Cowley County, Kansas, is reputed to be the stone arch bridge capital of Kansas and has many historic stone arch bridges. It is, however, unclear what the first stone arch bridge in Cowley County was. The reason for this is very simple — not all stone arch bridges were built by the county, and for some of them the documentation is very poor. Some were built by railroads, and others seem to have sprung up from nowhere.
The Stalter Bridge, Cowley, Kansas, is an example of a poorly documented bridge. Stone culverts received less notice than stone bridges in old sources of information.
The Cowley Bridge Tour brochure has no date on it, and, as yet, it is unknown who built it. Judging from the masonry of the approach walls and its narrow roadway, it is likely a township job, but could very well have been at least partly built by private enterprise. Regardless, the stone arch culverts built by various Cowley townships were sort of a preliminary to the county’s future stone arch bridge building campaign. Could the county build a stone arch bridge (not culvert) that would stand up to time and be affordable?
Timber Creek Bridge
The first stone arch bridge built by the county spanned Timber Creek. The bridge site is now under Winfield City Lake. The inspiration for this bridge came from the bridges of Butler County.
Cowley’s county commissioners were desperate to build reasonable bridges that were not perpetually decaying in some way, shape, or form. The solution was stone bridges. Greenwood, Marion, and Butler had some of these bridges that did not wash away in every flood and that had no wooden decks to fall through. The Cowley county commissioners were impressed with these stone arch structures and at how relatively low the price tags on them were. They ordered a bridge built to be built over Timber Creek that was eventually completed by Walter Sharp. This bridge was a success, and proved to the commissioners that the stone arch could practically and affordably be used to build large bridges, and not just small culverts.
Dunkard Mill Bridge
The Timber Creek Bridge was merely the beginning, however. The second stone bridge Cowley County ordered was to be the largest stone arch bridge in Kansas — the Dunkard Mill Bridge built over the Walnut River outside of Arkansas City, also built by Walter Sharp.
With three 50-foot-span arches, it was to be a monolithic structure. Later, due to the insufficient waterway of the original design, a fourth, smaller arch was added. The bridge stood for a few decades before being destroyed by a devastating flood in the 1940s. The success of the Dunkard Mill bridge guaranteed the coarse of the county’s future bridge building. The fact that a stone arch bridge could survive the abuse of the Walnut River opened the eyes of many in Cowley to the endurance of structures of stone. Cowley County at last had found a bridge type that could withstand the raging floods which plagued the county’s streams.
The third stone arch bridge ordered by Cowley was built over Grouse Creek — the first of many stone bridges built over that waterway. This bridge, located outside Cambridge, was known as the McCrabb Bridge, after the land owners. The McCrabb Bridge was actually completed before the Dunkard Mill Bridge; this is because the Dunkard Mill Bridge was a much larger structure. However, the contract for the Dunkard Mill bridge was let first. While the McCrabb bridge is long gone, a small log cabin, built similarly to the style of the old McCrabb cabin, decorates the site and houses an interesting history of what was. Until the ruins were burned in the 1990s, the McCrabb cabin was the last log cabin left in Cowley County.
This site is maintained by private owners, who have done a fantastic job documenting the history of this old cabin, while including information about its various owners, including the McCrabbs. A reprint of an old photograph of some of the McCrabb family “posing” outside the old cabin is among the featured items, as well as various fragments of old bottles, plates, hinges, and several other interesting items from decades ago. This cabin allows one to step back into history and catch a glimpse of what everyday life was like when these stone bridges were built so long ago.
These three bridges built by the county were only the beginning of many more to follow, and were the start of the wild popularity for stone bridges in Cowley, which, in the course of time, led to Cowley County being designated the Stone Arch Bridge Capital of Kansas.