Cowley County is known as the stone arch bridge capital of Kansas. While something of a latecomer to the stone arch bridge building trend of this part of the state, Cowley quickly rose to become famous for its stone arch bridges. Shortly after the county built a stone arch bridge over Timber Creek, they undertook the building of what was heralded as the largest stone arch bridge in the state — the Dunkard Mill Bridge.
The Dunkard Mill Bridge is located outside Arkansas City and bridges the Walnut River just a few miles upstream of where it joins the Arkansas River. The original Dunkard Mill Bridge was an immense undertaking and was fraught with difficulties, including the collapse of an unfinished arch. Nevertheless, the work progressed until the river was spanned with three fifty-foot arches.
Shortly after the work, and before the bridge was even dedicated, a flood occurred that damaged the approaches to the bridge. The waters were also significantly obstructed by the insufficient capacity of the bridge. This led to the decision to add a fourth, slightly smaller arch to better handle the waterway.
After the smaller arch was completed, the dedication of the Dunkard Mill Bridge was attended by about 2,000 people celebrating by ceremony and picnic what was, at the time at least, the largest stone arch bridge in the state.
The bridge stood for several decades, but was destroyed in an immense flood in the 1940s. Now, over 70 years later, much of the old bridge still remains and its ruins are quite visible from the top of the new Dunkard Mill Bridge, including massive amounts of cut stones under the water, a foundation, and a collapsed arch.
Walter Sharp, Cowley’s foremost stone bridge builder, claimed to have built the longest single arch span in the state when he built the Goodnight Bridge, which spanned 64 feet. The Goodnight Bridge — like so many other stone bridges in Cowley — was named after the land owners on whose property the road crossed. The bridge spanned Grouse Creek, and was an early one of the many stone arch bridges on this rather treacherous waterway. The bridge was located near Dexter. Little remains of it today, save a shattered, overgrown remnant of one abutment and approach.
It was but a few years later that a new bridge with an enormous span of 70 feet was built in Cowley. The McCaw Ford Bridge, later known as the Fox bridge, was built near Cambridge by Abe Finney. Abe Finney, at various times of his life, was a quarryman, a stonemason, deputy sheriff of Cambridge, and also an accomplished trapper and photographer. While not as prominent of a stone bridge builder as Walter Sharp, Abe Finney built at least one other stone bridge arch bridge in Cowley (over Cedar Creek on the south side of Cambridge). The Fox Bridge, built with limestone quarried out of the nearby hillside, was a record bridge that received notice all across the state.
The Fox Bridge was a well-known landmark in Cowley for decades, situated in an area of open, rolling grasslands, and spanning the Grouse Creek in a relatively sparsely foliated area. It was a picturesque location certainly, with the sparkling waters of the creek placidly flowing by many feet below; however, the Grouse Creek is apt to be a tad treacherous. Extreme flooding in the area was causing deterioration to the Fox Bridge’s foundations as evidenced by several of the county’s bridge reports. The bridge stood the abuse for quite some time, however, until late in 2016 a flood destroyed the 100 plus-year-old bridge.
It was not long after Fox Bridge was built that Walter Sharp broke the state span record again with the H. Branson bridge. The H. Branson Bridge was built in 1908 over the Grouse Creek as well near Dexter in Cowley and spanned 5 feet longer than the Fox Bridge. That Walter Sharp was proud of his work in the H. Branson Bridge is evident, as he frequently mentioned it when writing for newspapers. It held the state stone arch bridge span record certainly into the ‘20s, if not even longer. Extensive research would be required to confirm this; however, it seems at least probable that it was the longest stone arch bridge span in Kansas until it collapsed in the 2000s, again likely due to undermining of the foundations.