When I first moved to Waco to go to Baylor in 2001, Waco was anything but a destination city! Sure, I came to love it for all its quirkiness, but many of my contemporaries were looking for the first opportunity to get out of town upon graduating.
A lot has changed in 17 years. Estimates put the total amount of visitors to Waco this past year at over 2 million people! That’s roughly an eight-fold increase since just 2012. Incredible. The changes in Waco over the past several years have been downright dizzying.
Several years ago, as we played a round of disc golf out at Woodway Park, my friend Luke told me about an idea he had been pondering to start a Waco tour company because of the influx of visitors to our city. You know those moments where you’re not sure whether to shoot someone straight or pretend they have a good idea? It was one of those.
Internally, I scoffed at the idea, as did many others. Be careful who you scoff at, however, because you might just work for them one day—which is just what happened in this case. I am now a proud employee of Waco Tours – a company that now boasts four vehicles and over 40 employees.
After living in Kansas for a few years, my wife and I moved back to Waco in 2016 and were astonished to find that not only had Waco Tours gotten off the ground, but that thousands of people were forking over the cash for the tour and loving the experience in the end!
In fact, at the time of this writing, out of 970 reviews on Trip Advisor, 949 have been 5-star. People are coming from literally all over the world to Waco, Texas, which has become a true destination city. In 2017, more people visited Magnolia than the Alamo in San Antonio. People are coming to Waco… and LOVING it.
I finally broke down and went on a tour of Waco this past summer and was shocked to find that I learned a ton and had a blast in the process. What was even more endearing was to hear the oohs and aahs from the other guests, many of whom had driven over a thousand miles to be in Waco.
I listened as a woman told the van that her husband had surprised her for their 25th anniversary with a trip, telling her she could choose to go anywhere within the US, Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, and that she hadn’t hesitated to tell him she wanted to come to Waco.
I thought this anecdote was the improbable outlier, but after having worked for Waco Tours for about 7 months now, I can attest that this is a regular occurrence.
What’s the draw? Of course, Chip and Jo are the front door—people from all over are in love with them for their family, faith, and craftsmanship. Beyond that, however, more and more people have come to love Waco apart from the Magnolia phenomenon for the small-town appeal, the Southern hospitality and charm, the climate, and the sites.
Sites, you ask? Yes, Waco has some profoundly interesting and significant points of interest. I want to highlight two: the Suspension Bridge, the Alico, and Viteks. Ok, yes, that’s three. Have to give a shout out to the Gut Pak!
Opened to the public in 1870, the Waco Suspension Bridge heralded a new economic era for Waco. With the Brazos River stretching from the Texas-New Mexico border to the gulf, cowboys herding their cattle along the Chisolm Trail from south Texas to market in Kansas had to cross the river at some point.
Before 1870, cowboys had already begun to funnel through Waco because of the option to take a ferry across the Brazos or to ford their cattle at one of the low-water crossings. A bridge, however, was ultimately desirable because of expensive ferry prices and due to the loss of life inevitably associated with low-water crossings.
After the bridge’s commissioning, cattle-herders from all over the southern regions of our state began to funnel through sleepy Waco, Texas, bringing about tremendous economic development in the final decades of the 19th century.
Saloons, casinos, and gun fights briefly earned Waco the nickname Six-Shooter Junction, similar to Ft. Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre, before law enforcement tamed the wild west. In fact, so many cattle crossed the Suspension Bridge in its first year of existence – at five cents a head – that the Waco Bridge Company was able to fully pay off the mortgage by the time 1871 came to a close.
It’s nostalgic to look back at pictures from the turn of the 20th century, especially those captured by Fred Gildersleeve, and imagine what living in Waco would have been like as a thriving cow-town.
Today, as college students and Waco residents alike line up to toss tortillas onto the adjacent pilons, as racers finish marathons, as prom pictures are shot and tourists climb atop the size-and-a-half bronze statues depicting the “Branding of the Brazos,” we partake in the ongoing story of Waco that continues to be written.
I hope it is not lost on us that one of the most recognizable symbols of our city – indeed the central image in our city’s flag – is a bridge.
Practically speaking, bridges connect two masses of land, bringing people together and enabling commerce. Metaphorically speaking, a bridge can represent the exchange of ideas among an increasingly diverse populace.
The Suspension Bridge physically links downtown with East Waco, a historically and still predominantly African American section of town. In an age that is in desperate need of healthy dialogue and empathy – between races, socioeconomic classes, genders, religions, and so on – Waco seems uniquely poised to serve as an example to our nation and beyond of what it can look like for people of various backgrounds to live in relative harmony.
Just a few blocks away from the Waco Suspension Bridge stands the iconic Alico Building. Completed in 1911, the Alico was the tallest building west of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line for a solid decade… a fact I find to be wonderfully random.
More critically, however, the Alico was built with a steel frame, enabling it to withstand the F-5 tornado that ripped through downtown on the afternoon of May 11, 1953. Pictures taken of downtown before the tornado, as well as the memories of our more seasoned Wacoans who witnessed firsthand our downtown’s former glory, reveal a once-bustling metropolis.
In fact, before mid-century, Waco rivaled Austin and Dallas when it came to economic output, population growth, cultural relevance, and entertainment. But on that fateful afternoon in 1953, the tornado tied for being the deadliest twister in Texas’ history (claiming 114 lives) rolled through downtown, bringing down many of the buildings on top of unprepared workers and citizens.
As survivors climbed out of the rubble onto the barely-visible city streets, they took in a vastly altered skyline, with one giant exception. Though battered, the Alico building stood tall amidst the destruction.
The Alico has come to stand for more than just the Amicable Life Insurance Company. It has come to represent the resilience of a city that has seen its fair share of natural as well as human disasters. There is a deeper, more robust framework embedded in its citizenry that has enabled us to step out into the streets after the storm to see that Waco still stands.
A rich heritage of faith, education, an engaged citizenry, and practical concern for one-another’s neighbor have made Waco a desirable place to live, work, and raise a family.
Lastly, I want to leave you with 8 reasons to love Waco, TX:
- Chopped beef
Put all those together and not only do you take several weeks or months off your life expectancy, but you have a veritable explosion of happiness in your mouth via the Gut Pak – Vitek Barbeque’s take on the Frito pie.
If you haven’t had one, you are forgiven. It’s hard to articulate the glory of the Gut Pak in prose, so I leave you with a haiku:
Ode to the Gut Pak
Paragon of joy
Mick Murray grew up in Tulsa, OK and moved to Waco in 2001. He met his wife, Stephanie, when they attended Baylor University and they have made Waco their home, raising 4 boys and 5 chickens out on their land near China Spring. Mick has worked in finance and ministry for the past thirteen years and has widely varying interests, ranging from astronomy and physics to philosophy and economics. Writing is cathartic in this rather chaotic season of life, as well as running and virtually anything outdoors.