As of this writing, a year has passed since the first flood in Bastrop County in 2015, and the research about the history of the Lower Elgin Road bridge is largely complete. We have come a long way from those early days in which we really didn’t know much about the bridge history—other than that it was old—and when we wondered whether or not any information about its early days would still exist.
That the construction of the bridge played a large role in the economic and agricultural development of the Union Hill, Cedar Valley, and Utley area was somewhat of a surprise to us. Of course, in the early days of our research, we were still attempting to look at the bridge history through the viewpoint of our modern era, which had to change before we could make much progress toward uncovering information about the bridge. That the bridge simultaneously played a significant role in the business and economic development of the new little town of Elgin was also a surprise. Elgin, after all, has always existed during our lifetimes; consequently, it was initially very easy to assume that, not only had it always existed, but that it had always existed more or less the same as it is today.
Many times in the research, we had to step outside of our historical focus and remind ourselves that life at the time that the bridge was built was very different from our current times. Not only was there no Internet or email, there also was no indoor plumbing, washing machines, air conditioning, or refrigeration. At the time that the bridge was built, a trip to town was a long journey, either by wagon or horseback, and the store owners provided wagon yards behind the businesses, enabling the farmers to camp overnight for their shopping convenience (Arbuckle and Davis 2012). A trip to town in those days required far more time than a quick trip to WalMart or HEB requires today. When the bridge was built, human flight was impossible, women couldn’t vote, and penicillin had not yet been invented. The world has changed dramatically during the last 128 years; through it all, the little bridge has spanned Wilbarger Creek and, for more than 100 years, met the transportation needs for the people in the area.
As we sifted through large amounts of information in our search for the answers to ‘Who wanted this bridge?’ and ‘Why did they want it?’ we found the details that we were looking for, but we also found something that is a bit more profound. In the days immediately following the Civil War, the people of Bastrop County were suffering. The end of the war suddenly meant that the Confederacy-issued money was worthless, the gold had long-since been used for the war effort, and the old ways of life were suddenly gone. At a basic, survival level, people were hungry, and at a psychological level, there was a pervasive sense of defeat. To get through these times, the people had to find a way to survive, define a new ‘normal’, and manage to grow, despite the economic devastation and the level of defeat that they felt.
Although the county had no funding for its development in the years following the Civil War, county officials created the system of roads that is still largely used today, and the people built and maintained the sections of the roads that were adjacent to their property. The development and expansion of the railroad system also provided opportunities for the people of Bastrop County, and was privately funded by companies and individuals. At the time that the Bastrop County Commissioner’s Court accepted the bid and approved the construction of the group of bridges that includes the Lower Elgin Road bridge, the County had to secure the funding with bonds. From the destitution that was prevalent at the end of the Civil War, Bastrop County in general—and Elgin in particular—emerged as an economically viable area as a result of the expansion of its business and agricultural developments. Both were made possible by the railroad growth and by the construction of the bridge over Wilbarger Creek. The successful emergence of the County from its post-Civil War destitution is a testament to the forward-thinking of the County leaders of the time and to the willingness of both the leaders and the citizens to create innovative solutions, despite the shortage of available funding.
One of the questions that ultimately came to mind as we neared the end of the bridge history research is whether or not the growth of both Bastrop County and Elgin would have been possible without the construction of the Lower Elgin Road bridge. The consideration of that question, however, leads to other questions: Would the agricultural evolution in the County have occurred without the bridge? Would the farmers have expanded their cotton planting if getting the crop to market had continued to be either by rafting their full harvest down the Colorado River to Matagorda, as was done in the pre-Civil War days, or getting their cotton wagons and teams of oxen up and down the steep banks of the river at Nash’s Ferry? The agricultural expansion brought increased revenue into the County, with which the people patronized the new businesses and banks in Elgin—but would the businesses and the banking industry have grown anyway? As we’ve considered these questions, we realize that we’ll never actually know the answers, but even if the County had managed to survive and thrive without the bridge and the opportunities that it provided, its development would have been different. The agricultural, business, and economic development of Bastrop County and Elgin were directly related to the bridge; without it, many things would either not have evolved or would have evolved differently.
In pondering the history of Bastrop County and Elgin, we realized that patterns of the past can indicate future successes. In the recent past, Bastrop County has experienced two fires and two flood events, all of which were catastrophic in the areas of the County in which they occurred. The damage to the Lower Elgin Road bridge, as major as it was, is still small in comparison to the losses that the people have experienced as a result of the fires and the floods. An assessment of the more-distant past, however, indicates that Bastrop County has a long history of innovative solutions to problems, even when there is a shortage of funds; consequently, we can feel confident that a solution to the repair of the bridge will also emerge.
Ernie Nance and Debra Ferguson