In Butler County, Kansas, we have now found several stone arch culverts left over from the heyday of township stone arch bridge building. Though the townships built hundreds of stone culverts, only a few remain. Having driven many of the roads of Butler County and quite a few in neighboring counties, and having investigated many sites where a township stone arch culvert was known to have once existed, we have observed several common themes that appear to have been a deciding factor in the survival of these structures. It is worth adding that these observations on why some stone bridges survive where others do not probably would hold true not only within Kansas, but throughout the entire United States.
Quality of the Arch
The importance of the quality of build is not to be underestimated. The art of “turning the arch” was better mastered by some masons than others. Many arches were built with poor rounding of the arch; recently we found, in Ninnescah Township, Cowley County, Kansas, what appeared to be a stone arch culvert that had more or less collapsed and had been repaired with the addition of a cement top. It seems that the arch stones did not have very good contact between them, the mortar being relied on heavily. Such an arch tends to be rather weak, for once the mortar deteriorates, the structure falls apart.
A good mason can create an arch with maximum contact between stones without relying heavily on mortar. This is crucial, as it appears to have been a common occurrence for all the mortar to leach out of these old culverts and never to have been replaced. Thus, if mortar was heavily relied on within the structure, the culvert was liable to disintegrate over the years.
Many old stone culverts were built with amazingly thin, crude arches, judging from all appearances. Also, at known stone arch culvert sites, ruins of the old culvert, where visible, indicate that the stones used were often small, and not very well shaped. Couple this with a thin arch ring, and it is little wonder that many of these culverts, though sufficient in their day, could not hold up to modern traffic loads.
An amazing number of township stone arch culverts were built simply too narrow. Though counties in Kansas consistently built their culverts at a 16′ width, the townships frequently saved funds by making the culvert narrower than this. Judging from old newspaper accounts, the narrow width of some of these culverts was a major problem even when they were new, resulting in some complaints. These days, many of these too-narrow culverts have been replaced. There are exceptions, however, for some of these culverts were widened to achieve the required road width.
Some, like the Augusta Township Diamond Road culvert in Butler County, were totally obscured by the widening, while others, like the Glencoe/Little Walnut township line Price Road culvert also in Butler County, were widened only on one side, leaving one face clearly visible.
An amazing number of early stone culverts were built far too small for the streams. The vast majority of these structures have long since succumbed to floods. A major exception to this is Higdon and Poe’s 1907 Whitewater River culvert, near Potwin, Butler County, Kansas.
This incredible little bridge is a mere 16′ in span, and still crosses the Whitewater River, not far upstream of where there once was a 50′-span stone arch bridge over the same river. This bridge, which is shown as a low-water bridge on the Kansas Highway Map used as the base for our Butler County stone arch bridge map (please see Stone Arch Bridges of Butler County, Kansas page), now has a concrete top, which helps stabilize the structure during floods and, at any rate, minimizes the erosion of the roadbed, which must otherwise invariably follow any major flood.
Strange to say, stone culverts were not necessarily placed on bedrock. This, especially if coupled with insufficient waterway, was a recipe for disaster.
Though scouring of the foundations can be corrected, scour has taken out many stone bridges.
All Together Now
To judge from appearances, quite a few long-gone early township-built culverts in Kansas had all of the problems listed above. However, there are still survivors throughout the counties that continue to turn up. Only a thorough search of the roads can accurately determine how many culverts remain.