Progress in Butler County Stone Arch Bridge Building Part 1

Rock Creek Bridge

Butler County, Kansas, was a pioneer in stone arch bridge building in the southern Kansas area. While not the first in the area to build stone arch bridges (that title likely belongs to Marion County, Butler’s neighbor to the north) Butler County was the first county in southern Kansas to build stone arch bridges and culverts in quantity. As might be suspected, Butler County went through a learning curve when building these bridges. When the county began in earnest to build stone arch bridges in the 1890s, they started out primarily with relatively poor-quality stone arch bridges. However, as Butler County continued building bridges, their designs evolved until they were building substantial, rugged masterpieces that have defied floods and time, such as the 1908 Diller Bridge, the 1910 Henry Creek Bridge, and the 1913 double arch Turkey Creek Bridge.

The Early Years

When Butler County first built stone arch bridges, the most notable characteristic of the county’s stone bridges was the small waterway. Those early stone arch bridges tended to be simply too small, and the results were often disastrous. As an example, the 1895 Bird Creek Bridge, located near El Dorado, was a double-arch bridge built by Walter Sharp and was the second stone arch bridge built by the county. This bridge rather quickly suffered from insufficient waterway, its two arches being small 16-foot spans. The end result was the collapse of an arch. While the bridge was repaired, it was obviously a bottleneck in the stream, and was finally replaced after only two or three decades of service. Incidentally, what is almost certainly the replacement bridge, a concrete structure, is still in use, and what appear to be the ruins of the stone bridge are visible from the top of it.

The waterway problem was further aggravated by the fact that the early stone arch bridges were often not founded on bedrock. This coupled with high water velocity due to the small openings of the arches created never-ending scour problems. The 1895 Peter Johnson Bridge by Leon was one such example. Though the arch had a 33-foot span, it was still too small for the Little Walnut River, which it spanned. Worse, the specifications for the bridge did not specify how deep the foundations needed to be, and Walter Sharp founded the bridge on the river gravel. Less than a month after the bridge was completed it was undermined, and a series of repairs began.

Recognizing the Small Span Problem

This waterway problem was still not satisfactorily resolved until the early 1900s in Butler County stone arch bridge construction. Though in general the span size of the bridges was increasing, the county still had a tendency to build the stone bridges a little too small. Walter Sharp’s 1899 Walz Ford Bridge in Clay Township is an example of these early small bridges. This very small double-arch bridge of two 18-foot spans once carried the road over Rock Creek. Though Bluestem Road still crosses over the Walz Ford Bridge, this small bridge is now high and dry, Rock Creek passing under the road to the north, through the approach of the stone bridge. The current bridge is a corrugated-metal topped-structure on large steel beams.

Walz Ford Bridge
The 1899 Walz Ford Bridge. This small double-arch bridge was typical of Butler County’s early stone arch bridges. The small waterway of these early bridges led the streams being spanned to find alternative routes. Often the “alternative route” was achieved by more or less demolishing the obstructing bridge. In the case of the Walz Ford Bridge, Rock Creek now has a different channel…one which goes through the long approach on the north side of the old stone bridge.

The small waterway problem was a never-ending source of trouble, leading to constant washouts and repairs, particularity of the small stone arch culverts built by the townships. This unsatisfactory state of affairs prompted one man, E. L. Snodgrass (Snodgrass served as county commissioner), in 1898 to state that there was no point in building a stone arch bridge if it was going to be built so small that it needed to be rebuilt in a year or two. Though this was, apparently, at one point construed to mean that Snodgrass was against building stone arch bridges at all, Snodgrass simply meant that if the county was going to spend the money to build “permanent” stone bridges, these bridges should be build such that they actually were permanent. His point was a valid one, and as the years went by Butler County gradually began to build more stone arch bridges with improved waterways as well as better foundations.

Dealing with the Too-Small Stone Arch Bridges

Even when the county began building stone arch bridges with more generous waterways, the worst offenders of the older stone bridges still needed to be dealt with, which they were over time.

One example was a 40-foot-span stone arch bridge over the Whitewater River near Potwin, the contract for which was awarded to Walter Sharp in 1897. This bridge was badly damaged in a flood a few years later. The problem being determined to be insufficient waterway, it was replaced with 50-foot-span stone bridge in 1903, replacing the bridge being considered a better option than simply repairing it. This replacement was also built by Walter Sharp, and stood for a little over a decade before it dramatically collapsed, though for reasons entirely unrelated to insufficient waterway.

The Whitewater River bridge was not the only major bridge that saw changes. Peter Johnson Bridge was a prime candidate for improvement, and in the year 1900 a second arch was added. By thus increasing the waterway, the Peter Johnson Bridge no longer needed to be constantly repaired. Another similarly modified bridge was the Ellis Bridge near Cassoday. This single-arch bridge spanned the Walnut River, and suffered during floods, even while it was being erected. Walter Sharp completed this bridge in 1902, though a small arch was apparently added later to try to cope with the waterway problem. In 1906 Ellis Bridge was largely rebuilt by Abe Matheney. Abe Matheney demolished the small additional arch and instead added a second large arch similar to the original. After he was done with his work, the final result was a large, substantial bridge. In fact, Abe Matheney did his job so well that, rather than being demolished, the Ellis Bridge in later years was modified with the addition of a cantilevered reinforced concrete slab on top and now carries a two-lane blacktop.

NE 110th Street Double Arch Walnut River bridge
Ellis Bridge was a single-arch bridge when first built. Though the bridge was originally built by Walter Sharp, most of the structure is now Abe Matheney’s work. Given the width of the Walnut River here compared to the size of the individual arches of the bridge, one can see why a single arch would have been insufficent.

Butler Builds Better Stone Bridges

By around 1905 Butler County was building very substantial stone arch bridges. Waterway was no longer a problem, the new bridges tending to be quite large, especially by previous standards. Probably the two most famous stone arch bridges from this time were the 1905 Rock Creek Bridge near Latham and the beautiful 1906 Minos West Ford Bridge over Hickory Creek. Both of these forty-foot-span arch bridges are still in use.

Rock Creek Bridge
C. C. Jamison’s 1905 Rock Creek Bridge. By the time this bridge was built, Butler County was no longer particularity shy about building large stone bridges. The span is forty feet.

However, even as Butler County began building better stone arch bridges, concrete began to slowly supplant stone. Nevertheless, before the county ceased to build stone arch bridges, a new era of premier-quality stone arch bridge building in Butler County began.

See Part 2 of this series.