885, Dr Pepper, a popular soft drink, was invented at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco.

Baylor University, founded in 1845, moved to Waco in 1886 and merged with Waco University. The university played a significant role in the city’s development and cultural landscape. Another educational institution, AddRan College, was founded in 1873 in Fort Worth but moved to Waco in 1895. It later became Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1902.

During the 20th century, Waco faced racial segregation. The Greenwood Cemetery, established in the 1870s, was segregated, with a fence separating black and white graves. Waco also witnessed several incidents of mob violence and lynching, such as the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916.

In 1937, the soft drink Big Red was created in Waco by Grover C. Thomsen and R. H. Roark. During World War II, Waco Army Air Field opened and later became Connally Air Force Base. Today, the former air base is Texas State Technical College.

In 1953, a devastating F5 tornado struck downtown Waco, resulting in 114 fatalities. This tornado was the first to be tracked by radar and contributed to the development of a nationwide storm surveillance system. A monument honoring the victims was erected in downtown Waco.

In recent history, Waco gained notoriety for the tragic events at the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. A shootout and subsequent standoff between the Branch Davidians and law enforcement resulted in the deaths of 74 people.

In conclusion, the history of Waco is a tapestry woven with triumphs and tragedies. From its indigenous roots to its role in the civil rights movement, Waco’s story serves as a testament to the resilience and progress of a city that has faced challenges head-on while striving for a brighter future.

The McLennan County Courthouse

McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, Texas - digital painting with vintage look
McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, Texas – digital painting with vintage look

Built in 1901, the McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, Texas, stands as a magnificent symbol of the city’s prosperity during the peak of Texas cotton wealth. Designed by architect James Riely Gordon in the Beaux Arts Style, it is an architectural gem and the county’s fourth courthouse. With its neoclassical exterior, adorned with Corinthian pilasters and columns, and three justice-themed statues, including the Greek goddess Themis, it exudes grandeur and significance.

Inside, the courthouse captivates visitors with its ornate interior featuring Kenesaw marble columns and stunning stained-glass art pieces depicting star designs. Serving as both a center of justice and the seat of McLennan County government, the courthouse houses the county’s legal records, which prompted renovations in the mid-twentieth century to accommodate the growing population’s needs.

The courthouse’s historical importance is further amplified by the notable legal cases it has witnessed. Notably, it was the site of Clyde Barrow’s trial in 1930, where he faced charges including burglary and theft. Additionally, the building made history as the location of the first live televised murder trial in December 1955, as Judge D. W. Bartlett allowed local station KWTX-TV to film the proceedings of the Harry L. Washburn trial in the 54th State District Court.

With its rich architectural beauty, historical significance, and intriguing legal legacy, the McLennan County Courthouse stands as a cherished landmark in Waco, capturing the essence of the city’s past while remaining a vital part of its present.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, is the state-designated official historical center of the legendary Texas Rangers law enforcement agency.

As the appointed trustee on behalf of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Legislature, the City of Waco houses the Homer Garrison Jr. museum gallery, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, the Texas Ranger Research Center, and the Headquarters of Texas Rangers Company “F”.

The nonprofit museum serves a dual mission of disseminating knowledge and inspiring appreciation of the Rangers’ history, while also serving as a repository for artifacts and archives related to the Texas Rangers.

Located near Interstate Highway 35 Exit 335B, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is a treasure trove of artifacts, documents, and artworks that chronicle the storied history of the Rangers.

With over two centuries’ worth of material culture, the museum houses a diverse collection ranging from Lipan Apache arrows and 19th Century surveying tools to Lone Ranger lunchboxes and contemporary law enforcement equipment. It is a testament to their commitment to preserving these invaluable collections for future generations.

The Garrison Gallery, dedicated in 1968, encapsulates the Rangers’ story through three centuries, boasting more than 14,000 irreplaceable artifacts that date back to their founding. Displays include rotating exhibitions of the impressive collection of 2,500 historic firearms and accessories, Texas Ranger badges and credentials, items connected to notorious outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and exhibits on forensics and famous Texas Rangers.

Within the Hall of Fame, a memorial roll commemorates Texas Rangers who made significant contributions or died heroically in the line of duty from 1823 to 2004.

The Formation and Early Years Gallery explores the Rangers’ origins and their involvement in pivotal events like the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. The Frontier Battalion and Indian Wars Gallery focuses on the late 19th-century Frontier Battalion and their conflicts with Native American tribes.

The Mexican Revolution and Prohibition Era Gallery highlights the Rangers’ roles during these tumultuous periods, including their efforts to enforce the law and maintain order. The Modern Texas Rangers Gallery showcases the organization’s evolution and modern-day responsibilities, featuring advanced technology, forensics, and notable Rangers.

Additionally, the Texas Ranger Art Collection celebrates the Rangers’ legacy through various artistic mediums, while the Hall of Fame honors distinguished Rangers for their exceptional service and dedication.

By exploring each exhibit and delving into the multifaceted history of the Texas Rangers, visitors to the museum will gain a deep appreciation for this iconic organization and its enduring legacy. With its diverse range of artifacts, immersive presentations, and captivating artwork, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco serves as a testament to the legendary status and historical significance of the Texas Rangers, both as a symbol of Texas and America.

The Waco Suspension Bridge

The Waco Suspension Bridge, a single-span marvel, spans the Brazos River in Waco, Texas. Opened in 1869, the bridge measures 475 feet in length and was constructed with nearly 3 million locally made bricks. It served as a crucial link between Indian Spring Park and Doris D. Miller Park, drawing crowds for the annual Independence Day fireworks display. T

he construction of the bridge was driven by the need to facilitate commerce and overcome the challenges of ferry crossings on the Brazos River. Led by members of Waco Masonic Lodge #92, the Waco Bridge Company was formed to fund and build the bridge, with Colonel John T. Flint overseeing the project.

The bridge’s twin double towers, made with remarkable engineering precision and locally produced bricks, anchored the structure. Initially a toll bridge, it quickly recovered its construction costs and became a vital artery for travel, including cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail.

In 1889, the bridge was sold to McLennan County, eliminating tolls. Over the years, the bridge underwent significant renovations, including major reconstruction in 1913-1914, which increased its load-bearing capacity and added a pedestrian walkway.

Today, the Waco Suspension Bridge remains a pedestrian-only landmark, standing as a testament to Waco’s transformation into a thriving commercial hub. Recent rehabilitation efforts have been undertaken to replace suspension cables and reinforce the structure.

Recognized as a National Register of Historic Places site and a Texas Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, the bridge continues to embody Waco’s rich history and engineering achievements.

The Dr Pepper Museum

Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas - digital painting
Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas – digital painting

The Dr Pepper Museum, located in downtown Waco, opened its doors to the public in 1991. Housed in the historic Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company building, which was constructed in 1906 as the first facility dedicated to bottling Dr Pepper, the museum offers a captivating journey into the history of the iconic soft drink.

With three floors of exhibits, visitors can explore the rich heritage of Dr Pepper while enjoying a nostalgic experience at the working old-fashioned soda fountain. The museum also boasts a gift store filled with Dr Pepper memorabilia.

Two distinct buildings make up the museum complex. The main Museum building, distinguished by its prominent yellow brick facade, is the historic Artesian Manufacturing & Bottling Company building. With an admissions wristband, guests gain access to all three floors of exhibits within this building. The Gift Shop, located on the first floor of the main building and accessible through the courtyard, is another must-visit area.

The second building, known as the Kellum Rotan building, is easily recognizable by the striking red neon Dr Pepper sign adorning its side. Here, visitors can explore the Soda Fountain, Experience Spaces, and additional exhibits. Access to the Experience Spaces and exhibits in this building also requires an admissions wristband.

