Cowley County, Kansas, boasts of being the stone arch bridge capital of the state. With 18 stone arch bridges listed on the county’s stone arch bridge brochure, these old structures are also a notable part of the county’s tourism. So, what makes the Cowley bridges unique among the 200+ other stone bridges in Kansas?
Why Cowley Bridges are Unique
It is not quantity of stone arch bridges, for Cowley’s neighbor, Butler County, has over 20 stone arch bridges on the road network. Nor was Cowley unique for early pioneering in stone arch bridges, for Marion County was the main pioneer in stone arch bridge building in Kansas, and Cowley began building stone bridges after Butler County decided to follow Marion’s example, and Greenwood County followed Butler’s example. Comparing Butler’s stone arch bridges with Cowley’s stone arch bridges yields a clue to Cowley’s title of the Stone Arch Bridge Capital of Kansas (a title, by the way, that has its origins over a century before the current date.)
When comparing Butler’s bridges with Cowley’s, we find that, while most of Butler’s bridges consist of a single, small span, barely over a culvert in size, Cowley County has several stone bridges that are absolutely massive, a fact not lost on people at the time. Butler County appears to have mostly used arch bridges for culverts, using the iron truss bridge for larger streams. To be sure, Butler County did actually build a record stone arch bridge with a span of 66 feet outside Augusta over the Whitewater River (about where US 54 is now) but this attempt proved to be a miserable failure, for the bridge was more or less destroyed by a flood months after completion. Cowley County, on the other hand, built massive, daring structures without hesitation, which, with a few exceptions, were successes.
Cowley’s Record Bridges
After the first stone bridge the county had built, a single-arch 36-foot span over Timber Creek built in 1901 (already a sizable structure, by Butler County standards), Cowley set out to build the monolithic Dunkard Mill Bridge over the Walnut River near Arkansas City. This bridge was said to be the largest stone arch bridge in Kansas, consisting of three 50-foot-span arches. After a flood immediately following the completion of the bridge with the resultant carving of some form of a new channel around the bridge, an additional 40-foot-span arch was added to increase waterway. Despite this brief mishap, the bridge was immensely successful, and was celebrated by a large picnic attended by over 2000 people. While the Timber Creek Bridge started the movement toward stone arch bridges, the Dunkard Mill Bridge confirmed it, and stone arch bridges rapidly began to appear across the county. Nor were these bridges small, either. Cowley set out to build large stone bridges across some of the large streams of the county, and it is arguably the sheer size of these stone arch bridges which led to the county being the stone arch bridge capital of Kansas.
Not surprisingly, Cowley County set several records in its arch bridge construction. The county’s second bridge (Dunkard Mill Bridge) was considered to be the largest stone bridge in the state, and this was only the beginning. Cowley, in 1904, built the 64-foot-span Goodnight Bridge, over Grouse Creek, which Walter Sharp, the builder of it, claimed at the time was the longest single arch span in the state. (As the 66-foot-span stone arch bridge outside Augusta in Butler failed months after completion, it did not offer much competition to Cowley’s records.) Two years later, the McCaw Bridge was built by Abe Finney and, with a span of 70 feet, created a sensation, which was even felt, at least to some degree, across the state. Walter Sharp, in 1908, pushed the span record five feet further with the H. Branson Bridge near Dexter. Interestingly, it would appear, judging from old newspaper references, that the original design for the H. Branson Bridge called for a double-arch bridge with two 50-foot spans, though what Sharp actually built was a little bit different.
Cowley’s Famous Grouse Creek Bridges
While these above-mentioned bridges were record breakers, even Cowley’s more typical bridges were large. Grouse Creek, a large and treacherous waterway, in particular became known for its huge stone arch bridges, most boasting one or more spans of 50 feet. A popular design for Grouse Creek was the double 50-foot-arch bridge, there being several bridges on the Grouse built after this pattern, including the three bridges over Grouse Creek south of Silverdale on the road heading to Oklahoma. These three bridges of Silverdale are gone, though numerous cut stones are laying around in the area. (One abutment of the middle bridge, known as Sterling Bridge, can still be seen; it is located at the creek’s edge in the Kaw Wildlife Area next to the current bridge.) The record-holding Goodnight Bridge, Fox Bridge, and H. Branson bridge all spanned Grouse Creek, and they were just the beginning. The largest stone arch bridge over Grouse Creek was (and still is) the triple-arch Esch’s Spur Bridge, with three 50-foot arches, and one of the earliest bridges built in Cowley was a single-arch 54-foot span north of Dexter. By 1922, there were 14 stone arch bridges on Grouse Creek. Not one of these bridges could exactly be called “small,” and they collectively played a large role in Cowley’s fame for stone arch bridges.
