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Waco developer to donate Cotton Belt railroad bridge, land for Brazos River trail vision

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A Waco real estate developer is on track to buy the abandoned Cotton Belt Bridge at the Brazos River and adjacent land and donate it for public trail use by Aug. 1.

Rick Sheldon and his wife, Lisa, have the 109-year-old steel truss bridge and riverfront land under contract with Union Pacific, and they plan to deed it to the nonprofit City Center Waco, said Mike Anderson, spokesman for Rick Sheldon Real Estate.

“Lisa and Rick have a vision for the bridge,” he said. “They really think it will be a huge, huge benefit for Waco, for downtown and the east side. This is something they’re committed to.”

In the short term, the donation would allow the city of Waco to let a contract late this summer on the $3.3 million east river trail running from Franklin Avenue to McLane Stadium. City officials have struggled to get an easement agreement for the sliver of railroad-owned riverfront between the bridge and Franklin Avenue.

In the longer term, the bridge could be renovated to become part of the trail system and a destination in itself, Anderson said.

A Sheldon-commissioned animation, which made the rounds on YouTube in mid-March, shows that vision in vivid detail. The video depicts a festive walkway along Mary Avenue that would lead to the bridge. The bridge deck would be expanded to allow bikes and pedestrians, benches, landscaping and even an ice-cream kiosk. The bridge would tie in to the east riverwalk on the other side of the river.

Anderson said the vision was inspired by the popular High Line walkway that opened on the west side of Manhattan in 2009, reclaiming an abandoned elevated freight line.

“(Sheldon) was just amazed by how it has become one of the top tourist attractions in New York,” he said.

“That’s where Rick and Lisa got their vision for the conceptual drawing of the bridge. We see Mary Avenue becoming a major pedestrian-way to serve not just downtown Waco but the ‘new’ downtown. It would tie in Magnolia and the new (Balcones) distillery.”

Sheldon and his partners, Joe Beard and FirstCity Financial, own the food truck court at Mary Avenue and University Parks Drive and hope some day to lure a major development, such as a hotel or office building, Anderson said. But he said the rail line would benefit all businesses in that part of downtown.

Anderson estimated that the entire project could cost $4 million, including the environmental remediation of the bridge, which could costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said the city could apply for trail grants from the Texas Department of Transportation, which funded most of the east riverwalk, or from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Assistant City Manager Cynthia Garcia said she is confident Sheldon’s agreement with UP will allow the city to let the east riverwalk project by Aug. 29, keeping the project on course with state deadlines.

“I think we’re in the homestretch,” she said.

Garcia said the future use of the bridge will require much more discussion, but it’s a promising idea.

“It makes sense, having a pedestrian bridge with access to both sides of the river,” she said. “It’s really nice, because it follows Mary Avenue. When I first got here (in 2015) one question I had was, ‘How do we get hold of this and open it as a pedestrian crossing?’ ”

She said the Cotton Belt Bridge and the active UP bridge nearby are a beautiful part of the river’s scenery, and the Cotton Belt Bridge could be enhanced by lighting.

Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, said her board hasn’t yet approved the donation, but she has hired a firm to test and quantify any environmental liabilities with the bridge.

Cotton Belt Bridge photo

‘A lot of promise’

“We are eager to play an active part in redeveloping the bridge,” she said. “It’s hard to overstate our support for the riverwalk. . . . The proposed project is really an exciting one with a lot of promise. We want to make sure we proceed cautiously and in a way that keeps us in a solid ability to move forward.”

Sheldon hired the Wallace Group to do both the animation and a structural assessment of the bridge. The engineering firm found that “the bridge is likely suitable for conversion to a pedestrian structure” based on its sturdy design and the good condition of the steel girders and concrete piers. The wooden railroad ties would be removed and the remnants of paint on the steel should be tested for lead, the report says.

The structure is a good example of a steel-truss bridge, which was the leading bridge design in Texas from 1880 to 1930, according to the Texas Historical Commission website.

The bridge does not have a plate indicating its age. The Wallace Group report and a previous Tribune-Herald story surmised that it was built as the Texas & St. Louis Railway, which reached Waco in 1881. The line, later known as the Cotton Belt or St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad, ran from Bird’s Point, Missouri, to Gatesville.

But historic newspaper articles, discovered by local rail buff John Linda and Waco-McLennan County Library librarian Sean Sutcliffe, tell a different story.

The Waco Daily Times-Herald reported on June 5, 1907, that the new Cotton Belt Bridge was dedicated that morning to great fanfare, including a performance by the Baylor band at the Cotton Belt station at Third Street and Mary Avenue.

The article describes how the track was removed from the old bridge, and it gives the dimensions of the new bridge: three 200-foot steel spans and one 50-foot steel girder resting on concrete masonry. The piers were set deep into the bedrock of the Brazos using explosives inside caissons.

The bridge could handle the heaviest trains then imaginable, with a moving load of 5,000 pounds per linear foot of bridge, according to the article.

“This extraordinary heavy loading is greater than the bridge will be called on to carry for some time to come,” the newspaper stated.

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This 2007 photo shows the remnants of the old bridge piers, captured when the Brazos River was low.

Linda, a Waco fire lieutenant, showed modern-day photos of the remnants of the old bridge piers, captured when the river was low.

Linda, 59, has a special love for the bridge because his grandfather worked for the Cotton Belt Railroad as a brakeman.

“He used to do the run between here and Gatesville, so I grew up around it,” he said.

Linda said he never got to ride on the train, because passenger service ceased in 1952, a year before the tornado destroyed the old Cotton Belt station.

He said he’s eager to see a new chapter in the bridge’s history.

“If that guy can restore it as a walkway and do what that plan shows, that would be great,” he said.

Waco native Bob Sullivan went to work as a switchman for the Cotton Belt line in 1960 and retired 40 years later from Union Pacific, which had acquired the Cotton Belt system through a series of mergers. He said he thinks the Cotton Belt Bridge in Waco was used as late as the early 1990s, though it was long past its heyday by then.

He remembers when downtown and East Waco were a chaotic jumble of competing train lines, and Mary Avenue was bustling with freight business.

“There were three tracks running down the middle of the road,” said Sullivan, 79. “I’ve unloaded cars in every warehouse through there.”

Sullivan has his own idea for a tourist attraction on the bridge.

“They ought to put a glass-bottomed restaurant on it,” he said. “They’d make a million dollars.”

Glass-bottomed restaurant or not, Sullivan said he’s glad to see the bridge getting some attention.

“The history of the bridge is unbelievable,” he said. “They ran troop train after troop train out of Fort Hood right over that bridge. They carried 10,000 Japanese prisoners of war right over that bridge and down Mary Street. It’s got a lot of ghosts on it if you could see them.”

Cotton Belt Bridge photo

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