Yes, this bridge can be saved

Polecat Creek Bridge in Butler County, which was damaged in recent floods, was a popular place to swim some decades ago.
Polecat Creek Bridge in Butler County, which was damaged in recent floods, was a popular place to swim some decades ago. Courtesy photo

Even as Butler County authorities were still cleaning up and assessing damage from last weekend’s flash flooding, nearby residents were stopping by to ask a question.

“Are you going to be able to save the bridge?”

They were referring to the stone bridge that has spanned Polecat Creek on a township road southeast of Rose Hill since the turn of the last century. The flash flood that followed up to 10 inches of rain in the area tore native stones from the bridge’s wings and chewed large holes into the approaches on both sides.

“I don’t ever recall the water ever being as high or as bad as it was at that location,” Butler County public works director Darryl Lutz said of the bridge.

At first glance, officials feared the worst for the bridge, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985.

“We were really afraid that it did” destroy the bridge, Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said. “The (bridge) deck was completely blown up on it. It blew a lot of stones off.

“Structurally, we didn’t know if it was still sound.”

But a closer look at the bridge in the flood’s aftermath showed the stone arch and footings were still solid and intact, Lutz said. The stones that had been blown off by the force of the water were on the wing walls and are not vital to the bridge’s stability or weight-bearing capacity.

Crews filled in the holes on the approaches and deck last week, and the bridge is open to traffic again on the township road called Southwest 230th Street.

Public works employees will track down the rock that had been on the bridge and rebuild the wing walls when other projects are completed, likely sometime this winter, Lutz said.

The locals seem pretty fond of it.

Darryl Lutz, Butler County Public Works director

“The locals seem pretty fond of it,” he said. “You learn a lot more about that when something like this happens. All of a sudden, they’re worried about it.”

Formal damage estimates haven’t been compiled, he said, and it will take a closer inspection to figure out everything that needs to be done.

But the bridge’s fate is not in question.

“The bridge is there, and as far as we know, it’s not in any jeopardy of falling down,” Lutz said. “We certainly have no plans to take it out of service.”

Bev Leete has heard many stories from old-timers about swimming or fishing at the bridge. The bridge is often used as a backdrop for senior pictures or parties.

“That water had to be 20 to 25 feet high to go over the top of that bridge,” Leete said.

It had to be violent, too, to do the damage it did, she said.

“It does have some rather large gouges in it and some pieces that have been washed away, in addition to the rocks that have been moved,” said James Patterson, who lives in Derby but regularly shoots photos at the bridge. “I can understand why they would wonder if it’s still structurally sound.”

The bridge is a great example of using what was available at the time to get the job done, Lutz said. The arch construction was basic but solid, using stone quarried from nearby.

Unfortunately, Lutz said, it reflects its time in other ways as well: It’s narrow and can’t handle the weight of some modern, much-heavier vehicles. The single, narrow passageway for water likely contributed to the damage it sustained earlier this month, he said.

But as a basic conveyance over a waterway, it still works just fine.

Dennis Webster remembers swimming a few times in Polecat Creek next to the bridge as a boy in the 1950s.

“When I was a kid, there was only one municipal swimming pool,” Webster said. “That was in Wichita. That’s a long ways from home.”

Back then, the stone arch bridge “was about the only place for kids to swim,” he said.

Just south of the bridge was a flat rock bottom no more than 4 feet deep, he said, but south of there was a deep hole in the creek bed.

“Kids would dive in,” he said.

For many years, a rope dangled from a tree branch, and kids would swing out over the water and let go. But that’s been gone for quite a while now.

“Other than that, it was just (floating on) inner tubes and having fun,” Webster said.

The bridge’s charm hasn’t been lost on today’s young adults, Patterson said. He regularly sees evidence that people have been there to fish or party.

“Kids do know where it is,” he said. “They visit it rather frequently.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger