Part 2 of navigating the occasional, treacherous county road
Locating the stone arch bridges of Cowley County is akin to following a treasure map, of sorts. Maps are available online or at both the offices for the Winfield and Arkansas City Chambers of Commerce. As this writer discovered Thursday afternoon, there are some county roads in rural Cowley County that should not be driven on after it has rained, unless you have the appropriate vehicle.
Walter Sharp was raised in Burlingame, but operated as a bridge contractor in El Dorado. When he came down to Cowley County in the early 20th century, to try his hand at bridge-building, the bridges there were steel structures that could not withstand flooding.
Sharp had faith in his stone arch bridges. He knew they were durable and were built to last. He also knew the materials could easily be found locally. By 1904, his company had produced more than 100 stone arch bridges in Kansas. The business was so good he moved to Winfield where he lived until his death in 1929.
Some of these bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Kirk (Pudden Esch) Bridge has three arches, crosses Grouse Creek, and is located near Dexter. Having been built in 1913, it was one of the last stone arch bridges built in Cowley County. It ended up on the list in 1985. The double-arched, Andes Stone Creek Bridge, located east of Cowley 1 was recognized and added to the list in 1987.
Sunflower Journeys has been to Cowley County twice to do segments on these bridges. They came back in 2016 after Governor Brownback made it official that Cowley County was the ‘Stone Arch Bridge Capitol’ of Kansas.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to some of these bridges. Fox Bridge, near Cambridge, was lost in the flooding that occurred in the fall of 2016. The Dutch Creek Bridge was demolished near Floral to make way for a newer bridge. The old bridge, which had been in place since 1904, no longer could handle the massive combines that needed to cross it. Former Cowley College Music Instructor Gary Gackstatter was the last person to stand on it before it was lost to the dustbin of history. Gackstatter had been featured on the Sunflower Journeys segments and used to lead the tours of the bridges, with his wife Shannon, before they moved to Missouri in recent years.
Building these bridges was quite a process. Jeanette Steinert wrote in her article “The Bridges of Cowley County, “First, the river was dammed, and huge amounts of dirt were built. Stone was stacked from both sides across the top of the dirt, using pulleys to help move slabs that might weight as much as one-half ton. The grain in the limestone required it to be laid a certain way so water could not get in the seams. How well this was done made all the difference between a bridge lasting 30 or 100 years. Precise fit was painstakingly achieved with hammer and chisel. The last stone put in at the center top of the arch was the capstone.”
These bridges can be located throughout Cowley County, but again a word to the wise: certain county roads are nearly impassable after it has rained and should be avoided unless you have the appropriate vehicle.