The museum houses an extensive collection of over 100,000 objects related to the soft drink industry, representing various brands. While only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time, the rotating exhibits ensure that each visit brings something new. The museum also hosts Keurig Dr Pepper’s impressive collection, which focuses on their diverse brand portfolio encompassing Dr Pepper, 7UP, Squirt, A&W, and more.

The J. Conrad Dunagan Archives, part of the museum, holds a comprehensive assortment of soft drink industry information, making it one of the most expansive collections in the world. Named after generous donor J. Conrad Dunagan, a Coca-Cola bottler from Monahans, Texas, the archives provide valuable resources for research inquiries and serve as a reference for creating exhibits and studying collection objects.

Photographs, periodicals, legal documents, and historical data contribute to the archives’ wealth of knowledge, offering a deeper understanding of Dr Pepper and the broader soft drink industry.

The Red Men Museum and Library

The Red Men Museum and Library in Waco, Texas, is an American history museum and research library owned and maintained by The Texas Redmen Foundation, Inc. Established in 1991, the museum presents the official history of the Improved Order of Red Men, a patriotic fraternal organization with traditions attributed to Native Americans.

The organization is incorporated as the Texas Red Men Foundation and serves as the headquarters of the national Red Men fraternal organization and the Great Council of Texas office. It participates in the Texas Brazos Trail and is a member of the Museum Association of Waco.

The museum houses a diverse collection of artifacts, predominantly focused on American history. The eclectic collection includes notable items such as a peace blanket from Apache leader Geronimo, a bugle recovered from the battlefield at Gettysburg, a writing desk that belonged to Aaron Burr, and moccasins from Chiricahua Apache Chief Cochise.

Additionally, the Red Men Museum and Library boasts a comprehensive research library with a collection of over 4,500 volumes, encompassing topics such as Texas and Waco history, the Civil War, World War II (including the Nuremberg War Criminal Trial reports and the complete Warren Commission report), the American Revolution, U.S. presidents’ published papers, and a complete set of National Geographic magazines from 1888 to the present.

The building itself, located near the Waco Independent School District football stadium and sports complex, is designed with architectural elements reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It also includes a hall and commercial kitchen for hosting events.

With its rich array of artifacts, extensive library holdings, and dedication to preserving and presenting American history, the Red Men Museum and Library stands as a valuable resource for scholars, history enthusiasts, and the public alike, providing insights into the historical significance of the Improved Order of Red Men, Texas history, and world history.

The Texas Sports Hall of Fame

The Texas Sports Hall of Fame, established in 1951 by the Texas Sports Writers Association, is dedicated to recognizing athletes, coaches, and administrators who have brought lasting fame and honor to Texas sports.

It holds the distinction of being the first sports hall of fame in the United States. Located in Waco, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame & Museum was opened in 1993 and showcases over 6,000 pieces of sports memorabilia.

The idea for the Texas Sports Hall of Fame originated from Thad Johnson, the sports editor at The Beaumont Enterprise. During the 1949 Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Games in Beaumont, Johnson proposed the concept, receiving unanimous support from the Texas Sportswriters Association. In 1951, baseball legend Tris Speaker became the first inductee, solidifying Texas as the first state to honor its athletes with a hall of fame.

Initially opened in Grand Prairie in 1981 under the guidance of Texas sports entrepreneur Lamar Hunt, the Hall of Fame relocated to Waco in 1993, thanks to a plan devised by influential members of the Waco community.

The Texas Sports Hall of Fame expanded its scope by incorporating the Texas Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame, the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, and a dedicated exhibit on the Southwest Conference (SWC), the preeminent college conference in Texas until its dissolution in 1996.

Nominations for the Hall of Fame are open to the public, and a selection committee comprising at least 21 sports journalists from various Texas newspapers convenes annually to review the nominees and create a ballot. The ballot consists of a primary section with 20 names and a veterans section with 12 names.

Dues-paying members of the Hall of Fame vote to determine the inductees. The top six vote getters from the primary section and the top two from the veterans section are officially inducted, while the remaining candidates are automatically placed on the following year’s ballot.

