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Bridging the Kaw

-by Greg Hoots-

The Kansas River demarks the northern edge of Wabaunsee County, creating a meandering dividing line between the county and its neighbor to the north, Pottawatomie County. For more than a hundred years, the river has been a lifeline and a threat to the citizens who resided on both shores.  Eons of flooding created rich farm ground for miles along the river’s banks, and early settlements were built on both sides of the river. America’s railroads long favored building their lines along the rivers, as the ground had been flattened by the power of flood waters, making the construction of a railroad much easier than in the upland regions.

Bridge_Wamego1

The Highway 99 bridge across the Kaw River at Wamego displayed a warning sign on each end of the bridge, threatening a $5.00 fine for riding or driving across the bridge “faster than a walk.” This view looks north from the Wabaunsee County side of the river.

The Kansas River or the Kaw, as it is known, historically brought tragedy in the form of dangerous floods which plagued the towns along the river as well as everything and everyone located along its tributaries. Flooding had been frequent and severe, even before white settlers came to Wabaunsee County, yet with the arrival of the New Haven Colony in 1856, the new town of Wabaunsee, located in the flood plain of the Kaw, boasted 132 residents.

In 1870, the Pottawatomie Reserve, which in Wabaunsee County comprised most of what is now Newbury and Kaw Townships, was opened to white settlement, and the homesteaders flocked to the rich bottom land along the Kaw that had been the property of the Pottawatomie people, despite the known risks of flooding. Another disadvantage in living so close to the Kaw was the problem of travel to any destinations to the north, as they all entailed traversing the river. Farmers faced great difficulties in reaching markets on the north side of the river, negating much of the advantages found in bottomland farming.

The earliest solution to the problem was found in the operation of a number of ferries which crossed the river. While that solution was better than nothing, it left much to be desired.  The Alma News in June of 1869 reported on the ferry operating north of Alma at Wamego, saying, “On June 3, the Wamego ferry was reported in good condition to transfer teams when the boat wasn’t leaking or the wind didn’t blow, or the water wasn’t too high or too low, or it didn’t freeze, snow, or rain, or you didn’t call too early or too late, or the ferryman isn’t up in town.  At all other times, you could cross.”  The same newspaper reported that “the ferry boat at Manhattan was sunk in a gale in April, and that the editors of the Herald objected to the wind blowing on Wednesdays and preventing crossing on the ferry boat—thus depriving the editor of the news.” From the mid-1860s through the 1900s, three ferries operated on the Kaw with landings in Wabaunsee County, including the Wamego ferry, the Belvue ferry, and the Maple Hill ferry.

bridge kaw wamego flood

The Kaw River flooded badly both in 1902 and 1903. In this view, a throng congregates on the Kaw River bridge.

The unreliability of the ferries made a good argument for the construction of bridges across the Kaw. Matt Thomson reported on the construction of the earliest bridges in the county in his Early History of Wabaunsee County, noting in an account of events from 1872, “The new courthouse was occupied the last week in March.  St. Marys bridge completed in February and Wamego bridge in June.”  The two counties were unable to reach an agreement on the construction and funding for the bridges, and thus when they were originally constructed, they were constructed as toll bridges.  It was not until 1887 that the two bridges were made free to cross, after the years of tolls had eventually paid for their construction. The Wamego bridge was made free on April 12th, and the St. Marys bridge was declared free for travelers on October 20th of 1887.  The bridges significantly improved commerce for the farmers and ranchers in the northern third of the county, and by July of 1874 there were daily stagecoaches which ran to Wamego, while providing service to Silver Lake twice a week, and to Americas, Council Grove, Burlingame, and Topeka once a week. The daily route to Wamego demonstrated the significant amount of trade and commerce that Wamego offered early settlers of northern Wabaunsee County.

The steady increase in the population of northern Wabaunsee County, coupled with the increasing farming activity along both sides of the Kaw, caused an outcry for a third bridge to be constructed along the Kaw near Belvue.  The Alma News of June 4, 1891 reported on the progress made toward the construction of a Belvue bridge, “The bridge election in Belvue township resulted favorably to the bridge, and the people of Kaw township are rejoicing at the prospect of having a free bridge….The friends of the bridge have concluded that it will be the wisest economy to put in a good bridge that will stand a hundred years, and at a cost of about $10,000.  Pottawatomie County has agreed to give $1,000, and it is hoped that Wabaunsee County will give $1,000.”  The article concludes, “Good roads and bridges are important factors in the progress of any county, and the NEWS believes that a liberal and public policy in this direction is wise.  If our commissioners can find that they have the authority and means at command to assist in the construction of this bridge, we believe it is their duty to do so.”  The Belvue Bridge was completed on December 1, 1891 at a cost of $8,000.

bridge kaw township

The Sweeney Bridge was under construction when this photo was taken in 1911.

