Factors in Stone Bridge Survival

115th Whitewater River Bridge

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.

Little Walnut/Logan Township Line SE120th Road Culvert (2)
J. S. Kiser of Leon built this bridge. It is clear he spent some time ensuring everything fit well and the arch was well turned; thus, even though much of the mortar has crumbled away, the bridge is still solid. Some builders were more successful at this type of construction than others. One common theme that has held 100% true thus far among the known surviving Butler County township stone culverts is that the builder knew how to “turn the arch” well.

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.

Towanda Stone Arch Sidewalk Bridge
A stone arch sidewalk bridge found in Towanda, Butler County, Kansas. This bridge though somewhat crude in design is nevertheless a clever little structure and perfectly sufficient for the sidewalk. Based on visible remains, many early township culverts were built like this bridge, using small, rough-fitting stones. However, unlike this sidewalk bridge, a road bridge built in the fashion shown above cannot handle the weight, impact,s and vibration of modern vehicles very well in the long run, resulting in failure. As an interesting aside, note, on the sidewalk bridge shown above, the clever way in which the builder built the curbing along the sidewalk mid-span.

Road Width

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.

SW Diamond Road Stone Culvert
The SW Diamond Road stone culvert in Augusta Township, Butler County, Kansas. From the outside this culvert looks like a concrete arch culvert. However, an interior stone section remains as can be seen in the photo above. We do not normally find culverts like this in our searching because such a heavily widened culvert is, one, very rare (if a culvert was as narrow as the one shown above it was usually simply demolished and replaced or, at least, widened on one side only), and, two, would be basically impossible to spot from the road unless you knew for certain it was there. The reason we found and included this one on our Butler County Stone Bridge list is because it appeared on a stone arch bridge map put out by Butler County, and even then it took us quite some time and many visits to the area before we figured out that what was apparently a concrete arch culvert was, in fact, the stone one we were looking for. And, admittedly, this particular culvert is not of much interest from a viewing standpoint, even though it possesses some historical interest.

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.

115th Whitewater River Bridge
Higdon and Poe’s 1907 Whitewater River Culvert. This amazing structure, built by Plum Grove Township has carried the road for over a century, despite being far too small for the river it spans. Though the stones are roughly shaped, they appear to fit well, and the arch ring is fairly thick, both major factors in this bridge’s survival.

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.

Scouring of the Fulton Road Culvert.
Damage to a culvert resulting from scour.

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.