In Butler County, Kansas, there are two stone arch bridges over Dry Creek near Augusta within a mile of each other. One, the 1899 Wilson Bridge by Walter Sharp, has recently been refurbished. The other, the 1912 Hill Bridge, carries Diamond Road and is presently scheduled for reconstruction in 2022. (For more info, click here.)
The Hill Bridge is a pretty straightforward, though massive, single-arch bridge. That said, it is unique inasmuch as it was the first and only major stone arch bridge built by the former Augusta contractor, Orville Markley.
Orville Markley was a prominent Augusta contractor in the early 1900s. O. Markley contracted on a wide variety of structures around the Augusta area. Not only did he work on buildings, but he also dug a city water well for Augusta, though this project proved to be a rather unfavorable and difficult one for O. Markley. When Augusta Township began a highly aggressive stone arch culvert construction campaign, O. Markley received the contract for many of these small spans. In 1910, he was awarded by Butler County the contract to put in wing walls for a stone arch bridge over Dry Creek, where US 54/400 now crosses Dry Creek. “Wing walls”, in this case, probably means approaches. O. Markley did not build the entire bridge; rather, the bridge proper was built by Sharp & Jones. The Sharp in question was Walter Sharp, and Jones was probably a business partner of Sharp’s; Sharp partnered up with a Jones around this time with the idea of making money on Walter Sharp’s concrete slab bridge patent. Thus far, O. Markley’s bridge work was limited to culverts and jobs related to bridges built by others. However, in late 1911, O. Markley won the contract to build a complete stone arch bridge: the Hill Bridge.
The Hill Bridge
When the contract for the Hill Bridge was let to Orville Markley, it was, apparently, let by Augusta Township, not Butler County proper. An advertisement for the bridge, by the Augusta Township trustee, can be found in the October 7, 1911, edition of The Augusta Daily Gazette as a single example. That the bridge was let by Augusta Township is further verified by at least three sources, namely, the October 10, 1911, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican; the October 13, 1911, weekly edition of the Walnut Valley Times; and the October 17, 1911, edition of the Augusta Journal. The bridge proper cost $885, while the long wing walls, i.e., approaches, would cost additional money. The October 10, 1911, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican went on in great detail about the prospective Hill Bridge, though it did state that the contract was let to “J. L. Markley.” All our other sources we have on this bridge state that it was built by O. Markley.
From the October 10, 1911, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican we learn that the Hill Bridge was to be made from stone quarried three miles north of the bridge site. This stone, a white, crystalline limestone, was said to be highly durable and impervious to water deterioration. The bridge was to be large, with a 40-foot span and 40-foot wing walls/approaches. Orville Markley’s price was substantially lower than the estimated cost for the bridge was, and Markley’s price was also notably lower than that of the other bidders. The Republican’s article concluded:
“This is Mr. Markley’s first experience in such a large contract but it is hoped he will acquit himself as well in this job as he has in the smaller contracts he has filled.”From the October 10, 1911, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican.
“One of the Best Bridges in the County”
Though Augusta Township let the contract for the Hill Bridge, the Butler County commissioners were the ones to accept the bridge. How this arrangement came about is presently unclear. At any rate, in February of 1912, the county board of commissioners, accompanied by C. W. Buskirk, county engineer, went to view the Hill Bridge with the idea of accepting it. The commissioners were pleased with what they saw. According to the February 9, 1912, edition of the Augusta Journal, one of the commissioners, after seeing the bridge, stated “that it was the finest stone arch bridge in the county and that if it would not stand, there was no use in building stone arch bridges.”
The February 13, 1912, edition of The Augusta Daily Gazette and the February 16, 1912, weekly edition of the Walnut Valley Times both stated that the Hill Bridge was said, by at least one of the members of the county board of commissioners, to be one of the best stone arch bridges built in Butler County.
E. H. Hill, for whom the bridge was named, was another highly interested observer of the bridge, according to the February 9, 1912, edition of the Augusta Journal. E. H. Hill, being a local landowner, had plenty of opportunity to observe the bridge from the day it was begun until it was completed. According to the Journal, E. H. Hill declared that O. Markley not only met but exceeded the specifications required for the bridge.
After the Flood
Before May of 1912 was over, people’s opinion on the Hill Bridge had diminished considerably. May of 1912 was a very wet month, and heavy rains fell in various parts of Butler County. Floodwaters filled the opening of the Hill Bridge, and then, as the flood continued on, the approaches on both ends of the bridge failed. According to the May 11, 1912, edition of The Augusta Daily Gazette, the southwest and northeast wing walls (again, likely approach walls) failed, and the bridge had to be closed to traffic. In response, Butler County engineer C. W. Buskirk accompanied by the Augusta Township trustee and O. Markley all went to view the bridge, according to the May 17, 1912 edition of the Augusta Journal.
The May 17, 1912, edition of the Augusta Journal also informed its readers on what Buskirk found in regards to the Hill Bridge. The failure was because dirt fill was used. This dirt fill became waterlogged, and the resultant weight of the fill caused the walls to collapse outwards. Buskirk recommended replacing the fill with stone, and adding buttressing walls to the bridge. The paper went on to publish a statement by C. W. Buskirk, which statement was also published in the May 15, 1912, edition of the El Dorado Daily Republican. Buskirk stated that the people should not blame O. Markley for the failure of the bridge. While the walls were slightly thinner than the specifications, Buskirk said that when he had first seen them he told both Markley and the Augusta Township trustee that they were thick enough. Buskirk went on to explain how O. Markley had built the walls quite well, and the quality of the masonry was high. He repeated several times that the failure of the walls was related to the unusual circumstances of the heavy flooding, and that O. Markley was not to blame.
By June, the Hill Bridge was repaired, as can be found in the June 14, 1912, edition of the Augusta Journal.
The Hill Bridge Today
The Hill Bridge is truly an enormous structure. From the road this is somewhat difficult to see, but with a 40-foot Roman arch span and long approaches, the Hill Bridge ranks among the largest stone arch bridges in Butler County. Located on Diamond Road just west of Augusta, this bridge is regularly used.
The Hill Bridge has not fared the test of time as well as some of the other Butler County stone arch bridges. Though it is true that the limestone used in it is much less impervious to water damage, the bridge has nevertheless been damaged in many different ways. Beneath the bridge, there has been some damage to the structure by scour and debris impacts. Above, numerous vehicle impacts have resulted in damage to the top courses of masonry. A section of one of the approach walls is failing outwards as well. The extent of the damage to this bridge is evidenced by its very low weight limit rating of 3 tons for small vehicles and 6 tons for the longest vehicles. Despite the extensive damage, however, most of the bridge’s historic form appears to be intact, save for a few of the very top stones. Our most recent information states that it is presently scheduled for reconstruction in 2022.
Perhaps the old Hill Bridge will be restored; we certainly hope so. Butler County has done some excellent restoration jobs on various stone bridges, and there are also numerous and relatively inexpensive ways to both widen and strengthen a substandard stone arch bridge. This large stone arch bridge is still picturesque even in its deteriorated form, and still contains most of its historic fabric. Who knows? Maybe Butler County will preserve this piece of Augusta heritage, if it is practical. The county is not given to wanton demolition of its stone arch bridges and has a good record of preserving them, especially those bridges that the people of the county have expressed their appreciation of.
Regardless of what the fate of the Hill Bridge will be, this 1912 stone arch bridge has successfully carried the road for over a century despite adverse conditions.
Additional resource: Index of the Stone Arch Bridges of Butler County, Kansas