Kansas has always been a premier candidate for stone arch bridges. Stone is plentiful in most of the state. The post rock of the Smoky Hills region is a very well-known example of this, and it is not surprising that counties such as Lincoln and Russell have numerous stone arch bridges in them.
In eastern Kansas, timber was much more common (at least along streams) than in the western parts of the state, so, even in regions with plenty of stone, timber bridges were often built—at first. Timber rots and, due to its buoyant properties, tends to make a bridge vulnerable to floods. This was not a popular trait in bridges, to put it mildly, so counties quickly shifted to iron truss bridges on iron and/or stone abutments.
As the years progressed, iron truss bridges began to diminish in favor. Irritatingly, the wooden decks of these bridges still rotted out, and iron trusses still could be toppled in floods. To top this off, iron truss bridge companies effectively had something of a monopoly in this region of Kansas.
Plans for a Bridge
In Greenwood County, the commissioners decided to try out a stone arch bridge for something different and more permanent. Butler County, at the time, had already begun to build stone arch bridges with success (Butler County had in turn been inspired by Marion County, which had been building stone arch bridges from an early date). Greenwood commissioners “decided to put in a stone arch bridge of the pattern used in Butler county…” (Democratic Messenger, May 4, 1899—the newspaper was located in Eureka, Greenwood County).
Cowley County, at a later date, followed suit as well, eventually exploiting the Flint Hills limestone to build some massive bridges over Grouse Creek. However, unlike Cowley, which started first with a relatively small bridge over Timber Creek before tackling the big streams, Greenwood County decided that their first stone arch bridge was going to be something quite large. This bridge was to be built over the Fall River a few miles from Eureka.
Despite their jokes that the new bridge would be the biggest stone arch bridge west of the Mississippi, apparently the steel bridge companies were rather concerned about their future business potential in Greenwood County with this new development in the county’s bridge tastes. According to Walter Sharp’s account written in 1920 in a newspaper series that appeared in the Wichita Daily Eagle titled “A Story About Good Roads,” Sharp was offered a bribe by the steel bridge companies if he “would quietly slip away and go back home and stay there.” Be that as it may, Walter Sharp did not “slip away,” but won the contract and began building the first stone arch bridge Greenwood County ordered. This bridge, known as the Gleason Ford Bridge, was to be a quadruple-arch structure, with each arch being a well-rounded 36-foot span. Walter Sharp’s bid was $2,200.
The Success of the Bridge
In honor of the success of this great undertaking, a simply enormous celebration was held. According to Walter Sharp:
All business was suspended in Eureka, everybody shut up shop and went to the picnic and they came from everywhere.
W. Hoch of Marion, Kansas made the address; 5000 people were there; the Eureka band furnished the music; the merry-go-round went round; the three stands did an immense business; one of the main features was the picture man who made and sold pictures of the crowd on the bridge.
—From the first installment of “A Story About Good Roads” by Walter Sharp, which appeared in the Wichita Daily Eagle on October 24, 1920
Bridges were not taken for granted in those days as they are now, and the spanning of a large stream—especially with such a monumental and permanent structure—was cause for celebration. People would gather around for the celebration, and new friends and acquaintances would be made. There were many “bridge picnics” in those years, but the Gleason Ford Bridge celebration was one of the largest.
That the Gleason Ford Bridge (which Walter Sharp in his “Story About Good Roads” called simply “the Fall river bridge”) was a success there can be but little doubt. Walter Sharp stated that he built no fewer than 10 stone arch bridges for Greenwood County in 1901, and it is obvious from this that the Greenwood County commissioners were pleased with the performance and durability of stone arch bridges in adverse circumstances, as demonstrated by the Gleason Ford Bridge. As Sharp observed, “This bridge was hit with a full fledged cyclone about three years after it was built. The floods, the wind and time have made no change in the Fall river bridge.”
The Gleason Ford Bridge, whose four arches appeared in newspapers and postcards of the time is now no longer in existence. The Gleason Ford Bridge was, nevertheless, a milestone structure, and Greenwood County still has several stone arch bridges that were built following the success of the county’s first stone arch bridge: the Burnt Creek Bridge near Reece, the Homer Creek Bridge near Tonovay, the well-known North Branch Otter Creek Bridge, and a double-arch bridge over the Fall River, a sort of a smaller version of the Gleason Ford Bridge.