While one of the first (if not the first) stone arch bridges in Kansas was built in Leavenworth during the Civil War, most of Kansas’s stone arch bridges were built later than this.
The pinnacle of the stone arch bridge era in Kansas seems to have been around the year 1900. This is significant, as by this time metal bridges were all the rage in most of the country. Metal (usually wrought iron or steel) was cheap and (relatively) durable, and required minimal labor.
Even in Kansas, “tin” bridges became popular after it quickly became evident that wooden bridges not only rotted out very quickly, but were simply unable to survive the state’s floods. Yet metal bridges were not foolproof either. The wooden floors rotted and wore out, and the metal needed paint to keep from rusting. Painting was often a neglected expenditure, and, besides, the steel bridges often were washed out before they rusted out.
The crowning climax to this problem was the rather high prices the metal bridge companies commanded, as they had little competition and could usually get away with it. In desperation, Kansas counties began seeking an alternative. One thing Kansas has in plenty in most regions is stone. It was with this stone that counties began to build bridges.
Kansas Goes to Stone
It is rather humorous to note that in an effort to fight the rising steel prices with more permanent bridges Kansas went back to the old, reliable stone arch bridge technology.
By the time many states were building elaborate truss and suspension bridges, Kansas had gone back to stone. The primary concern with stone bridges was the high cost. These fears were not ungrounded. One early stone arch bridge, Chase County’s Clements Bridge, cost a whopping $15,000. This price was simply too high to be affordable, and the people of Chase county were not impressed with this expenditure, even if the Clements bridge was very well built.
Yet high prices did not have to be the limiting factor, and soon counties were building numerous affordable stone arch bridges. A point was reached where a stone arch bridge cost roughly as much as a steel bridge for the same locality.
Affordable Stone Bridges
By the early 1900s, many Kansas counties had adopted stone in earnest. Butler County was on the cutting edge when it came to affordable stone bridges — and (especially) culverts.
Butler County townships began using stone for the small spans, and the county itself began building modest stone bridges, using metal bridges for the larger spans. For culverts stone arch bridges were unequaled.
In Cowley County, stone bridges were built even for the largest streams, leading to this county’s fame as the stone arch bridge capital of Kansas.
In 1903, Cowley County completed the largest stone arch bridge in Kansas, known as the Dunkard Mill Bridge. Ironically, this quadruple-arch structure over the Walnut River cost less than one third of the cost of the much smaller Clements Bridge built some years before. That said, the Dunkard Mill Bridge was swept away in floods some decades after completion while the now abandoned Clements Bridge still stands as of the time of this writing.
Economy Versus Quality
One trouble with the economical stone arch bridges was they could be built in a rather shoddy fashion.
The cost of stonework is directly proportional to the amount of time spent cutting it. Stonecutting is a tedious task that often requires significant previous experience to accomplish consistently and successfully. The solution often was to eliminate most of the stonecutting.
In this field Walter Sharp rose to fame, building numerous, inexpensive stone bridges with very little stonecutting. In keeping with this end, Walter Sharp’s bridges feature rough-faced exterior stonework with the curve of the arch being largely formed with mortar poured into the joints.
An examination of Sharp’s remaining bridges show that, as time went on and he had to lower his prices, less and less effort went into fitting the stones. It is true that Walter Sharp made a better success of this than many around this time who copied his work. Sharp mastered the balance of low cost with stability. He used relatively hard mortar for the angles.
On the other hand, a stone arch bridge with soft lime mortar in the angles built in northern Kansas proved a failure. The lime mortar compressed heavily, resulting in immediate collapse of the structure. Sharp did not usually have this problem.
Long-Term Effects of “Economy” Stone Bridges
While Sharp’s work was certainly famous, in the final tally the rough arch faces he used tend to get damaged, and the mortar used for the angles tends to deteriorate over time leaving the arch stones loose. Furthermore, in Butler County, Sharp’s work earned a bad reputation over time as several of his bridges failed after some years, usually due to poor-quality construction.
Yet it was possible to build quality stone bridges at low costs. While he did not build with the premium work done on the Clements Bridge, Butler County’s C. C. Jamison built numerous stone bridges with well-cut arch faces and nicely fitting stones. His secret appears to have been to pick stones that naturally fit well into their locations, and only trim them as necessary. Despite spending some effort flushing the arch faces and trimming the stones, C. C. Jamison succeeded in undercutting even Walter Sharp’s bids. He eventually became the foremost stone arch bridge builder in Butler County, and many of his stone bridges remain in use.
One huge point in favor of stone arch bridges was the fact that the material and labor used were largely local. This meant that most of the county’s bridge money stayed in the county where the bridge was built.
Also, bridge construction provided good work for local masons, and even farmers.
Best of all, the stone bridges tended to stay where they were put rather than commencing voyages downstream during floods. With few exceptions, stone bridges proved to be a good, permanent solution to bridging streams. This fact is testified to by the over 200 stone arch bridges and culverts remaining in Kansas, most of them in active road service.