Cowley’s Grouse Creek Stone Arch Bridges Part 1: Firsts and Records

Goodnight Bridge Ruins

Of all the waterways in Cowley County, Kansas, Grouse Creek was probably the most famous for its stone arch bridges. Grouse Creek is a very large creek which begins in southern Butler County, and runs all the way through Cowley, joining the Arkansas River barely north of the Oklahoma border. Cowley County boldly built numerous stone arch bridges over this treacherous waterway. Grouse Creek is prone to massive flash flooding, which made it pose a challenge to the stone arch bridge builders. Furthermore, as Grouse Creek is so large, the county ended up building several state-record-breaking spans over the creek. Stone arch bridges held up to the terrible floods of Grouse Creek better than other designs of the time, making them a mainstay in Cowley for spanning the Grouse until the 1920s. According to Walter Sharp, by 1922 there were 14 stone arch bridges over Grouse Creek.

The First Grouse Creek Stone Arch Bridge

The first stone arch bridge over Grouse Creek was also the 3rd stone arch bridge Cowley County built. Known as the McCrabb Bridge, this 54-foot-span arch bridge was already quite a large undertaking, though it was eclipsed by the simply massive Dunkard Mill Bridge being built at about the same time over the Walnut River. The McCrabb Bridge was completed successfully by Walter Sharp and was the first of a long line of stone arch bridges on Grouse Creek. The McCrabb Bridge was located north of Cambridge roughly where 281st Road crosses the Grouse. Little remains of the McCrabb Bridge, however the main arch of the 1917 Fromm Bridge (located about a mile upstream from the McCrabb Bridge) was built with very similar design.

Water Seepage in an Arch
Based on descriptions of the McCrabb Bridge from newspapers, it appears that the main arch of the Fromm Bridge was built to a similar design.

Record Spans on Grouse Creek: Goodnight Bridge

The 1904 Goodnight Bridge built near Dexter by Walter Sharp held the title for a time as the longest arch span in Kansas. Spanning 64 feet, this large bridge was quite an undertaking. It appears that its construction went smoothly. A unique feature of the Goodnight Bridge was the “rubble” masonry. While it did indeed feature the typical flat limestone slabs of the area, these slabs ranged in all manner of sizes and thicknesses. Walter Sharp stated that the Dexter limestone used in the Goodnight Bridge was the best stone he ever had built with. Though now in ruins, one abutment and approach of the Goodnight Bridge is clearly visible from Grouse Creek Road, if you know what to look for. The Goodnight Bridge did not hold its record title for long. Butler County completed a 66-foot span over the Whitewater River in 1905 where US 54/400 crosses the river just west of Augusta. However, this bridge only lasted a few months before collapsing completely. The cause was thought to be the soil that the foundations were resting on. Though, reportedly, the abutments for the Augusta Bridge were dug down 10 and 14 feet respectively, the ground was seen to have some similarities to quicksand, which was thought to have caused the collapse. So, by late 1905, the title of longest span in Kansas went back to the Goodnight Bridge, until rivaled yet again the next year.

Goodnight Bridge Ruins
The remains of the Goodnight Bridge are plainly visible from Grouse Creek Road, to the south of the present bridge.

Record Spans on Grouse Creek: McCaw Bridge

In 1906 Abe Finney built the McCaw Bridge over Grouse Creek in Cowley County, north of Cambridge. With a span of 70 feet, this massive bridge received statewide recognition. Abe Finney was originally a quarryman by trade, and also at one point deputy sheriff of Cambridge. The McCaw Bridge was a masterpiece in masonry, with excellent workmanship. The stone was quarried from the hillside the bridge ended in, and was a marvelous success. Though completed smoothly, trouble was in store for this bridge. In 1907, the Cowley County Commissioners observed damage at the waterline of this ponderous bridge. Walter Sharp was contracted to repair the bridge, and upon coffer-damming and draining the water away from the foundation discovered that the damage was actually a gaping hole caused by someone dynamiting the bridge. This was repaired by pouring concrete into the bridge, and the bridge survived for over a century. The McCaw Bridge (later known as the Fox Bridge) stood until it finally succumbed to severe flooding in 2016. Even though a massive arch bridge, the McCaw Bridge was nevertheless quickly eclipsed by yet a longer span, also over Grouse Creek.

Record Spans on Grouse Creek: The H. Branson Bridge

The H. Branson Bridge constructed by Walter Sharp north of Dexter in 1908 initially had every appearance of being a typical Grouse Creek stone arch bridge. When the contract for the H. Branson bridge was first advertised, basically any type of bridge plans could be submitted, though concrete or stone was preferred. After the bids were opened, it was said that this bridge would be a double-arch bridge with two 50-foot-span arches, though the contract was not awarded immediately because of the sheer quantity of bridge plans and bids submitted. However, when the contract for the H. Branson Bridge was awarded, it was re-iterated that it would be a stone bridge of two 50-foot-span arches. This double arch design appears to have been a standard plan for the larger streams of Cowley County as numerous bridges were built in the county with duel 50 foot arches. However, the H. Branson Bridge ended up being built differently. What actually happened was that Walter Sharp built a 75 foot span arch bridge. With a span 5 feet longer than that of the McCaw Bridge, the H. Branson Bridge ensured that Walter Sharp regained the honor of being builder of the longest stone arch bridge span in Kansas. It does not appear likely that at any point a stone arch bridge with a longer span was built in Kansas. It was rather a source of pride with Walter Sharp. The H. Branson Bridge stood for years until a three-hinge collapse mechanism appeared in the arch. The result was a slow but sure failure resulting in the bridge failing completely in the early 2000s. The former road to the H. Branson Bridge is now private property. Located east of K-15 about two and a half miles or so north of Dexter, potential glimpses of one abutment can be had from K-15 about under ideal winter conditions.

Cowley Bridges
A photo of some bridges and a farmer ready to haul stone for a bridge taken from the April 10, 1921 edition of The Wichita Eagle. The upper right photo is the H. Branson Bridge. The upper left photo is Maurier Bridge No. 2 under construction. The center photo is a farmer prepared to haul stone for a bridge. The lower right photo is a concrete bridge built by Walter Sharp with one of his sons in the foreground. The lower left photo is, according to the caption, a “Bridge over Grouse Creek six miles below Dexter. The Arches Are Fifty Feet and the bridge was built in 1912.” It would appear, based on a very close look at the bridge, not to mention the lack of record of other stone bridges anywhere close to the specified area on Grouse Creek, that this bridge is actually the 1913 Pudden Bridge. The contract for Pudden Bridge (Kirk Bridge) was advertised first in 1912.

Though the Goodnight Bridge, McCaw Bridge, and H. Branson Bridge each had record-bearing status, they were by no means the only stone bridges on Grouse Creek. Cowley County at least 14 stone arch bridges on this treacherous waterway. Some of these “simpler” stone bridges proved difficult to build or even complete failures. These Grouse Creek bridges challenged several builders, including Butler County’s Abe Matheney.

Go to part 2 of this series