Waco, one of the state's most important cities, was named after Waco Village, a Native American community along the Brazos River. Laid out in 1849, Waco became the county seat of McLennan County shortly thereafter, the center of a growing cotton economy of small plantations on the Brazos River Bottoms. During the Civil War, residents supported the Confederacy through the manufacture of cotton cloth at the Waco Manufacturing Company and by providing local men as soldiers in more than seventeen companies. Following the war, the town experienced significant problems between races, and a race riot in the 1860s. During the 1870s and 1880s, cattle trails from southern and coastal Texas converged at Waco, continuing north to the Red River and Kansas. Waco provided supplies and support for the cattle drives and revitalized its cotton industries. Waco's suspension bridge ( WT16) offered the best crossing of the Brazos River. This crossing and the Waco and Northwestern Railroad, along with two additional railroads in the 1880s, fueled the local economy, expanding the business district and industrial areas. At the turn of the twentieth century, Waco was one of the leading cotton distribution centers in the world. Additionally, Waco became home to Baylor University ( WT17) in 1886 and Paul Quinn College ( WT20) in 1881.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Waco became popular for some of the state's most active and well-known architects, including Milton W. Scott, Roy E. Lane (formerly with Sanguinet and Staats), T. Brooks Pearson, and Glenn H. Allen. As well as designing commercial buildings, they were hired by prominent business leaders for their houses along Austin, Washington, and Franklin avenues. A residential enclave and a small commercial area developed east across the Brazos River along Elm Street. In the early twentieth century, the city ran streetcars to its growing neighborhoods and, in 1913, was connected to Dallas by an interurban railway.
During World War I, the U.S. Army's Camp MacArthur doubled the city's population. Following the war, rural African Americans moved into the city for better jobs, creating a strong middle-class community that also began an era of segregation that placed African American families mostly in East Waco. The cotton industries began to decline during these decades, but other industries of substance formed between World War I and World War II. In 1942, the Waco Army Flying School set up a base north of the city and supportive defense industries appeared in the vicinity of Waco. The city also became the armed forces' leading manufacturer of cots, tents, mattresses, and barracks bags.
After World War II, the U.S. Air Force adopted the former Army Flying School grounds and renamed it James Connally Air Force Base. General Tire and Rubber Company set up the first major tire factory in the Southwest in southeast Waco and the Veterans Administration enhanced its presence with a hospital in South Waco ( WT47).
In May 1953, the central business district suffered a devastating tornado that killed more than 114 residents and destroyed 196 buildings and damaged another 396. This challenged the city's potential for growth, but despite this, in 1958 Waco began an aggressive campaign of urban renewal. In 1967 Waco became part of the Model Cities program for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program led to the demolition of hundreds of houses and commercial buildings as well as new construction, including a downtown pedestrian mall along Austin Avenue that was removed in the 1980s. Waco is sustained today by remnants of federal government programs and agencies, Baylor University, and its appeal as a regional commercial and business venue.
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