Historic bridge just couldn’t hold up to latest floodwaters

One of the stone bridges in Cowley County was destroyed Saturday night by floodwaters. The area received 6 inches of rain on Friday.
One of the stone bridges in Cowley County was destroyed Saturday night by floodwaters. The area received 6 inches of rain on Friday. Courtesy photo

When Steve Tredway saw Cowley County’s Fox Bridge on Monday, his heart sunk.

“I felt tears coming to (my) eyes, like I lost a friend,” Tredway said.

Cowley County – long known for its stone bridges and stone bridge tours – lost the 105-year-old Fox Bridge over Grouse Creek this past weekend due to flooding.

“The Fox bridge was a masterpiece and will be missed,” Tredway posted on Facebook.

According to Cowley County’s website, “There are only 1,700 stone arch bridges remaining in the United States with more than 18 historical bridges across Cowley County.”

Now it is 17.

Built by German and Russian artisans from about 1890 to 1917, the bridges range from one to three arches.

They were assembled without cranes or the heavy construction equipment crews use today. With only horses and men who knew how to work with rock, each 800- to 1,000-pound stone was placed just so.

Tredway, who is working on a book about the stone bridges of Cowley County, said the Fox Bridge was built by Abe Finney and most likely is the only one he built.

“That art of bridge building died in 1929 – that’s when we lost our bridge builder, Walter Sharp,” Tredway said. “He moved here from El Dorado.”

At the time, many of Cowley County’s bridges were crude pontoon or steel structures that would wash away with every flood. Sharp ended up building more than 100 bridges in Kansas and eventually moved to Winfield.

The Cowley County site went on to say: “Sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning, the stone arch bridge north of Cambridge, known as ‘Fox Bridge,’ collapsed due to damage sustained during the recent flooding in Eastern Cowley County. … While flood waters had begun to recede over the weekend, Fox Bridge had been structurally weakened due to the creek cresting over the bridge and heavy currents slamming against it.

“Unfortunately it succumbed to the brute force.”

That portion of northeast Cowley County, as well as south-central Kansas, has been inundated with rainfall this past year, said Eric Schminke, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

254 Productions shot aerial drone footage of Highway 81 near Belle Plaine on September 11, 2016. The road is underwater with the Ninnescah River out of its banks.

“We are quickly setting the pace for the second-wettest year on record,” Schminke said Monday. “Wichita has measured 48.27 inches of water – that’s 20.11 inches above normal. And the rains we’ve had have been heavy, heavy rains.”

Two other stone arch bridges north of Cambridge – the Neer and Fromm bridges – are closed because of floodwaters and will remain so until Cowley County road crews can examine them, the website said.

Pudden Bridge, the triple-arch bridge south of Dexter, also sustained some damage and is closed until an inspection is completed.

In August, a flash flood southeast of Rose Hill damaged the historic Pole Cat Creek Bridge in Butler County that was built in 1901. That bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been assessed as salvageable.

Cowley County has four of its 17 bridges listed on the national register; Fox Bridge was not one of them. The bridge was on 62nd Road, east of 281st Road. It did not carry much traffic.

“We had about 6 inches of rain Friday night,” Tredway said. “It was a flash flood that took it out. The water ran completely over the bridge.

“On Saturday, the bridge just caved in and lost all of its support.”

All the stone used in the bridges of Cowley County was quarried within a mile of their construction, Tredway said.

“It made them cheap and popular,” he said.

K-53 was flooded on Friday morning south of downtown Mulvane. (video by Jaime Green/Sept. 9, 2016)

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner