Do you love those picturesque stone arch bridges in Cowley County, Kansas? Do we know the website for you to visit!
StoneArchBridges.com is a unique blend of history, physics, how-to, and photography. It offers well-researched information about bridges in Kansas (and other places, as well!) that can be extremely difficult to find anywhere else.
Just to give you a flavor of what this site is about, past topics have included:
One of the many things we love about this site is that the author has really taken the time to get to know the subject. He has traveled Kansas extensively, dug through old newspaper clippings for obscure information, and even built a small stone arch bridge in his own backyard.
Whether your interest is architecture, Kansas tourism, or backyard masonry, you are sure to find something of interest here. (And be sure to browse around for some great photos!)
While you’re at it, you may also be interested in the reading the posts the stone arch bridge expert has written for Homestead on the Range. Enjoy!
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.
The stone arch bridges of Cowley County, Kansas, have intrigued many over the years with their simple gracefulness, their apparently gravity-defying construction, and their massive scale, frequently involving the use of individual stones that are, well, huge.
How were these bridges erected, especially considering that they were built before modern construction techniques and equipment? And what keeps them standing, anyway?
How Arches Work
To begin with, a brief survey of how arches work is in order here.
How does an arch fight gravity? By using gravity! Each individual block in the arch is a wedge. As we go around the arch, each wedge rests on the next. When all the wedges are in place, none of them can move because of their neighbors. After all, for one block to go down, the other ones would have to move up and out. Gravity pushing down equally on all the blocks makes them stable.
Given the weight and the massive amount of friction of the stones, the arch can be an entirely free-standing structure. Add the amount of fill material on top required to make the roadway, and the arch is even stronger, the extra weight pushing the stones even more firmly into place.
The stones can be any size and thickness, provided that they are wedges—even if the angle is microscopic or if the correct angle is largely made up of smaller stone chips and wedges—and provided that they follow the line of the arch. What does that mean? Well, in a Roman arch (half of a circle) the radius is drawn from the center. Every joint (where a stone meets a stone) should be in line with the radius; if the line formed by the joint were continued straight, it should land in the center of the arch for a Roman arch or to wherever the radius lines start from—below the start of the arch for a flatter segmental arch.
A Roman arch in Otter Creek Bridge, Greenwood County, Kansas. The arch starts flat on the pier.
A segmental arch in a bypassed road bridge in Elk County. The arch starts at an angle from the abutment.
In practice, there is quite a bit of leeway in how close to radial the joints are. In Ireland, for instance, there are numerous examples of early stone arch bridges with joints that are anything but radial. These are not only still standing, but are still being used hundreds of years later. Arches are surprisingly forgiving.
To sum up how an arch works, it is the individual stones that make the arch stand, and, at the same time, the line of the arch that makes the individual stones stay in place.
The fact that all the stones are required for the arch to stay put and that the arch shape is required for all the stones to stay in place brings up a rather important fact in arch construction: A temporary form is required for the arch to stand while the two halves of the arch are being built up toward the center.
There are several ways to do this. There is the crude-but-effective method of piling soil up in a rounded heap and building the arch on this. When completed, the soil is dug out, and the arch stands. Wooden frameworks were also common and were used in Cowley, as evidenced by newspaper photographs. Cowley was well known for its timbered waterways, which is undoubtedly why timber was frequently used. As the form work is temporary, the wood does not have time to decay, eliminating the problem Cowley had with “permanent” wooden bridges.
Placing the Stones
The way the stones (which are certainly rather large) were placed in the Cowley stone bridges is also rather amazing: man-and-horse power.
A mason’s derrick, essentially a hand-powered crane, was erected. It was geared down such that a person could lift even the largest stones. The stones could be turned by hand while suspended in the air and, when in position, lowered into place.
The stones were hauled to the site by horses and sledges. One stone was the typical maximum load!
By using methods as simple as these, the farmers of years gone by were able to build these enduring structures, some of which are still in use today.
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.
Butler County, Kansas, has had many stone arch bridges built over the years, about 20 of which still remain on the road system. These bridges were important to the progress of the county and represent an era when good roads were considered important for the establishment of trade. Many of these stone bridges are still fairly well known, such as the Polecat Creek Bridge, but how many bridges remain unknown?
It was a cold winter day. Driving along Bluestem Road, we crossed Rock Creek. We had been on this crossing many times before and had seen stones along the road, like the approaches for an old stone arch bridge, but the actual crossing consists of some sort of a corrugated metal structure. This time we decided to see how much of the old bridge remained.
Stopping and looking around quickly showed that, apparently, the stone bridge’s span had been replaced and some concrete added to help support the “modern” bridge. That was that—so it appeared.
Heading back to the truck, something caught our eye. Beyond the bridge…were those cut stones showing through the road gravel? And what was that metal rail doing by that dry, shallow channel? Curiosity aroused, we looked—and there, almost completely buried, were two arches of a stone bridge! Only one side of the bridge showed at all, the other end terminating completely underground, but nevertheless there was a long-forgotten stone arch bridge!
This buried bridge is located about one mile south of SE 210th on Bluestem Road in Clay Township, Butler County, Kansas. It is located a short distance from where the road crosses Rock Creek, high and dry. Yet, it would appear that it used to span Rock Creek, as will be shown.
“…Also the sum of $500 for the construction of a double arch bridge consisting of two 18 foot arches, across the Rock Creek on the section line between sections 20 and 21, township 29, range 3 east, Clay Township.”
This offer appeared in the Butler County Democrat from El Dorado on August 25, 1899. On the same date, the Augusta Weekly Gazette announced, “Bids will be advertised…. Also for a bridge of two 18-foot arches across Rock Creek at Watz’s ford in Clay township.”
A check of a 1905 Butler plat map showed the site for this bridge as described by the Butler County Democrat to be precisely where the partly buried double-arch stone bridge is located. The plat map showed the surrounding land to be owned by “Geo. Walz.” While the name is very close to the “Watz” printed in the Augusta Weekly Gazette, somebody obviously spelled it wrong, that somebody being the Gazette. This is borne out by an article from the Walnut Valley Times from January 12, 1900:
“The commissioners had a long hard drive yesterday. They went down to inspect the bridge on the Walz ford in Clay township. They got lost on the road home and didn’t get back until midnight.”
This not only showed the correct spelling of the landowner’s name, but also confirmed that this turn-of-the-century bridge was built and is almost certainly the same one that lies partly buried under the road.
The question remains—who built the bridge?
That is a tough question. On January 31, 1900, the Walnut Valley Times reported that “Walter Sharp has completed a double 18 foot span, stone arch bridge across Rock Creek near Church Price’s in Clay township.” This could be the same bridge, and the date works out—but why is “Church Price’s” mentioned instead of “the Walz ford?” Furthermore, while C.M. Price lived in the vicinity and had land on Rock Creek, as shown on the plat map, none of his land abutted the bridge site and his house was well away from the creek itself.
Our research was unable, at the time of this writing, to confirm who built the bridge. An in-depth study, perhaps at the Butler County courthouse, might be able to determine this point.
More Hidden Stone Arch Bridges?
The Walz Ford Bridge represents one forgotten bridge still buried under the road. How many more stone arch bridges lie hidden under Kansas roadways?
Kansas certainly has its share of oddities, not the least of which are some of its unique small towns.
Many lists of strange Kansas town names have been made already, but there are still some peculiar names that are frequently overlooked. Allow us to share the 10 Kansas towns that have, in our opinion, the strangest names, along with some background on the origin of those names as far as is known.
10. Dry Wood
Dry Wood is a ghost town and former railroad station in Crawford County, about halfway between Fort Scott and Pittsburg. The post office only lasted from 1894 to 1915. Prior to that, the town site was a Civil War post for about a year starting in the fall of 1862. The primary purpose of Camp Drywood was to defend the Kansas border against Confederate guerilla fighters, but it also temporarily served as a refuge for Unionist Indians fleeing present-day Oklahoma. The town and the camp both took their names from nearby Drywood Creek, presumably named for its belts of native forest.
