In Kansas, stone arch bridges seem to exist mostly in concentrated areas. For instance, in Post Rock Country, there are many stone bridges that have been in use for around 100 years. Cowley County is famous for its stone arch bridges, while Butler County also has a large number of stone bridges, with some even spanning the Walnut River. Greenwood has a small handful of bridges, and less known are the stone arch bridges of Elk and Chautauqua counties.
The choice of stone was quite obvious in places where it was a readily available, inexpensive building material, such as Lincoln County in the heart of Post Rock Country. In fact, in Lincoln County, stone was pretty much the only material that was easily obtained. Therefore, stone fence posts, stone houses, and eventually stone bridges became widespread.
In the Cowley and Butler area, however, the rise of the stone arch bridge occurred for slightly different reasons. Cowley was noted for its wooded stream banks, and Butler certainly had trees, as well. Timber bridges of course suggested themselves and were used, but dissatisfaction with this method rapidly became apparent. Besides being vulnerable to floods, timber bridges were also vulnerable to decay. As evidenced by newspaper records, the early wooden bridges were in constant need of repair and were even quite treacherous, horses punching through the decks and other like mishaps not being uncommon. There were even reports of entire bridges falling to ruins after—or while—a crossing was being effected.
Iron truss bridges were quickly introduced, but as they still were equipped with wooden decks the problems were not entirely solved. Iron truss bridges also required paint—which most townships and counties nationwide seemed to have an aversion to at the time—were expensive, and were still not necessarily flood-proof.
As Walter Sharp, the stone arch bridge pioneer of Cowley, observed, after a devastating flood of Grouse Creek—one of the biggest waterways of Cowley County—only one of the 14 stone arch bridges on the creek was even damaged. This bridge, known as Sterling Bridge, was located below Silverdale and was damaged when enough debris was caught on the upper stones of the bridge to topple some of the stonework into the creek, although both arches survived. The damage was quickly remedied by the county. During the same flood, an iron truss bridge, also near Silverdale on Grouse Creek, slid off its abutments and landed in the creek as a wreck. This was not so easily remedied—hence bids were opened for its replacement.
Thus, the factor of cost combined with the desire for permanence led to a demand for stone arch bridges. While stone arch bridges cost about the same as iron bridges, the much lower maintenance requirements and much higher longevity led to their adoption.
The Role of Walter Sharp
Walter Sharp, who was largely responsible for bringing the benefits of stone arch bridges before the public, built several stone bridges in Marion County. Seeing his success, Butler and Greenwood counties followed suit. Cowley came on board after the county officials went with Walter Sharp on a tour of some of the Greenwood and Butler bridges. They were favorably impressed. In fact, the Cowley officials were so pleased that the stone arch bridge became the standard road bridge for years to come.
The citizens of Cowley were also well pleased, as most of the money for building the bridges remained in the county, local farmers being employed to build them. The stone was local, as well—typically quarried very close to the bridge site with farmers being paid for every stone they hauled. Needless to say, the farmers liked this system and took pride in their work.
Tributes to Their Builders
Floods came and went, but the solid majority of the stone bridges stood strong and undamaged. Some of them continue to fulfill their purpose today—carrying traffic from one bank to the other, a tribute to the local farmers who built them 100 years ago.
Stone Arch Bridges of Kansas
More about why stone was a popular choice of bridge material in Kansas.