The Texas Sports Hall of Fame boasts an illustrious list of inductees, including George Foreman, Troy Aikman, Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Baugh, Elvin Bethea, Craig Biggio, Gary Blair, Drew Brees, Norm Cash, Roger Clemens, Hayden Fry, Augie Garrido, Bob Hayes, Lamar Hunt, Yale Lary, Mike Modano, Andre Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Cat Osterman, Drew Pearson, David Robinson, Darrell Royal, R. C. Slocum, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams, and Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. These Texas legends have left an indelible mark on their respective sports and continue to inspire future generations.

The Mayborn Museum Complex

The Sue & Frank Mayborn Natural Science and Cultural History Museum Complex (MMC) is a 142,000-square-foot facility located at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Opened in May 2004, the complex offers a comprehensive experience for visitors.

The natural history wing showcases exhibits on prehistoric Central Texas, including dioramas depicting the region’s landscapes and examples of 19th Century homes in Texas. At the heart of the complex is the state-of-the-art Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center, featuring 17 themed rooms that cover a wide range of topics such as health, communications, and transportation.

Visitors can explore the engaging “Waco at the Crossroads of Texas” exhibit, which includes a Central Texas limestone cave, a prairie, and a forest inhabited by Texas critters. The exhibit “Texas Lifeways” presents structures like a buffalo-hide teepee, a single-pin log cabin, a full-scale Waco Indian grass house, and a Norwegian stone cottage.

The complex also encompasses the 13-acre Governor Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village, which comprises 15 wood frame buildings that authentically depict life in Texas from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Additionally, the MMC features the Anding Traveling Exhibit Gallery, spanning 5,000 square feet, as well as a theater and a museum store.

Visitors to the Mayborn Museum Complex can delve into the natural science and cultural history of Central Texas. The exhibits cover various disciplines, including geology, paleontology, archaeology, and natural history. Seventeen themed discovery rooms offer hands-on learning experiences for all ages, while the Historic Village provides a glimpse into the past and brings the 1890s community to life.

The Mayborn Museum Complex consolidates a wealth of resources, combining interactive natural science and cultural history galleries with outdoor exhibits. It caters to diverse learners and visitors of all ages, promoting family learning and allowing visitors to design their own museum experience.

The complex regularly hosts popular traveling exhibits, such as LEGO Castle Adventure, Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science, and The Magic School Bus Kicks Up a Storm.

The museum store, known for its lively and colorful atmosphere, offers a wide range of items, including toys, games, gems, minerals, jewelry, and books that reflect the diverse experiences available at the museum.

Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Mondays to Saturdays, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. On Sundays, the museum is open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. A visit to the Sue & Frank Mayborn Natural Science and Cultural History Museum Complex promises an immersive and educational experience for all.

The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum

The Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, situated on the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is a renowned institution housing the largest collections of works by English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The library also boasts the world’s largest collection of secular stained glass. Originally donated by Dr. A.J. Armstrong in 1918, the Browning collection found its home in the Carroll Library until a dedicated room was constructed after a fire in 1922.

By 1925, the collection had outgrown its space, prompting Baylor President Pat Neff to donate $100,000 for a new library. Construction began in 1948, and the Italian Renaissance-style building, adorned with sixty-two magnificent stained glass windows, marble columns, black walnut marquetry paneling, and intricate ceiling designs, was completed in 1951. Extensive renovations occurred in 1995 to accommodate an even larger collection and further refurbishments took place in 2012.

The Armstrong Browning Library building serves as a sanctuary of beauty and tranquility, attracting over 25,000 visitors annually. It not only houses the Browning collection but also provides an ideal venue for library exhibitions, cultural events, conferences, lectures, and musical performances.

The architectural grandeur, with its limestone walls, granite terrace, and bronze doors, captivates visitors. The McLean Foyer of Meditation, at the heart of the design, leaves a lasting impression.