Speed may sound like a strange name for a town, but it was actually the surname of Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general, James Speed. Speed is a tiny town located in Phillips County. In 2010, Speed had 37 residents.
In keeping with the fast-paced theme, Kansas also boasts a Hasty. This ghost town is located in Woodson County and appears to never have been a community of any considerable importance. It was likely named for the Hasty family of that county.
Agenda comes from the Latin word for “list of matters to be attended to by the assembly” or, to put it more concisely, “things to be done.” Agenda, located in Republic County, boasted a post office and a railroad station before the town officially existed. While the details of the name selection have been lost over time, presumably it came from the agenda of the locals regarding establishing a town.
6. May Day
The story goes that May Day in Riley County was so named by its postmaster because the post office opened on May 1 in 1869, 1870, or 1871. Records at the Kansas Historical Society show that the post office actually opened on April 13, 1871. Apparently the postmaster considered it close enough.
5. Good Intent
Located in Atchison County, Good Intent was populated by Catholic farming families and early on known for its Sunday school. The name Good Intent appears to have been an expression of religious sentiment.
Ransom in Ness County was originally named Ogdensburg, but was renamed in honor of General Thomas E.G. Ransom. General Ransom was a surveyor and civil engineer by trade. He served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War, receiving severe wounds in the Battle of Shiloh and leading his soldiers up to his very last moments before dying of dysentery.
Deerhead, once home to a small colony of Russian Jews, is located in Barber County and shares its name with the surrounding township. Deerhead Township had a population of 14 people in 2010. No explanation has been found for the name of the town or the township. Presumably it was a prime hunting location in its day.
2. Red Onion
Red Onion was a mining community in Crawford County. The name is considered a typical example of mining camp whimsy.
1. Swamp Angel
Swamp Angel is an abandoned community in Pottawatomie County with a name that remains something of a mystery. While the lost community does appear to have been located in a flood plain, some researchers contend that the name comes from a historic cannon nicknamed “Swamp Angel.” This cannon was used by the Union army to besiege Charleston, South Carolina, during the Civil War.
There is so much to love about the Weather Notebook that it is hard to know where to start. There is one page for every day of the year (including February 29), with each page allowing you to compare four years of weather records side by side. Every day, you will have ample room to record:
Current conditions (sunny, rainy, cloudy, etc.).
Special weather or personal events.
Every page also offers a tidbit of weather folklore.
Now for the nice touches that really make this journal shine. This book has a vinyl cover, tight binding, and thick pages, making it very durable. It also includes a ribbon for keeping your place. And then there are all the weather facts, located about mid-month every month and packed with information on a variety of weather-related topics:
Temperature conversion formulas.
The Beaufort scale.
Safe ice thicknesses.
Every page of weather facts also includes a little bit of weather history and an “Ask the Old Farmer” section.
And for the icing on the cake—how about the beautiful color photography scattered liberally throughout the journal? These breathtaking photos depict weather in all its moods, fair and foul.
If you have been following us for a while, you are probably familiar with our previous favorite weather journal, The Weather Wizard’s 5-Year Weather Diary, now out of print. We are very pleased to have found this substitute, and we heartily recommend The Old Farmer’s Almanac Weather Notebook as a far superior product. The only inconvenience you may experience when making the switch is getting used to the binding—The Weather Wizard’s 5-Year Weather Diary was spiral-bound and could lie flat on a desk. However, this design was also very prone to torn pages and would fall apart well before the five years were up. The Old Farmer’s Almanac Weather Notebook does not lie flat, but it is much sturdier.
Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense) grows sturdy upright stems ranging from two to eight feet in height. Some stems are branched and others are not, but one thing can be counted on with this species—there will be quite a few of them packed into each clump! Look for a pink or red color near the base of the stem, if you can comb through the thick clumps well enough to find any bases.