Kansas has over 200 stone arch bridges. Of all of the Kansas counties, Cowley is arguably the most famous for its stone arch structures. However, Cowley’s neighbor, Butler County, has over twenty stone arch bridges, which are a relic of Butler’s aggressive stone bridge building days. In fact, the success of these early Butler stone arch bridges inspired the Cowley commissioners to build stone arch bridges themselves.
The Use of Stone In Butler County
Butler County was an early pioneer in stone arch bridge construction in Kansas, having begun using stone in bridges before many Kansas counties did, including Cowley.
It was after a period of building wooden and iron bridges exclusively that Butler turned to stone. As Butler discovered, wood rots and floats away, while stone is enduring. Iron bridges had wooden floors that needed replaced, and were hardly flood-proof. Another important benefit of stone was the fact that Butler is full of usable limestone. This coupled with the fact that Butler had plenty of masons meant that most of the money spent on stone bridges remained in the county.
The upshot was that Butler County used stone to build small and medium bridges. They still used steel primarily for the large spans, however.
The Inspiration: Marion County Bridges
It is safe to say that Butler County was largely inspired by two stone bridges in Marion. These consisted of a stone bridge over the Cottonwood River in Florence and a particularly well-built bridge over Mud Creek in the town of Marion.
After determining that stone bridges did not have to be cost-prohibitive, the Butler newspapers began raising a cry for stone arch bridges. After all, they reasoned, if stone bridges did not cost much more than wood or iron bridges, but lasted longer than either, the choice was rather obvious. Best of all, most of the money spent in construction would remain in the county if they built the bridges with stone.
The stone bridges in Marion County were successful. The bridge in Florence proved a better bridge than any at that time in Butler, as at least one of the papers noted. So why shouldn’t Butler build such structures?
Butler Towns and Townships Try Out Stone
It is hard to say when and where the first stone arch bridge in Butler County was built.
Occasional contracts were let, especially by towns, for “stone culverts” but it is unclear if these were stone slab bridges or arch ones. Regardless, stone was not a mainstay of Butler County when it came to bridge building until the newspapers started the cry for stone arch bridges.
Colonel Abe Matheney, an El Dorado stone mason who built quite a few of the county’s stone bridges, offered his own contribution to the question. He prepared the plans for a basic stone arch bridge that could be adapted to span any stream. After showing his plans to some newspaper friends, he was awarded the contract in 1890 for a large stone arch culvert in El Dorado.
Not too long after, Eli Warren also began to build a stone arch culvert in El Dorado on Central Avenue.
Who was Eli Warren? As seen in his advertisement in the March 29, 1895, edition of the Walnut Valley Times:
Eli Warren is my name; El Dorado is my station; stone mason is my occupation. [B]uild arched bridges, piers and cellars — these are specialties with me. I also build, repair and clean cisterns.
These early bridges no doubt made their mark.
More significantly, Fairview Township, located in western Butler County, began an aggressive stone arch culvert building campaign. The township built numerous stone arch culverts, some of them a mere three feet in span. Fairview Township also constructed a particularly remarkable stone arch bridge over Rock Creek. This bridge was heralded as a good example to be followed by the county commissioners.
The Butler County Commissioners Began Building Stone Bridges
The Butler County commissioners at last decided to build a stone arch bridge, which was completed May 1894. The structure was located over the Stearn’s Branch of the Whitewater River north of Towanda. The contract was awarded to Eli Warren, who commenced this 20-foot-span structure. It was a resounding success, and one which Towanda was proud of:
Upon investigating the work the structure was found to be even better than the plans and specifications called for. The two abutments from which the arch starts are six by twenty-five feet. The arch is a perfect semi-circle and contains about 1100 cubic feet of stone. Some of the [stones] are as much as seven feet in length and only 170 compose the arch. The stone work is all [laid] in cement, and surface stone was used, such as had been exposed to the elements, hence there will be no crumbling away. Not a nail or board entered into the construction, except in falsework for the arch; this required the temporary use of 1575 feet of lumber.”
May 24, 1894, edition of the Butler County Citizen
The best part of the bridge, as the Butler County Citizen went on to put it, was that almost all of the money went into home material and labor — keeping the money spent within Butler County.
Before 1894 had ended Butler County was advertising for another stone arch bridge. This next stone bridge would have significant implications for the future. The double-arch stone bridge was to be built over Bird Creek near El Dorado. But most importantly, the contract would introduce a group of industrious stone masons: the Sharp Brothers, who employed a man named Walter Sharp.