Beyond the breathtaking architecture, the library holds a vast array of resources and collections. With over 27,000 books, 11,000 letters, and manuscripts, it is a treasure trove for exploration.

The materials focus on the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, encompassing original letters and manuscripts, books from their personal library, various editions of their poetry, secondary works, criticisms, musical adaptations, portraits, and countless other memorabilia. The library has also expanded its collection to include resources on other 19th-century writers and cultural aspects.

A notable feature of the Armstrong Browning Library is its extensive collection of sixty-two stained glass windows, believed to be the largest secular collection in the world. These windows beautifully illustrate the poetry of the Brownings and can be found on all three floors of the building.

Created by renowned artisans, including Haskins Glass Studio, Charles J. Connick Associates, Jacoby Art Glass Company, and Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, the windows add a stunning play of light and color throughout the library.

The library also houses an array of art pieces, three-dimensional objects, and additional stained glass windows. The Browning Artifacts, including personal belongings of the poets, are complemented by paintings and drawings of the Brownings, a collection of Old Masters paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, and other exquisite items.

A visit to the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum offers a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the rich literary heritage of the Brownings, appreciate the architectural marvels, and explore the artistic treasures within its walls.

The Praetorian Building

The Praetorian Building, a majestic 7-story structure situated at 601 Franklin Avenue in Waco, stands as a testament to architectural grandeur. Designed in the Chicago school or Modern style by C. W. Bulger & Co. in 1915, it was erected by Hughes O’Rourke Construction to house the Praetorian Insurance Company.

Over time, it embraced various identities, including Franklin Tower, Service Mutual Building, Southwestern Building, and Williams Tower. Surviving the 1953 Waco tornado and retaining much of its original charm through Urban Renewal, the Praetorian Building has emerged as a cherished symbol of Waco’s heritage.

It earned a rightful place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, marking its architectural significance and well-preserved condition. Following a restoration initiative in the early 2010s, it now serves as a thriving hub, housing loft apartments, retail establishments, and even an art studio and gallery.

The Washington Avenue Bridge

The Washington Avenue Bridge, a historic structure in Waco, holds a significant place in the state’s architectural heritage. Built in 1902, this remarkable bridge boasted the title of the longest single-span vehicular truss bridge in Texas at that time, stretching an impressive 450 feet across the Brazos River.

Its construction was a collaborative effort between McLennan County and the City of Waco, with each party sharing the $93,399 cost of its construction, not including an additional $1,850 for railings and approach spans.

Beyond its engineering significance, the bridge carries a somber historical event. In 1905, a tragic incident occurred when a Black man named Sank Majors was lynched from a crossbeam by a white mob at this bridge.

Jim Lawyer, another Black man who protested against this horrifying act, was also attacked during the incident. Shockingly, Texas Rangers stood by, witnessing the violence but choosing not to intervene.

In recognition of its historical importance, the bridge earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

The Madison Cooper House

The historic Cooper House, a remarkable testament to turn-of-the-century architecture, saw its construction initiated in 1905 and completed in 1907. Located in Waco, Texas, this stately residence served as the cherished home of Madison Alexander Cooper Sr.

It exudes a splendid blend of Victorian proportions and Greek Revival detailing, showcasing the finest architectural craftsmanship of its era.

Today, the Cooper House stands as the headquarters of the Cooper Foundation, embodying the philanthropic spirit of Madison Alexander Cooper, Jr., who was not only a successful businessman but also a prolific author.

His renowned novel, “Sironia, Texas,” set publishing records as the longest novel originally published in book form during its time, boasting a staggering 840,000 words.

In honoring Madison Cooper’s vision, the Cooper House welcomes qualified nonprofit organizations to utilize its premises for various purposes, from board meetings and staff development retreats to strategy sessions and special events.

This elegant two-story brick and cast-stone house, designed with Italianate, Queen Anne, Prairie, and Classical Revival elements, serves as a timeless reminder of the Cooper family’s enduring legacy and their dedication to philanthropy and education.

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