The Wilson Bridge: Walter Sharp’s 1899 Dry Creek Bridge

Wilson Bridge

On SW 90th Street over Dry Creek near Augusta, Butler County, Kansas, stands a modest single-arch stone bridge. Completed by 1899 by Walter Sharp, this bridge is the second oldest remaining stone arch bridge in Butler County today. Since at least spring of 2019 this bridge has been closed to traffic. However, the bridge was not abandoned, for recently Butler County undertook a splendid restoration job on this bridge, and it is now open to traffic again.

1899 Dry Creek Bridge
The downstream side of the 1899 Dry Creek Bridge after it was refurbished, showing a job well done. Note the repointed mortar joints and the two layers of stone atop the middle of the arch. The lower layer of stones was there before the rehab, while the top layer of stones was recently added. As can be seen, the extra layer of stones matches the original workmanship well.

The careful work done on the Dry Creek Bridge is a credit to the county. The new work done to the superstructure of this bridge was done in stone, and is reminiscent of Butler County’s superb work on the Polecat Creek Bridge. Another feature of the work done on the Dry Creek Bridge is the revealing of the original date plaque on the keystone of the upstream face of the bridge, which announces the bridge to be called the Wilson Bridge. A little investigation in old Butler County newspapers reveals why.

The Construction of the Wilson Bridge

The contract for the Wilson Dry Creek Bridge was let to Walter Sharp in November of 1898, as the November 18, 1898, weekly edition of the Walnut Valley Times informs us. The November 25, 1898, edition of the Douglass Tribune stated that the contract for the bridge was awarded to Joseph Sharp, who was an El Dorado stonemason apparently unrelated to Walter Sharp. However, the vast majority of historical resources (not to mention the bridge plaque itself) point to Walter Sharp as being the builder of the bridge. The November 18, 1898, edition of the El Dorado Republican also declared Walter Sharp to be the builder of the bridge, and went on to add that the bridge would cost $585. The November 25, 1898, edition of the El Dorado Republican further stated that Walter Sharp had just completed building a stone arch bridge near Douglass over Muddy Creek about that time, and planned to begin the Dry Creek Bridge as soon as weather permitted.

The Dry Creek Bridge was located adjacent to a large farm owned by a man named Henry Wilson. The November 25 edition of the Douglass Tribune stated that Henry Wilson was appointed by the county to superintend the building of the bridge. This statement seems to be at least partly corroborated by a statement in the November 18, 1898, edition of the El Dorado Republican, which said that H. W. Wilson and another man went to the bridge site to attend to related business.

Work on the bridge went on somewhat sporadically for a time, judging from the sparse remarks in The Augusta Weekly Gazette about the bridge. On December 30, 1898, the paper stated that “John Howell and Parley Heath have commenced hauling rock again for the arch bridge near Henry Wilson’s.” On February 24, 1899, the same paper had a short, cryptic statement that read, “Mr. Sharp commenced work on the Dry Creek bridge this week for the second time.” Other newspaper sources reveal that some delays, at least, were due to bad weather. On March 4, 1899, the El Dorado Daily Republican stated that Walter Sharp came up from Augusta, where he was building a bridge over Indianola Creek (an alternative name for Dry Creek) to El Dorado on account of bad weather. The Walnut Valley Times of the same date stated essentially the same thing, adding that the bad weather in question was a snowfall. Peculiarly, however, The Walnut Valley Times also said that Walter Sharp was “rebuilding a stone arch bridge across Dry Creek, west of Augusta.”

On April 19, 1899, the county commissioners accepted the Wilson Bridge, as can be inferred from the commissioner proceedings found in the April 21, 1899, edition of the El Dorado Republican. Significantly, when this bridge was accepted by Butler County, it was also viewed by the Greenwood County commissioners, who later were inspired to build stone arch bridges themselves.

The Dry Creek Bridge Today

Thanks to the recent work done on this bridge, the Wilson Bridge is better than ever. Before, the bridge was somewhat run-down in appearance. The mortar joints were “dry,” and there was evidence of a long-ago, rather unsympathetic flood damage repair to the bridge.

Sharp's Dry Creek Bridge
A photo of the upstream face of the Dry Creek Bridge taken in early September 2019, before the rehab of the bridge. As can be seen, there are signs of long-ago flood damage on the bridge. Also note the dry mortar joints in the arch.

When the bridge was restored, the mortar joints were repointed. However, that was by no means the only work done on the bridge. For one thing, the old date plaque on the upstream keystone of the bridge was cleaned off, and is now readily visible. For another thing, a section of concrete curbing that had been added at some point to the upstream side of the bridge was removed and replaced with stone curbing. Reflectors on short posts were added at the ends of the bridge for safety. Another new feature of the bridge site, which is a bit of a convenience to viewers of the bridge, is an area for pulling off the road at the shoulder of the on the west side of the bridge. This area allows a superb view of the downstream face of the bridge, and is even punctuated with several large stones laid like parking spots.

Upstream face Wilson Bridge
The upstream face of the Wilson Bridge (same view as above) after restoration. Photo taken late July 2021.

The main modification to the Wilson Bridge, however, was the raising of the roadway. The original curbing was a single layer of stones tall. To raise the roadway, a second layer of stones was added, and more fill added over the top of the bridge between the curbings. This extra fill appears to be entirely of gravel, judging from all indications. There are several advantages to this scheme of increasing the amount of material over the bridge. For one thing, the roadway of the bridge was sloped off, allowing for improved drainage. For another thing, increasing the height of the fill over an arch bridge reduces vibration to the structure as cars go over it and also tends to increase its ability to handle weight. Both results are because the extra fill height distributes the weight of moving loads across more of the arch. And, since the fill is a “dead load,” it is actually quite easy for the stone arch bridge to carry, tending to help push the arch stones together, improving the solidity of the structure.

Plaque Wilson Bridge
The plaque of the Wilson Bridge. It reads:
Walter Sharp
J. W. Barnes
Co. Com (?) W. Teter
E L. Snodgrass
Wilson Bridge

Obviously, Barnes, Teter, and Snodgrass were the Butler County commissioners at the time (Co. Com). The plaque has a sort of group marking after “Co. Com” that partly encircles their three names to identify them as the commissioners responsible for the erection of this bridge. It looks like there may have been something before the “W” before “Teter,” but some slight damage obscures if and what might have been there. As a whole, the plaque is quite legible and clearly visible. It was common for the date plaque to be carved into the keystone on the early Walter Sharp bridges in Butler County.

Thanks to the work done on the Wilson Bridge, this old bridge is able to better continue its over 100 years of road service. The restoration of the Wilson Bridge represents well the care that the county has been putting into its stone arch bridges overall. The work done is excellent, and a credit to Butler County.

Additional resource: Index of the Stone Arch Bridges of Butler County, Kansas