Photography by Bill Stephens
Travel back 100 years to the era of hand-built limestone bridges of Cowley County, standing as monuments to a Kansas architect and his stoneworkers
It’s a beautiful spring day as we travel one of the back roads of Cowley County and park our car to inspect and appreciate another stone bridge. Architecturally, it is a graceful structure whose gentle, flowing arches seem to defy gravity. Practically, it is time-proven and sturdy, having for more than a century allowed passage across a creek and eliminated long, roundabout routes that would add on some 20 miles of travel.
This is just one of the approximately 40 stone bridges built in Cowley County after 1901 and placed on strategic sites that were natural narrows used by the locals to ford creeks. More than half of those original stone arch bridges were lost to flooding, time, and the increasing size and weight of the traffic, but local volunteers and officials are committed to preserving the surviving bridges and sharing them with visitors.
According to Cindy Goertz, a longtime member of the Cowley County Historical Society Board, there are more limestone arch bridges on Cowley County public roads than in any other county in the state. Walter Sharp, a prominent architect from El Dorado who settled in Winfield in the early 1900s, built most of these bridges. He used local limestone in long, arching stretches. “Sharp developed and perfected the stone arch bridge design. The lengths of some of the stone bridges are in excess of 60 feet, supported by two or even three arches. Other counties used stone arch bridges to cover small culverts but chose to use the iron truss bridge structure for larger streams. So these are unique,” Goertz says.
Some of the stones used in construction were over nine feet long and weighed many tons, but using the local limestone reduced the need for long-distance transportation of raw materials.
“The limestone was all quarried locally, within a close proximity to the bridge site, and all the labor was done by local men who were familiar with stonework,” Goertz explains. “Engineers were brought on-site to probe for bedrock to make certain that the footings of the bridges were firmly located.”
When a newly constructed bridge was opened to traffic, it was a festive occasion because it shortened the routes between communities. In addition, the bridge locations provided a new place for baptisms, social gatherings, even modest bathing, although the water was usually cold. Longtime residents have fond memories of swimming in the waters around many of the bridges, swinging from ropes suspended from the large sycamore trees, and washing their cars on the solid rock outcroppings.
Cowley County continued to build stone bridges until concrete bridges became the standard in the 1920s and the state engineer’s specifications required concrete for bridge constructions. This change ended the construction of new limestone stone arch bridges.
But the bridges continued to stand.
More than 100 years after they were built, the bridges are inspected regularly by county officials. Most are approved for passenger vehicles, though heavy farm equipment and buses are generally banned from using them.
“The stones allowed many of the bridges to survive floods for more than a century,” Goertz says, “and many are still viable structures in daily use.”
Touring the Bridges
Officially designated the “Stone Bridge Capital of Kansas” by the Kansas legislature in 2016, Cowley County boasts 18 unique stone arch bridges open to the public.
“The bridges are clustered around small communities like Dexter in the southeast and Cambridge in the northeast,” says Cindy Goertz of the Cowley County Historical Society. “You can explore the bridges and then visit the nearby little towns. Some of the towns had stone buildings constructed by the same crews that built the bridges. Cambridge has stone buildings constructed by the same crew that built the Fox bridge. Winfield has one building on Main Street constructed by [lead bridge architect] Walter Sharp, the Winfield National Bank building on the southwest corner of Ninth & Main. It is listed on the National Historic Register.”
Students of bridges have come from all over the country to visit these historic sites. Goertz says it is estimated that only 1,700 stone arch bridges remain in the United States; Cowley County works to preserve and bring visitors to its remaining bridges through self-guided tour routes available from the Winfield and Arkansas City chambers of commerce, as well as the county historical museum in Winfield and online at cowleycountyks.gov/StoneArchBridges.
One particularly notable bridge on the tour is the county’s last-remaining triple-arch bridge, the Kirk/Pudden Bridge, constructed south of Dexter in 1913. With a price tag of $3,350, it was one of the most expensive stone arch bridges of the time. Kirk/Pudden Bridge, as well as the double-arched Andes Bridge and the Thomson Bridge, are on the National Register of Historical Sites. The Badger Creek Bridge is listed on the Register of Historic Kansas Places and was nominated in 2017 for the National Register of Historical Places.