As far as the southeastern part of Kansas is concerned, Cowley County was definitely a latecomer in the stone arch bridge business.
As early as 1877, Marion County was building stone arch bridges. 1877 also saw the construction of a stone arch bridge over the Cottonwood River in Florence. And when the town of Marion received its very own stone arch bridge over Mud Creek in the middle of town, the stone arch bridge era began in earnest for Marion County.
Morris County took a cue from Marion and began building stone arch bridges, and in 1886 Chase County began one of their earliest bridges—the Clements Bridge over the Cottonwood River. Butler County, while starting out with a healthy skepticism of “the stone bridge racket,” began to see the value of stone arch bridges (stone arch bridges did not regularly need new decks or paint like iron truss bridges did, and they had a desirable feature inasmuch as they did not float away in large floods like wooden bridges tended to) and proceeded to build them. Greenwood County took a hint from Butler County and built the quadruple-arch Gleason Ford Bridge around the turn of the century.
Then, in 1901, Cowley County entered the picture, eventually eclipsing all the other Kansas counties with their daring stone arch bridge projects.
Cowley County Decides on Stone Arch Bridges
By 1901, Cowley County was getting a little desperate. The county had numerous streams to bridge, and iron truss bridge companies had an effective monopoly in Cowley that kept their costs high. This, coupled with the seemingly never-ending repairs needed to keep their existing bridges standing, was draining the county’s coffers and impairing their ability to build new bridges.
Legend has it that the janitor of the Cowley County courthouse suggested that the commissioners try building stone bridges. The Cowley commissioners recognized the permanence of the stone arch bridge, but also understood that stone bridges cost more than other kinds of bridges. As the county was a little tight on funds, the Cowley commissioners did not feel that they could afford to pay for stone arch bridges, even if they did last longer and require less maintenance than iron or wooden bridges.
But the janitor argued that stone arch bridges did not need to cost much more than iron bridges. He knew of a man—Walter Sharp of El Dorado—who was building numerous stone arch bridges at affordable costs.
The result of this conversation was that the Cowley commissioners went on a tour of the stone bridges of Butler and Greenwood counties. They were so pleased with what they saw that they resolved to build stone bridges.
When, at the end of 1901, bids were opened for the building of a bridge over Timber Creek, Walter Sharp received the contract, despite his bid being slightly higher than the cost of an iron bridge. The Cowley commissioners explained that they thought the lower maintenance costs of a stone bridge would pay for their decision. Although a stone arch bridge had previously been built by the city of Winfield at Island Park, this was the county government’s first stone arch bridge. It was completed successfully. (The site of Timber Creek Bridge is now located underneath Winfield City Lake.)
The Cowley commissioners were pleased with their first stone arch bridge. To be sure, there were some difficulties encountered. As an example, according to Walter Sharp, landowners threatened to sue the county board for blocking up Timber Creek with a stone bridge. Nevertheless, because the stone and labor were local, most of the money for the bridge construction remained in the county, which fact was not lost on the people of Cowley.
Delighted with this success, the Cowley commissioners quickly set about advertising for the construction of the next two stone arch bridges: a single-arch bridge over Grouse Creek near Cambridge known as McCrabb Bridge, and a massive stone arch bridge over the Walnut River near Arkansas City known as Dunkard Mill Bridge.
By the end of May 1902, Walter Sharp had been awarded the contract for Dunkard Mill Bridge.
Planning Dunkard Mill Bridge
Dunkard Mill Bridge was the second stone arch bridge Cowley set out to build, though (due to its smaller size) Grouse Creek Bridge was actually completed first. Dunkard Mill Bridge was to be of unheard-of dimensions, consisting of three 50-foot Roman arches. This bridge had long been desired by the residents of Arkansas City, as crossing the Walnut River on the east side of the city was always a dangerous and even a potentially life-threatening experience.
Though the Cowley commissioners were confident in the ability of a stone arch bridge to withstand floods, according to Walter Sharp, the township board of Pleasant Valley Township protested the building of this stone bridge, apparently being concerned that the new, expensive stone arch bridge would fail in the next flood and prove to be a waste of money. Sharp said that Commissioner Huston quieted the objecting Pleasant Valley trustee by betting him a box of cigars that the bridge would stand for a year.
It was true that Dunkard Mill Bridge proved a little more expensive than originally thought. Sharp’s bid was $3,210, but shortly after he won the contract, the commissioners requested that he build the bridge two feet taller than originally planned. This raised the cost to $3,576. More changes were to come, though at a later time.
Building stone arch bridges was nothing new for Walter Sharp; he’d built stone bridges for several Kansas counties already. What was to make this undertaking different was the sheer size of the project. With three 50-foot-span Roman arches, this bridge was even bigger than Greenwood’s quadruple-arch Gleason Ford Bridge. (And, as it came to pass, Dunkard Mill bridge ended up being a quadruple-arch structure, as well, although that was not part of the original plan.)
As was common with Walter Sharp’s stone arch bridge projects, some of the local residents pitched in to build the bridge. This was an excellent way for a farmer to supplement his income and was a reason why stone arch bridges became popular in Cowley County. Furthermore, these farmers took pride in their work. As they were the ones who were going to be most benefited by the bridge, they cared more for the work than a typical construction workforce would.
In the correspondence reports of South Bend (as the area Dunkard Mill Bridge was located was called at the time) to the Winfield Courier, Dunkard Mill became a common topic. There were some complaints that the bridge was being built rather slowly (it was as late as October 1902 that the local newspapers learned from the county commissioners that work had begun), but it is apparent from the newspaper accounts of this bridge that there was, nevertheless, quite a bit of local enthusiasm for the project.
Note: Most of the information for this series came from old Kansas newspapers, including the Arkansas City Traveler, Weekly Republican Traveler, Winfield Courier, Walnut Valley Times, Wichita Daily Eagle, and Marion Record, among others.
Next week: Completion and Legacy
Why Cowley County Adopted the Stone Arch Bridge
More about the advantages of stone over wood and iron.