A reader asks: What was the first bridge in the city?

As early as the 1860s, small bridges crossed Waller and Shoal creeks, which ran roughly along the eastern and western boundaries of the city proper, now our downtown. They were eventually replaced by sturdier structures, such as an 1887 stone arch bridge over Shoal Creek at West Sixth Street, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Also in the 1860s — historians disagree on the exact date — a pontoon bridge, or floating structure, was constructed over the Colorado River at the foot of Congress Avenue.

The Chinese were the first to use floats or boats to support bridge spans at least 10 centuries ago. The Greeks, Persians and Romans frequently used pontoon technology, especially during military campaigns.

In keeping with Central Texas' history of droughts and floods, however, a rushing torrent destroyed ours not long after it was constructed.

Before and after the pontoon experiment, Austin depended on fords and ferries to cross the Colorado, including one named after the Swisher family at the later site of the Congress Avenue Bridge. All told, more than a dozen of these shallow ledges linked the shores of the river between Bastrop and what is now Lake Travis.

Why are they sometimes marked on old maps as “fords” and at other times as “ferries”?

City archivist Mike Miller produced the most elegant answer.

“It was seasonal,” he told a group of us searching for the Chisholm Trail crossings on the Colorado River one chilly morning a few years ago. “When the river was down, they were fords. When it was up, they were ferries.”

At least three more bridges spanned the Congress Avenue site after the pontoon washout. In 1876, a wooden toll bridge was built in the same spot. In 1883, a herd of cattle smacked into a mule-drawn wagon and the subsequent stampede damaged one span of the bridge and hundreds of cattle were flung into the river to their deaths.

That collapsed span was replaced in 1884 by a more modern bridge of metal trestles laid over limestone uprights. The price to cross the bridge on foot was five cents; for another nickel you could take your horse. At times, it was controlled by the Swisher family, who owned much of the land in South Austin, including what is now the Travis Heights and Bouldin neighborhoods.

In 1886, the city of Austin and the Travis County Road and Bridge Co. purchased this bridge. The city took complete control in 1891, by which time the toll had been abolished.

That bridge survived the big flood of 1900. When it was replaced by a concrete structure in 1910, sections of the old bridge were moved to Onion Creek just south of what is now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at a spot known as Moore’s Crossing. Located in Richard Moya Park, that old ghostly bridge is no longer safe for vehicles, but pedestrians stroll across it when the park is not restricted because of flood damage, which is not infrequent.

The 1910 Congress Avenue Bridge is our current one. It barely survived the three major floods of the 1930s before the large dams upstream protected its future. It was significantly strengthened and improved in 1980, which was when a colony of more than 1 million Mexican freetail bats moved into the grooves beneath the pavement. It was renamed after Gov. Ann Richards in 2006.

Speaking of pontoon bridges, the Waller Creek Conservancy has proposed throwing a new one over Lady Bird Lake not far downstream from the first one, reaching this time from the mouth of Waller Creek on the north to near the mouths of Blunn and East Bouldin creeks on the south.

MORE HISTORY

Bullock Texas History Museum steps into the 21st century.

Who is the Walsh Tarlton of Walsh Tarlton Lane?