Progress in Butler County Stone Arch Bridge Building Part 2

Cave Spring Branch Turkey Creek Bridge

By the time 1908 came around, Butler County had more or less overcome all the problems seen in the county’s early stone arch bridges. However, an improvement of bridge design and construction began in Butler County, which would directly influence how the county would build stone bridges in the future. This change in construction practices meant that all bridges, including stone ones, would be built large and rugged, with the goal of ensuring their continued use for generations. C. W. Buskirk, who actively became the county’s engineer/surveyor in 1907, was largely responsible for this new scheme of bridge building in Butler County.

C. W. Buskirk’s Contribution to Butler Bridge Building

In the early days, bridge building in Butler County was more or less haphazard. There tended to be little in the way of plans and specifications, so a remarkable inconsistency prevailed in bridge design, creating cases where bridges were too weak or were too small. County surveyor/engineer C. W. Buskirk summed up the situation well himself:

“The township boards should exchange ideas and get more system and regularity in the building of bridges…. In some places these bridges are built too heavy, while in other cases they are too light. What we want is a bridge strong enough to endure for all time, and large enough and wide enough that you won’t feel like tearing it out in 10 or 20 years.

“Another feature of this is illustrated by the fact that even in county work it has happened that a 30 foot bridge is placed from two to five miles below a 40 foot bridge on the same stream.”

Charles W. Buskirk, “County Engineer Advises Co-Operation in Building Bridges and Fixing Roads,” Walnut Valley Times, July 21, 1911.

Charles Buskirk was a strong proponent of planning for the future when building bridges, as can be seen above. As part of his work as engineer in Butler County, he began to have better bridges built and designed, including stone arch bridges. His plan was to create permanent infrastructure, designed to last for generations. In his own words:

“… a bridge is not built simply to stand up but to stand for all time and to be big enough and broad enough so that our children will not want to tear it down.”

Charles W. Buskirk, “County Engineer Discusses Roads Bridges-Culverts,” El Dorado Republican, August 29, 1913.
C. W. Buskirk
Charles W. Buskirk, from a photo that appeared in the December 15, 1911, edition of The Walnut Valley Times (daily edition.)

Charles Buskirk’s work greatly influenced how Butler County built stone arch bridges. As will be described in more detail below, a subtle change in stone arch bridge design followed Buskirk’s appearance on the scene.

The Scientific Stone Arch Bridges

One feature of Buskirk’s work was the scientifically designed bridges, both concrete and stone. Between 1907 and 1913, according to Buskirk, ten new stone arch bridges were built, seven of them being scientifically designed:

“I went into the surveyor’s office in 1907, but was out of the bridge work the first year because at that time we had eighty-four steel bridges, thirty-five stone bridges and five concrete bridges. We now have eighty-seven steel, forty-five stone and twenty-five concrete bridges, seven of the ten new stone bridges being scientifically designed, while all of our new concrete bridges are absolutely O.K.”

Charles W. Buskirk, “County Engineer Discusses Roads Bridges-Culverts,” El Dorado Republican, August 29, 1913.

Buskirk’s comment on scientifically designed stone arch bridges is interesting, as around that general time period there was some talk about how arch bridges were unscientific, apparently due to the difficulties of analyzing the forces in an arch.

Buskirk believed in building bridges with structural members calculated to handle the loads required, and over-designed to ensure that they would remain serviceable for the future. One consistent feature of the stone arch bridges built while Buskirk was surveyor/engineer was the notable ruggedness of their build. The arch ring on the bridges built in this era tends to be quite thick, especially easily seen in C. C. Jamison’s 1913 Turkey Creek Bridge. Another major improvement in stone arch bridge construction seen in Butler County during this time was the use of concrete at the waterline of several stone arch bridges. Best seen in the 1910 Henry Creek Bridge, this modification fit well with Buskirk’s philosophy of building bridges to last. Limestone simply does not hold up as well to direct water action as concrete does, and by using concrete where it mattered, the durability of the bridges thus built was increased significantly.

Besides designing better bridges, Buskirk also had several chances to observe and explain in detail the cause of the collapse of several of the county’s earlier bridges, including the sudden fall of a 50-foot-span stone arch bridge, the longest in the county, which had stood for but twelve years.

The Collapse of the Longest Stone Arch Bridge Span in Butler County

One noteworthy point in Buskirk’s career that is of interest was his explanation of the collapse of the 50-foot-span stone arch Whitewater River Bridge near Potwin mentioned in the previous post of this series. This massive bridge was built in 1903 by Walter Sharp to replace a previous stone bridge with insufficient waterway. This was the longest stone arch bridge span in Butler County when it collapsed in April of 1915. The collapse of this bridge created a stir in the newspapers of the era due to the narrow escape several people had when the bridge fell. Buskirk determined that the cause of the collapse was related to the overall bad quality of the structure. Buskirk said that the stone used was poor and had been disintegrating with hot-cold cycles, and the arch ring was a little thin, leading to the collapse.

El Dorado Daily Republican Front Page April 12
A headline from the front page of the April 12, 1915, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican regarding the fall of the Whitewater River Bridge. The fall of this bridge spawned a large variety of newspaper articles for several days. The above clipping is from one of many related articles that appeared in newspapers throughout Butler County.

The Legacy of the Scientific Stone Bridges

So were Buskirk’s scientific stone arch bridges a success? It would appear to be the case. As mentioned above, Buskirk stated that 10 stone arch bridges were built from 1907 through 1913, 7 of them scientifically designed. A look at our list of stone arch bridges of Butler County reveals that 7 stone arch bridges from this era remain, not counting the 1907 whitewater river culvert which was actually built by Plum Grove Township, not the county. This means that 70% of these 100-year-old stone arch bridges Buskirk mentioned are still in use! It is difficult to tell which of the stone arch bridges are the “scientific” ones, though all of them are well built. It is noteworthy that two of these seven bridge have seen notable reconstructions (the 1910 Whitewater River Bridge and the 1912 Hill Bridge over Dry Creek,) with sections of the spandrel walls being replaced with concrete in both. Below are the seven remaining stone arch bridges in Butler County from the 1907 through 1913 era.

Rock Creek Overflow Bridge
1908 Cedar Ford Bridge
Diller Bridge
1908 Diller Bridge
1910 Whitewater River Bridge
Markley's Dry Creek Bridge
1912 Hill Bridge
Cave Spring Branch Bridge
1910 Cave Springs Branch Turkey Creek Bridge
Turkey Creek Bridge
1913 Turkey Creek Bridge
Henry Creek Bridge
1910 Henry Creek Bridge

The era of scientific stone arch bridges marked the last days of stone arch bridge building in Butler County. After 1915, no major stone arch bridges were built anymore in the county, perhaps due to the collapse of the Whitewater River Bridge. Be that as it may, the last stone arch bridges built by Butler County represented the pinnacle of stone arch bridge design, not just for Butler County, but for much of the state of Kansas.

See Part 1 of this series.