Innovation in Cowley’s Stone Bridge Building
Cowley County also saw some interesting innovation in the art of stone arch bridge building in Kansas. To increase waterway, an experiment was made where flatter arches were built atop tall piers. While previously arches of the standard stone bridge were built at the low-water line, near the stream bed, Walter Sharp decided to try an experiment to increase waterway by using tall, relatively thin piers and flat arches. After all, the solid masonry of the spandrel walls presented a solid obstruction to water during flood stages, as these solid walls follow the curving line of the arch, meaning there is simply less available room in the arch for the water to flow through higher up. Apparently Sharp did not realize how much a flatter arch would try to spread out horizontally, for his first attempt resulted in a mishap when the forms under the arch were removed. Nothing daunted, he rebuilt this first arch back to the original plans to increase waterway, and continued on with better luck. This innovative bridge was a success and was christened Kirk Bridge, though it is now better known as either Esch’s Spur Bridge or Pudden Bridge. Incidentally, there is another stone arch bridge in Cowley built in a similar style as the Kirk Bridge — the Neer Bridge. This bridge, judging from the plaque over the pier on the downstream side, was likely built by Walter Sharp (it appears to say “Sharp & Son”) and was the replacement for the “old” 1913 Neer Bridge, a stone arch structure built by A. Cook of Cambridge, that, judging from newspaper records, failed shortly after its completion in 1914.
The End of an Era in Cowley Bridge Building
After the Timber Creek and Dunkard Mill bridges, Cowley County continued to build large stone bridges nearly exclusively for the county bridge needs until the use of concrete for bridges became standardized. One of the last (if not the last) of the “old”-style stone bridges built in the county (not counting any Depression area stone bridges, which were built primarily as works projects) was a 60-foot-span stone bridge over Grouse Creek near Dexter, completed in 1921. This last bridge, it would appear, marked the end of an era in Cowley road building. It was unique inasmuch as it was built to the State Engineer’s specifications; previously the contractors were allowed a large amount of freedom to make their own decisions based on what they felt was needed, though under the supervision of the county commissioners. According to his own account written about this time, Walter Sharp, who built this bridge, did so reluctantly, preferring not to work under the state’s inspector. He stated that the only reason he bid on the contract at all was because nobody else was going to and the commissioners wanted a stone bridge. Sharp was urged by Commissioner Goforth to bid, receiving the commissioner’s assurance that if the state inspector was displeased, Goforth would share the blame with Sharp. Sharp also stated that the more exacting workmanship required by the state raised the price of the bridge considerably; the original plans would have cost $4400 to build, while the State Engineer-approved plans cost $6500 to build. (For the full story Sharp told, see, in the October 26, 1920, edition of The Wichita Daily Eagle, “A Story About Good Roads” written by Sharp himself.) Regardless of any increases in price accompanying the more precise work that became required for a stone bridge, even before this time concrete was well on its way to replacing stone; indeed, concrete already had largely replaced stone in most bridge applications. In fact, one newspaper of the time informed its readers that this bridge would be built in the old-fashioned way — of stone. The two decades which were the glory years of stone arch bridge building in Cowley had come to a close.
The Stone Arch Bridges of Cowley Today
Time has been hard on the bridges of Cowley. Many have been replaced years ago, some have collapsed, and several have been lost since 1999: a stone arch bridge over Timber Creek west of and between Atlanta and Burden; a stone arch bridge over Dutch Creek near Floral (both demolished in 1999); the H. Branson Bridge (collapsed early 2000s); the McCaw Bridge (better known as Fox Bridge), which collapsed in 2016, and, as of the time of this writing, the triple-arch Esch’s Spur Bridge over Grouse Creek near Dexter is in imminent danger of being lost, having sustained further damage to the already compromised middle arch in May 2019. Nevertheless, while many of Cowley’s stone bridges are forever gone, there are still quite a few left, which provide a good insight into what was once the standard method of construction in Cowley County, continue to provide enjoyment to visitors, and, importantly, still carry the road across some of the county’s many waterways. And, while many of the bridges left are (relatively speaking) smaller in size, the county still has a few stunning bridges that still span large waterways and carry traffic like they have been doing for over a century.
Additional resource: Index of the Stone Arch Bridges of Cowley County, Kansas