The Stone Arch Culvert Days of Butler County, Kansas

115th Whitewater River Bridge

In Kansas, Cowley County is famous for its large stone arch bridges, while its neighbor, Butler County, rose to fame for its hundreds of stone arch culverts. While there were a few culverts built by the county, most of the stone arch culverts were township jobs, intended as a permanent alternative to wood structures.

The Beginnings: The Push for Stone

Stone is one resource that abounds in Kansas, and Butler County specifically. Rot-prone wooden bridges and imported iron bridges were being built when better bridges could be had with local material and labor.

Beginning in the 1880s, the Butler County newspapers resolved to change this. To be sure, a few stone culverts had indeed been built in Butler, but there was no decisive movement towards stone underway at that time. It is not clear if these early stone culverts were stone arch culverts or were stone slab culverts.

The newspapers, with remarkable unity, took a decisive stand for stone.

Why, they asked, wasn’t Butler County using its own resources to build better infrastructure? Stone lasts, but wood rots. Stone is local, and can be used with local labor, while just about everything with a steel bridge came from elsewhere.

The conclusion? Keep the county’s money in the county and use it to build better structures.

The papers succeeded, for at the turn of the decade, the city of El Dorado began building stone arch culverts in the town. And, at about the same time, Fairview Township began a major stone arch culvert building campaign that lasted for years, impacting the remainder of the county.

The Stone Culverts of Fairview Township

With remarkable resolve, Fairview Township began building stone arch culverts. It is unclear at this time what exactly prompted Fairview to began their unprecedented stone arch culvert building campaign. However, it is known that one Fairview Township resident was a huge proponent of building with stone.

J. W. Robison, of Whitewater Falls Stock Farm fame, was a well-known resident of Fairview Township in the late 1800s. He argued that Butler County should build with the local stone available, remarking that the only expense outside the county was that of the tools and mortar. In fact, some years later (January 15, 1902), The Topeka Daily Capital credited J. W. Robinson with being “the father of the stone arch bridge idea in southern Kansas.”

Whitewater Falls Stock Farm
Looking across a Fairview Township field towards J. W. Robison’s Whitewater Falls Stock Farm. J. W. Robison was credited as the father of the stone arch bridge idea in southern Kansas. He certainly was a proponent of stone arch bridge building in Butler County.

The early culverts in Fairview were reportedly a little crude, but progress was made with shocking rapidity.

By the end of 1890, Fairview Township already had several stone arch culverts, including a substantial one over Rock Creek. This large culvert was even heralded as an example for the county commissioners to follow.

It is worth noting here that three years later the county commissioners did build their own stone arch culvert near Towanda, which started Butler County’s stone arch bridge building days.

Fairview Township continued building culverts for years to come, often and regularly advertising for several culverts at a time. Some of these culverts were sizable, while others were a mere three feet in span.

While Fairview’s stone arch culverts were the best known, it was not long before other townships started following their example.

Stone Culverts for Butler Townships

Fairview Township was the most well known for its stone culverts, but many other townships in Butler were following suit. Among the townships cited by newspapers as expressing an interest in stone culverts were:

  • Plum Grove Township, Fairview’s neighbor.
  • Towanda Township.
  • Milton Township.
  • Murdock Township.
  • Douglass Township.
  • Little Walnut Township had at least 18, though how many of these were stone arch as opposed to stone slab culverts is unclear.
  • Sycamore Township.
  • Chelsea Township.
  • Glencoe Township.
  • Augusta Township.
  • El Dorado Township.

In short, most if not all of the Butler County townships built stone culverts. Most of these culverts were not advertised very widely, even to receive bids. Furthermore, many of the culverts that were advertised in major newspapers did not have a precise location given!

The Quantity of Stone Culverts in Butler

By the end of 1905, it was reported by the Leon Indicator who, in turn, received their information from the Kansas City Star, that there were nearly 300 stone arch culverts in Butler.

Stone arch culverts continued to be built in the years following for quite some time, though they gradually gave way to concrete.

Oddly, at this present time we are aware of only one township stone arch culvert remaining in Butler: the NW 115th Street Whitewater River Bridge. As culverts are not required by law to be inspected regularly, culverts tend to be badly documented. Combine this with the fact that some of these culverts were a mere three feet in span and it seems quite possible that there are stone arch culverts in Butler County waiting to be discovered.

Who Built the Culverts?

More than anything, what made the stone arch culverts of Butler County unique was the builders.

Unlike the stone arch bridges, many of the culverts were built by local residents of the area where the culvert was located. Building culverts was a superb way for a farmer to supplement his cash flow.

While the few big contractors tackled the large bridges, the small-time stone masons frequently built culverts as well. One such local stonemason was Owen Jones, a stonemason/tombstone cutter who built a 12′ culvert south of his hometown of Douglass.

The local residents were vitally interested in the roads going past their neighborhood being good. Being presented with a chance of being paid to improve their roads it is little wonder people rather liked this arrangement! Local residents of the county generally (and often the township specifically) were paid to use local material to build high-quality crossings on their local roads. Certainly the local residents were satisfied with the resultant road improvements, as was testified repeatedly in the newspapers of the day.

It is recorded that one Butler resident from the Potwin area wanted a stone arch culvert built on the road near his place. To make this happen, he arranged to build the approaches at his own expense in order to ensure that the culvert was built, which it was.

The enthusiasm with which the local culverts were met with was quite admirable, and people and township worked together to create durable, quality roads. The spirit of the era is well shown by the following quote from the August 29, 1906, edition of The Walnut Valley Times:

“W. S. Dillman has been awarded the contract to build a 6-foot stone arch and 4-foot stone arch culvert by Douglass township. Mr Dillman feels that he may just as well get into the stone arch building as they are now all the go.”

Butler County’s stone arch culvert building campaign was boundless.

115th Whitewater River Bridge
The 115th Street Whitewater River Bridge. This small 16′ culvert was built in 1907 by two local Potwin residents, J. H. Higdon and S. R. Poe. Upon being awarded the contract by Plum Grove Township, Higdon and Poe headed for El Dorado to buy the necessary tools to fulfill their contract. To date, this is the only remaining township culvert that we know of in Butler County. However, there is a lot of Butler County to search for hidden stone culverts from those bygone days over a century ago!