By 1910, there was a call by residences of Kaw Township for a new bridge to be built between the Belvue and Maple Hill bridges.  After considerable meetings and politicking, it was decided that it would be built on the north end of Turkey Creek Road in Kaw Township.  An “ideal” location was found which would only require an 800-foot bridge to cross the river. Construction began in 1910, and a target date for opening of the bridge was August of 1911.  As the bridge neared completion, concerns were raised about significant erosion to the bank near the north approach to the bridge. Despite those issues, the St. Marys Star of August 3, 1911, reported on the completion of the bridge and featured a photo of the structure. In a paid advertisement by St. Marys meat market, Stenger & Sons, solicited business from Wabaunsee County residents living in Kaw Township, saying, “We are glad to welcome our Kaw friends back again and invite you to call and see us.  We will give your orders explicit obedience and be pleased to serve you in our fine line of meats.” 

St__Mary_s_Star_Thu__Aug_3__1911_

The announcement of the opening of the ill-fated Sweeney Bridge was made in the St. Marys Star of August 3, 1911. Repairs on the bridge began almost immediately.

By the end of the month, the newspaper reports concerning the Sweeney bridge seemed more serious. The Alma Signal of August 31, 1911 warned in a headline, “The Bridge Needs Protection,” demanding, “that measures be taken at once to protect the banks, especially the north bank a little west of the bridge…During the last high water recently, over thirty feet of the bank, not 150 feet from the bridge caved in.”

Despite valiant efforts to fill dirt and rock into the decaying shoreline, the river maintained its relentless assault on the north shore of the river, creeping closer and closer to the bridge. The efforts to deter the erosion were unsuccessful, and by the summer of 1915 the bridge had to be closed while the county renewed its efforts to save the endangered structure. In an Alma Enterprise article headlined, Saving the Sweeney Bridge, dated July 9, 1915, it was reported that “John Hammarlund of Kaw was settling with the Bard for the recent work done in saving the Sweeney bridge across the river during the high waters.  The county paid him and the men who helped him, $1,177…They hauled 60 loads of rock, 550 loads of willows and brush, 30 loads of straw and old hay and filled 1,100 gunny sacks with sand, all of this to prevent the river cutting around the north end and leaving the bridge standing over a dry channel.  They used nearly 2,000 lbs. of wire, 1,200 feet of cable and 18 rods of wire fence.”

Unfortunately, the fix was just a short-term solution, and the problems of erosion of the shoreline persisted. In 1924 and 1935 similar emergency repairs were made to thwart flooding. In the summer of 1950, the day of reckoning came for the Sweeney Bridge.  The Manhattan Mercury of July 17, 1950 reported, “Due to undermining by the recent high water, pier No. 3 of the Sweeney bridge which crosses the Kaw river two miles south of St. Marys, in Wabaunsee County, gave way Saturday. Spans number three and number four collapsed as a result.  The Kaw river which had been up to 21 feet last week, registered 18 feet when the bridge collapsed.  No one was on the bridge at the time and no one was injured.  Built in 1911 by Wabaunsee County, Sweeney bridge was maintained as a county bridge.  Repairs will be made as soon as possible.” 

After engineers examined the damaged bridge, it was determined that it was not feasible to repair the bridge at that location on the river.  A year later, the great flood of 1951 claimed many more bridges which crossed the Kaw.  In addition to the 1950 loss of the Sweeney bridge, the Belvue bridge collapsed on June 22, 1951; the Willard bridge was lost on June 24; the Heisler bridge on June 28; the St. George bridge on June 29; and the Valencia crossing on July 5th of 1951.

Bridges across the Kaw have improved in design and construction throughout the years, and the cost of building bridges has grown as well.  Nonetheless, the conclusion which the Alma News reached in 1891, rings just as true today, when it noted, “Good roads and bridges are important factors in the progress of any county…”

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