Dunkard Mill Bridge
A famous photograph of Dunkard Mill Bridge from an old postcard

In a January 22, 1903, edition of the Winfield Courier, South Bend reported that the first arch of Dunkard Mill Bridge was finished and that this new bridge was becoming a regular attraction. It was generally recognized that watching the bridge go up was quite a sight to see.

The Accident

But the very next day, January 23, an accident occurred. The middle span of Dunkard Mill Bridge fell into the river. Thankfully no one was killed or even injured, but the cost of the damage was estimated to be $1,000.

The reason the arch collapsed was that the workmen pulled the formwork out from under the arch too soon. The stones were in place, it is true, but the arch had not been grouted yet. Walter Sharp, in an endeavor to keep his costs low, relied on pouring a strong grout mixture into the joints between the interior arch stones to make the necessary angles. This meant that he did not need precisely cut arch stones, which allowed him to use local, low-cost labor rather than hire expensive professional stonecutters. That said, he did keep the facing stones of his arches precisely cut. This gave his bridges a clean look and also tended to help protect the arch from debris impacts. In the case of Dunkard Mill Bridge, the arch immediately collapsed when the formwork was removed, as the grouting had not been completed yet.

Just why the workmen pulled the form out of the unfinished arch is something of a mystery. Sharp’s account suggested the workmen had somehow run out of things to do, so just pulled the arch form out (Walter Sharp was not at the worksite when the accident occurred). Another newspaper account put it down to a misunderstanding of orders.

Not only did the mishap cause delay and extra expense, it reinforced people’s misgivings about this ambitious undertaking. Fortunately, the foundation of the arch was not damaged, and Walter Sharp sprang back into action in short order.

In fact, so quickly did Walter Sharp continue, that it became apparent he would be finished before spring was over, the estimated date of completion for the bridge being May 20, 1903. Talk of a mighty celebration floated around, and it is safe to say that Walter Sharp’s perseverance won the day.

Finishing the Bridge

By February, the Winfield Daily Courier reported for the benefit of the people of Cowley that the Wichita Eagle thought that Cowley County was becoming very artistic with its triple-arch bridge, which they noted would be the biggest of its kind in the state of Kansas.

In the May 1 edition of the Arkansas Valley Democrat, it was reported that Walter Sharp expected to be finished before May 20. Walter Sharp had by that time engraved the name of the Cowley commissioners on the bridge, as well as the names of the county clerk and county treasurer. Sharp reportedly stated that he added the last two names to guarantee that he would have no trouble being paid.

By May 8, Dunkard Mill Bridge was complete save for the approaches. On May 14, the Winfield Courier noted that Sharp had completed the contract for Dunkard Mill Bridge and had been awarded another stone arch bridge contract on Grouse Creek.

Walter Sharp expected that Dunkard Mill Bridge would be dedicated in the first week of June, but this proved not to be the case, for another change of plans followed. A flood occurred, and it quickly became apparent that Dunkard Mill Bridge did not exactly have sufficient waterway—the bridge backed up the Walnut River to a considerable degree. It was resolved to add a fourth, slightly smaller arch to the bridge. This addition added $1,200 to the price tag of the bridge, but was considered to be worth it.

The county commissioners accepted the bridge early in September 1903.

A Grand Celebration

It was decided to celebrate the completion of this massive structure with a giant picnic, accompanied by band music and speeches. On September 23, the picnic came off and was deemed, at least by the Arkansas City Daily Traveler, to be the most successful picnic ever held in Cowley County. Approximately 2,000 people attended. The day was perfect, the scenery was picturesque, and the bridge! The bridge was recognized as a spectacular structure, and, as the Traveler observed, if you did not go down to the water’s edge to look up, you were missing a great view of this monolithic structure.

The band played a concert, and played again between each speech. A vote of thanks was given to the board of Cowley commissioners for their contribution to the county. The crowd was friendly and cordial, friends were met and made, and it is safe to say that for many the Dunkard Mill Bridge picnic was a cherished memory for years to come.

At the end of the celebration, the crowd gathered on the bridge, and a photograph was taken, to be displayed later for all to see. It would appear that this photograph became somewhat famous, for some old postcards display a picture of Dunkard Mill Bridge with an enormous crowd gathered on it.

The Legacy of Dunkard Mill Bridge

It is safe to say that the success of Dunkard Mill Bridge and its withstanding of later severe floods sealed the stone bridge matter, as far as Cowley County was concerned. After the bridge was finished, a resident representing South Bend said in the Arkansas City Daily Traveler that they all appreciated the new bridge. In the years to follow, stone arch bridges began to appear rapidly all across the county. All resistance to stone arch bridge construction seemed to melt away entirely.

Already while Dunkard Mill Bridge was being built there was talk of putting up a new stone arch bridge over the canal in Arkansas City. The smaller Grouse Creek and Polecat Creek bridges were successful, and, when a contract was about to be let for a stone arch bridge near Rock, a contributor from that town writing for the Winfield Courier concluded with an enthusiastic cry of, “Hurrah for our county commissioners! Hurrah for Cowley county in general and hurrah for Rock in particular!”

Dunkard Mill Bridge is long gone, although significant ruins of it remain visible to this day. The only bridge left that is even close to it in size is the triple-arch Pudden Bridge near Dexter, though, as of the time of this writing, it is in a sad state and in imminent danger of being forever lost.

However, Cowley still has numerous stone arch bridges left to see and enjoy, some of them quite large. These bridges not only connect two banks of a stream, but, after a fashion, the past with the present. Whether it is the story of Neer Bridge and how the current stone arch bridge is built over the ruins of the first; or how “Doc” Daniel Smith built a stone arch bridge over Timber Creek that is still there to this day; or the simple everyday stories of picnics, Fourth of July celebrations, and the like that surround the history of Jordan Bridge (Andes Bridge) over Silver Creek, much of the history of Cowley County and its people is linked to these graceful structures, still spanning streams as they have been for many years.

We hope you enjoy the famous stone arch bridges of Cowley County, and we hope these structures will stand for future generations to enjoy and as a connection to the story of Cowley and of those who have come before.

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.