A Cowley County Stone Arch Bridge Before Its Time: The Island Park Bridge

Old Island Park Bridge

Cowley County, Kansas, is well known for its large stone arch bridges. The county began building stone arch bridges in 1901, after Walter Sharp made clear to the county board that quality stone arch bridges could be made at an affordable cost. The first bridge the county made was a single arch span over Timber Creek. It was a success. Yet before the Cowley County government built stone arch bridges, Cowley County had a stone arch bridge in Winfield. The city of Winfield, in Cowley County, Kansas, has always been rather proud of its picturesque park, known as Island Park. This park is located in the northern part of the city, and has been there for over a century. A bridge was (and still is, for that matter), not surprisingly, the main entrance to this scenic spot, and it was at this main entrance that an early stone arch bridge was built.

A Stone Arch Bridge for the Entrance of Island Park

A shaky timber structure spanned this gap at the entrance of Island Park for some years, until at the beginning of January in the year 1900, the city council decided to build a permanent structure at the entrance to this picturesque park. The old wooden bridge had already been deemed dangerous, being significantly rotted. Something had to be done. A proposition was made: build a stone arch bridge. This idea struck the council’s fancy, and it was decided to secure bids both for a stone arch bridge and for repairing the old bridge, which in the meantime was kept closed.

The decision that the Winfield City Council eventually reached was, incidentally, the same one the Cowley County government would reach the following year: build a stone arch bridge, as it would last longer and be cheaper in the long run than a wooden structure. The city council received one bid for a stone arch bridge by Joe Craft, who for $387 offered to build a single arch with a 15’ span and 30’ width. Mr. Craft was awarded the contract to build the bridge at the entrance of Island Park, and was to begin work as soon as the weather would cooperate.

The Island Park Stone Arch Bridge

It did not take Mr. Craft very long to build the bridge. The arch itself was completed and then the approaches were filled. As it happened, most of the bridge was actually approach, the complete fill-retaining walls being nearly 80 feet in length and rising over the arch of the bridge to a height of four feet. The amount of fill required, then, for the bridge was simply enormous. The dirt was apparently obtained from a cellar that was being excavated.

By March 31, 1900, the bridge was completed enough to use. As there were some concerns about the dirt fill of the bridge settling, the roadway was temporarily “paved” with cinders until time and traffic should pack the dirt down enough for the bridge to receive a stone and gravel finish. The street commissioner was optimistic that he would have this temporary filling done soon. The bridge appeared to be a success. At the time, it was stated that Joe Craft had done a first-class job. Even before the bridge was completed it was predicted that it would be “a beauty,” and after it was finished the park was well patronized with vehicles. All that was needed was for this massive amount of loose fill to settle.

Old Island Park Bridge
A view of the entrance of Island Park, showing the top of the bridge in the foreground. This photo is taken from the April 15, 1909, edition of the Winfield Courier.

Trouble with the Stone Bridge at the Entrance of Island Park

And the fill most certainly did settle. After some heavy rains, the roadway across the bridge was full of holes. It was noted by the Winfield Daily Courier on May 18, 1900, that several loads of gravel or cinders would be required to make the roadway level again. This massive settling of the fill betokened trouble ahead. The loose dirt used to fill in the bridge certainly seemed to have some “pushing” properties….

Less than two weeks later, the Winfield Daily Courier reported that the state of the bridge at the entrance of Island Park had taken a rather serious turn of affairs: The fill-retaining walls and the spandrel walls of the bridge were in danger of collapse. The waterlogged fill was pushing out the walls of the bridge in a rather dramatic fashion. One of the walls of the bridge had torn loose of the arch and bulged out by a foot. The walls had already been braced with tie-rods, but apparently there were not enough of them. The street commissioner went to work adding more tie-rods to the bridge as needed. The street commissioner did indeed save the bridge with tie-rods, yet the fact remained that, as the Winfield Daily Courier predicted:

…[H]e may be able to save the walls, but it will be impossible to get them back into line and the structure will always have a dilapidated appearance.

The Winfield Tribune declared that the problem with the bridge was that it was a poor-quality job. According to the paper, the trouble was that the committee appointed to supervise the work knew nothing whatsoever about the work being done. The contractor gave as little labor as possible for the money. They concluded with:

The contractor would doubtless have worked out the problem had he given bond for permanent work. As it is the city has an insecure, patched bridge.

Despite its rather unfortunate condition, this bridge at the entrance of Island Park was nevertheless a precursor to the Cowley County stone arch bridges. It would take a couple more years before the stone arch bridge became a standard bridge for Cowley, despite the fact that some Cowley townships had already built stone arch culverts.

The Cowley County Government Begins to Build Stone Bridges

When in 1901 the Cowley County commissioners were deciding whether or not to build stone arch bridges, it would appear what really settled the matter for them was not the bridge at the entrance of Island Park (which they almost certainly were aware of) or other culverts across the county, but stone arch bridges built outside of Cowley. The commissioners viewed some of Butler County’s bridges as well as Greenwood’s massive Gleason Ford Bridge. They were pleased with what they saw, and said as much, noting that some townships in Cowley had built some stone bridges, but what they had built were more like culverts than anything else.

And so, Cowley County built stone bridges, starting with a structure built by Walter Sharp over Timber Creek. With the success of the Dunkard Mill Bridge (which was built by Sharp) it was assured that Cowley County would continue to build stone arch bridges for years to come.

Dunkard Mill Bridge
The Dunkard Mill Bridge, as shown on an old postcard. This was probably the most famous of all the Cowley County bridges, as it was the largest stone arch bridge in the state.

How Walter Sharp Avoided the Island Park Bridge Fill-Wall Problem in His Bridges

Incidentally, the bridges Walter Sharp built for Cowley did not usually have the bulging spandrel wall problem that Island Park Bridge had. The way Walter Sharp prevented this was not tie rods; rather, Sharp relied heavily on stone to make the fill, which meant that the fill could not become waterlogged and blow out the fill retaining walls. Granted, a spandrel wall would still occasionally fail during a flood, but such occurrences were relatively rare, and therefore not a large concern. While using stone fill required a little more effort, perhaps, than using dirt would, it does not appear to have raised the price tag of Sharp’s bridges very much. In this way, Walter Sharp’s bridges proved superior to the bridge at the entrance of Island Park, and were certainly more popular.

The Fate of the Island Park Stone Arch Bridge

And what happened to the stone arch bridge at the entrance of Island Park? A clue can be found in the April 21, 1923, edition of the Winfield Daily Courier:

“A new, modern concrete bridge is promised for Island Park. The old structure has served well for many years but its decayed railing, moss-covered rocks and [sagging] center are not in keeping with the improvements of the park within and the boulevards without. The new bridge will greatly enhance the park’s beauty.”