Photos: Touring The Bridges Of Cowley County
Cowley County is the stone arch bridge capital of Kansas. (Seriously, you can look it up.)
There are 16 bridges scattered about the county on tiny backroads. Most of them are well over 100 years old, built by hand with local limestone.
So beloved are these bridges that the Kansas Legislature signed off on the county's unique designation in 2016.
“They are unique ... and to think that something has survived all of the floods, through all of the years, and they are still pretty sturdy, it’s pretty amazing to me," said Cindy Goertz, a volunteer with the Cowley County Historical Society and a stone arch bridge expert.
You could try to visit all of the bridges in one very long day, but Goertz says it’s better to pick a corner of the county and concentrate on three or four.
“The bridges are clustered around small communities like Dexter in the southwest and Burden in the northwest,” Goertz said. “You can explore the bridges and then visit the little towns.”
On our recent tour, we decided to look at three bridges near Winfield, starting with the County Poor Farm Bridge, just off the bypass.
It spans the Black Crook Creek Tributary and is just one narrow lane wide. You’ll need to park nearby, but it’s a short, easy walk around a metal gate and across to the other side.
“You can come out so close to it and feel like you are right here,” Goertz said. “It’s closer, it’s smaller.”
The bridge is tiny with a narrow arch, shaped almost like a tunnel. You can walk up to the edge of the riverbank for a perfect view. Long limestone rocks are stacked with smaller rocks acting as mortar, held together by gravity and friction.
“It’s an art,” Goertz said, “something that’s not found everywhere because you have to have solid bedrock to build a bridge like this. Many places don’t have that. You don’t find the limestone to quarry in the area.
"I mean, it’s a unique area because it is in the Flint Hills."
Eastern Cowley County is the western edge of the Flint Hills, and as we traveled to find the next bridge, the landscape changed from farmland to cattle country. The trek to these hidden bridges takes you through gorgeous scenery, even in winter: brown soil, every shade of tan and gold and the silver of last year’s tallgrass, shimmering in the wind.
Our next stop was the Badger Creek Bridge. After several turns, a sharp curve to the left into the woods and down into the creek valley, there it was: a steep arch in the road.
“You come up over the bridge and you really have to watch it,” Goertz said. “Most of these bridges are not very wide because, of course, they were built when we had horses and buggies.”
Our final destination was five or six miles away — east, then south, then east again. At the last turn there was a small sign reading “Stone Bridge,” with an arrow pointing east. It's another three and a half miles from the sign to reach the Silver Creek bridge.
It's a double-arch structure with shallow, fast-moving water emptying into a pool. A rope swing hangs out over the deeper end.
You can walk up to the edge of the creek and put your toes in if you’re brave enough (or if it’s warm enough — we admired it from dry land).
Like the other bridges, Silver Creek is surrounded by scenic countryside; trees, small hills, and farms with big red barns. The drive is as beautiful as the destination — which is good, Goertz says, because you have to work a little to find some of them.
“Most people have no idea they are there,” she said. “In fact, they’ve probably driven over many and never realized what they were driving over.
If you want to visit the bridges, you can get information from the Cowley County website. (Most of the bridges are on private property so check with county officials about permission from landowners.)