The stone arch bridges were built to last over one-hundred years, far longer than the standard highway bridges of the day. Seventeen of these bridges now are scattered throughout Cowley County. At one point, there were over 40 of them. In 2016, Cowley County was officially designated the Stone Arch Capital of Kansas. Built between 1890 and 1935, these bridges range from one-to-three spans and are found crossing over various creeks throughout the county. These bridges have been the focus of television programs such as “Sunflower Journeys” and drawings and paintings done by former Cowley College Music Instructor Gary Gackstatter.
It was Gackstatter, who back in the 1990s, started giving tours of these bridges that began bringing tourists to the area to see them. Gackstatter would lead both spring and fall tours of these bridges and were big events. He would often speak of discovering old Indian artifacts in the areas around the bridges. Gackstatter still composes music, but lives near St. Louis. Another Cowley County resident, Steve Tredway, was another local advocate of these bridges and was working on a book about them up until his death a few years ago.
The tours are mostly self-guided now. Maps of these bridges are available at both the Winfield and Arkansas City Chambers of Commerce.
There are a total of 165 stone arch bridges spread out over 35 counties in Kansas. The longest stone arch bridge in Kansas is located in Cowley County, and has a length of 199 feet. The oldest of these bridges is located in Pottawatomie County, and was built in 1870.
Time unfortunately ran out for one of those bridges in Cowley County, Fox Bridge, north of Cambridge, in the fall of 2016. Floodwaters on Grouse Creek took their final toll on the aging structure and washed most of it away, leaving only ruins to be discovered once the rain had stopped. The bridge had been in service since being built in 1910.
Most of the bridges were built by Walter Sharp, who came down from Butler County, to take advantage of the abundant native limestone that was prevalent in the area. The streams underneath these bridges were often used as watering holes for horses and later on was used as places to wash cars.
Taking the tour in recent weeks, it was evident these bridges have continued to withstand the pressures of time and the elements. For those who are wanting to take these tours, be sure to respect the private properties that line the bridges. Some of the county roads leading to these bridges are in better condition than others.
The map listing these bridges can be found here: