What’s in a Name?

Downstream Face of Neer Bridge

Many of the old stone arch bridges around the world have names which, after a fashion, tell a tale of the history of the structure and, sometimes, the area around it. Others have obvious names that are not particularly informative, beyond, perhaps, what body of water the bridge is spanning. In Kansas, many of the stone bridges are named after various landowners who lived in the vicinity of the structure and whose land the bridge was on.

Bridges in Ireland

Frequently, bridges have more than one name. As an example, in Ireland, there is an old stone arch bridge called Monks Bridge. The name Monks Bridge heralds back to the days of medieval monasteries and, obviously, monks. Not so obvious is Monks Bridge’s other name — the Wooden Bridge! Obviously the stone bridge hardly merits this appellation, and the exact origin of this title is lost in the pages of history.

Another interestingly titled bridge in Ireland is the Babes Bridge, which, at one point in history at least, was known as “Robbers’ Bridge” — reminding one of highwaymen and brigands, although how exactly it gained this name is unknown. This bridge is so old that it features a Gothic pointed arch rather than a more conventional rounded one, yet, despite the fact that only one arch of this enormous bridge remains, it is a well-known landmark of the Emerald Isle.

Cowley, Kansas, Bridges

In Cowley, Kansas, the now gone Fox Bridge had several titles — McCaw, Ellis, and Howe Bridge being among the other names the bridge had been called over the years. These various names, after a fashion, spell out the various property owners who lived nearby, such as at the now abandoned farm overlooking the ruins of the once magnificent structure.

There are other Cowley bridges that retain the names of the early property owners on whose land the bridge was — the Neer and Fromm bridges being prime examples.

Downstream Face of Neer Bridge
Neer Bridge, Cowley, Kansas

The Stone Arch Bridge

In Minneapolis, the Stone Arch Bridge is a well-known structure built by the railroad baron James Hill. While admittedly not particularly original in title, and undoubtedly, one of several bridges worldwide with the same name, its title suggests that it is not just a stone arch bridge, it is the stone arch bridge — a monolithic structure spanning the mighty Mississippi River! More to the point, it was the stone arch bridge of Minneapolis; there was nothing else in the city like it, and hence if you said “The Stone Arch Bridge” there would be little doubt as to what you were referring to.

The Choice of Stone for Stone Arch Bridges
Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A Tale of Bridge Naming

Sometimes naming the bridge was something of a battle. A classic example was recorded in the newspapers of Butler County, Kansas — the (now gone) “Peter Johnson” Bridge. Periodically dubbed in the old newspapers “The Stone Arch Bridge,” like its older and (much) larger cousin in Minneapolis, the Peter Johnson Bridge was the scene of much controversy over naming.

As the story told in the old newspapers went, there was some dispute over where a new road near Leon, Butler, should go. Peter Johnson, who owned a farm where the new road should go, opposed putting the road on his property and proposed a new route for the road. However, his proposition did not gain any ground, as it would require extra bridges — being less than an ideal route — and the original proposition was adopted. As part of the new road, a stone arch bridge was ordered to be placed over the Little Walnut River on the land of Peter Johnson’s neighbor‘s — a Mr. Hyde.

As the bridge was being finished, much to the local people’s amazement, the name “Peter Johnson’s Bridge” appeared on the keystone. Walter Sharp, who was building the bridge, apparently had ordered the name put there. The people appealed to Walter Sharp and requested that he change the name of the bridge — after all, the bridge wasn’t even on Peter Johnson’s land. Mr. Hyde declared that he did not care to have the bridge named after himself, even though it was on his property, and would rather it be named Quito Bridge after a town wannabe in the area. (The town does not exist, and it is not clear if and how long it did exist.) Walter Sharp agreed to change the name, provided that Peter Johnson did not object to it. Peter Johnson, however, flatly refused. Later on, Peter Johnson’s name was removed from the bridge by an unknown hatchet wielder.

Some time later, Walter Sharp had to do some minor repair work on the bridge and, during the course of the work, was requested by Peter Johnson to engrave his name back onto the bridge. Walter Sharp declined, and Peter Johnson hired someone else to do the work. Shortly after his name was re-engraved onto the bridge, it met with the same fate as before, prompting Peter Johnson to have his name engraved yet again onto the bridge.

While it is unknown who the hatchet wielder was, it nevertheless remained apparent that the naming of this bridge was highly controversial. And, as was lamented in at least one newspaper, while this hatchet wielding did not harm the bridge, it did harm neighborly relations.

Undoubtedly, across the world, there are plenty of other tales of other highly disputed bridge namings waiting to be uncovered.