Saving a forgotten bridge

The old iron truss bridge spanning the Whitewater River on SW 90th Street (Central Street), east of the former Lily Lake School, was built in 1886 by P.E. Lane of Chicago, Ill. The bridge has character and the surrounding area is wrapped in history. The bridge was constructed on a low water crossing, which was a frequented site used by the Osage Indians living and moving through the area. The structure of iron and wood served from horse and buggy days to modern vehicles - well over 100 years.

Circumstances surrounding the almost-forgotten bridge have created concerns for nearby residents, a land owner, and historians.

The bridge is no longer accessible because it is on private property and the county abandoned the structure in 1975, which means it is no longer maintained by the county.

The bridge still stands, but is in danger of collapse. It was built on lime stone abutments and piers. Time, weather and flooding have contributed to the crumbling pylons.

Nearby resident Jimmy Lytton is concerned that the next flood might be the last one for the bridge. He has extensive knowledge of the area’s history and the bridge.

“The bridge is historic and should be saved,” Lytton continued. “It would be a shame to lose it.”

The Kansas State Historical Society is aware of the bridge, but has not evaluated it for National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) eligibility.

Robert Elder, an editor with Bridgehunter.com, a database of historic or notable bridges in the U.S., agrees with Lytton and has been interested in the bridge for several years.

“I would say that there are three things about this bridge itself that make it historically significant: its age, its portal bracing, and its association with an obscure builder,” Elder continued. “The bridge is a pin - connected Pratt through truss and was built in 1886 by the P. E. Lane Bridge & Iron Works. This company was based in Chicago, but had branch offices in Topeka and Denver. The company probably only operated for about 15 - 20 years. Their bridges tended to be very ornate. This one is no exception as it features angled - lattice portal bracing.”

Most metal truss bridges constructed prior to 1900 used pinned connections instead of rivets. Pinned connections were popular at the time because they allowed the rapid erection of the trusses and made it easier to analyze the stresses in the truss members.

Due to improvements in pneumatic field riveting equipment, builders made the transition from pinned connections to riveted connections around 1890.

Elder added that only six confirmed P.E. Lane bridges remain in the U.S., with two in Kansas.

A one-room country school house was built in the 1800s near the bridge and in 1920, a brick school house was constructed west of the country school. Lily Lake School was in operation until its closing in the late 1960s.

The road and bridge were part of the main route west from Augusta to Wichita. Changes in the area occurred in the early 1900s with the construction of major oil fields to the west and south of Augusta. The work created an influx of laborers, the creation of shanty towns, and the constructions of hundreds of oil derricks.

The oil fields provided jobs and many of the children attending Lily Lake School had fathers working nearby.

The route to Wichita changed when a new bridge was built approximately one mile south of the P.E. Lane Bridge on Hockaday Road, which was also called Kellogg Road.

The Lane Bridge continued to function into the 60s until Lily Lake School was closed and the county deeded that section of the road back to the land owners.

In 1990, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that nearly every stream in Kansas is private property and permission is needed from the landowners to access and use the streams and adjacent lands for any purpose.

The State of Kansas considers the river at the Lane bridge to be the private property of the owner bordering both banks. And because Butler County abandoned the bridge a number of years ago, the sole ownership of the bridge belongs to landowner Arden Macy.

“ The county doesn’t own the bridge and has no legal authority to even access the bridge since it sits on private property, “ stated Darryl Lutz, Butler County Public Works and Engineering director.

The years and weather have taken their toll on the bridge. No longer is the area a busy thoroughfare for drivers going to and from Augusta. The bridge was left to languish in the overgrown wooded area, largely forgotten. Floods and downpours have threatened the integrity of the bridge. Water is eroding the limestone pylons and the damage has become obvious.

Lytton has noticed considerable damage to the pylons during the recent floods and continues to check the bridge.

“I’m afraid that it’s in immediate danger of collapsing,” he said.

Elder advised, “This bridge is certainly in danger. Sometimes it is hard to predict how long a bridge will stand. I have seen some remain standing long after I would expect a collapse. I have also seen some collapse without warning.”

Landowner Macy cares about the bridge and does not want to see it collapse.

“The bridge is important to me and my family. I don’t want it moved and I don’t want to see it fall,” she continued. “I want to keep the bridge in the family, but I don’t necessarily want the state coming in here, either. It is on private property and I don’t want Sunday drivers going down there to try to see or even worse, cross that bridge. There is a big drop from the bridge to the water. I don’t want anyone hurt,” she explained.

Macy, who lives in Texas, is a descendent of M.S. Loomis, an early Butler County resident and property owner. The land has been in her family since the late 1800s. Mr. Loomis leased a lot of his acres for oil and gas development.

Elder has been communicating with Macy and he shared with her information on Workin’ Bridges, a firm that specializes in the restoration of bridges. The company recently shored up a bridge in Michigan that was also in danger of collapse, and are currently working to relocate the Long Shoals Bridge in Bourbon County, Kansas.

Macy has yet to decide whether to proceed with a temporary support system that would stabilize the bridge for now, or go with a complete restoration.

Elder advised that there may be a possibility of fundraising for restoration work on the bridge.

He said, “Overall, I think that saving this bridge is a win for the landowner and for Butler County. Nobody wins when a bridge collapses.”

Like a lone sentry, the old bridge continues to stand watch in the quiet woods. Floods and weather cycles continue and without immediate attention, it could someday be gone.

For more information on the bridge and other bridges, go to: https://bridgehunter.com/ks/butler/bh48844/.

Sources: “Windmills, Bridges, and Old Machines: Discovering Our Industrial Past,” by David Weitzman.

Bridgehunter.com

Belinda Larsen can be reached at blarsen@butlercountytimesgazette.com. Twitter: @Belinda_Larsen