Introduction to the Bridge History
We began researching the history of the Lower Elgin Road bridge shortly after it sustained damage to the decking during the flood of May 2015. At the time, we were interested in locating funding to repair the decking to restore it to its pre-flood condition and knew that we would have to know the bridge story to be successful. At the outset, however, we didn’t know much about the bridge history, other than that the bridge was old and that, as recently as 1997, it carried all road traffic that crossed Wilbarger Creek on Lower Elgin Road. Because of its age, we weren’t sure that we would be able to find much information about the bridge when we first began this project. Ultimately, however, we were successful, but that success required overcoming several difficulties.
One of the first difficulties that we encountered was that some information we found was incorrect; for example, when we first began the research, Bridgehunters.com, a website dedicated to preserving information about bridges, listed the year of construction as 1910, rather than its actual construction date of 1888. The incorrect reporting of the year of construction slowed the research a bit, until we found information with the correct year.
Another difficulty that we encountered was that Bastrop County as it is now was very different in the days before the bridge was constructed. Most of the roads that exist now did not exist then, and the ones that did had different names. Lower Elgin Road is also currently known as County Road 55, but in the 1880s, it was known as Coats Road. Until we made the connection to the Coats family for whom the road was originally named, information about the bridge was difficult to find.
We realized shortly after beginning the research project that our research was focusing on two questions: ‘Who wanted this bridge?’ and’ ‘Why did they want it?’ These questions brought us to another difficulty that we had to overcome: to answer these questions, we had to step outside of our modern world-view and look at Bastrop County as it was then. For example, the process of obtaining provisions is easy today; it requires getting into our cars, making a short drive to either Bastrop or Elgin, and buying whatever it is that we need from one of many stores in the area. We may not even consciously notice crossing Wilbarger Creek or one of its tributaries that flow through the area, but water crossings were challenging in the past. In the earlier times, the trip was made either by wagon or horseback; although the distance was roughly the same as today, the time required to cover that distance was substantially longer. In those days, as a shopping convenience, store owners provided wagon yards behind their businesses to enable farmers to camp overnight (Arbuckle and Davis 2012). We also have many choices in terms of places to shop today, but that was not the case in the 1880s. The original questions of who wanted the bridge and why did they want it were eventually expanded to include the question of “How did people used to — ?” The eventual inclusion of that question expanded the research considerably, and eventually yielded very interesting information.
Our early research focused on the area near the bridge because we took it for granted that the families nearest the bridge may be the greatest beneficiaries of its construction. Because it was built on land originally owned by William Coats, Mr. Coats and his family were an early research topic. Research on the Coats family cemetery, which still exists near the bridge, yielded a great deal of information, but in the beginning, we had no idea of how this information would ultimately tie into the bridge history.
An early break in our research came in the form of the Texas Historic Bridge Inventory form that we obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. It provided the year of construction and bridge type, as well as other information. We knew that the information included on this form would ultimately be important, too, but it would take many more hours of searching for details to truly understand how and why it was important.
We now know that this little bridge, which has spanned Wilbarger Creek for 128 years, had a bidirectional effect on the agricultural, economic, and business development of the area by providing an affordable and easy means of transportation to enable farmers to get their crops to market. The expansion of agriculture in the Utley, Cedar Valley, and Union Hill communities, facilitated by the bridge through easy market access for farmers, provided the farmers with increased income and, consequently, increased ability to purchase goods and services in Elgin. Increased business demands provided entrepreneurial opportunities, leading to the development of additional business and banking establishments and to continued growth in the area.
As the information about the agricultural, business, and economic developments began coming together, we were often surprised at the direction that our research had led. At the outset, we had only hoped to be able to find background information about the bridge. As we dug deeper into the bridge background, the history of Bastrop County, and the developments of the area that began in the post-Civil War era, however, the research yielded results that far exceeded our minimal hopes. In the end, we realized that the deeper level of understanding the importance of this bridge is not found in the date of its construction, its design, or its location. Although all of these elements are important, the deeper importance of the bridge must be understood within the historical context of both the days before it was constructed and its subsequent effects on the business/economic development of Elgin and on the agricultural/economic development of the surrounding area.
We are pleased to be able to tell the story of the bridge.
Ernie Nance and Debra Ferguson