The Uniting Bridge

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Joseph Fort Newton
Vermillion Creek Tributary Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1870.

“You know,” Jake started as he leaned against the handle of his shovel, watching the men pick up tools around the newly-constructed stone bridge, “after Wilson’s Creek, I didn’t think there was any way this country could be mended; much less get back to normal.”

“That was a nasty affair,” Eli said, who sat on the creek bank just below. “Something I try to forget.”

Jake opened his mouth to say something, but a wagon came around the bend, stopping him. George Palmer eased himself down from the seat, then lowered his two grandsons. “I heard this bridge might be done today.”

“Oh, we’re done all right,” one of the men said, holding a bundle of tools. “And you’re about to be the first to cross it!”

The elderly man smiled, “Quite the honor!” and he went on talking to some of the other men. 

Eli rubbed the back of his sunburnt neck. “That is a mighty fine bridge,” he said, studying the thick limestone blocks forming the arch. “I bet you it could hold a hundred wagons all at once.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Jake said, shifting his weight as the sun came out from behind a cloud, shining bright on the glistening water under the archway. 

“You remember Ben Kellerman? From the regiment?” Eli said after a moment.

Jake nodded, a stern look on his face. “Buried him myself after the battle.”

Eli nodded, too. “Well, he would have appreciated this bridge. He was a good stonemason.”

Both men’s faces, hard and serious, eased up as the two boys ran across. “I’m the first!” one shouted, holding the other back. “No, I want to be!” cried the other, before they both stumbled across the other side.

“Looks like a tie to me!” hollered out their grandfather, garnering a cheer from the laborers.

“I really didn’t think this country could get back to normal,” Jake continued. “Or be united again.” He scanned the stone construction one more time, seeing its squared blocks and sturdy base, and the two roads it joined together. Then, turning to Eli and patting him on the shoulder, he said: “But I think this bridge just might help us get there.”

* * * * *

This bridge, about five miles southeast of Onaga, Kansas, was once known as Angle’s Bridge because, appropriately, Mr. Angle’s grist mill was nearby. It is now known as the Vermillion Creek Tributary Stone Arch Bridge, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1870 along the main route between Louisburg (then the county seat of Pottawatomie County) to America City and towards Holton. The sign about the bridge indicates that its building method was one that was popular during this time, but is not used anymore.

Being a gravel road today, it is no longer the main route. In fact, all that is left of America City is a cemetery. Yet, while we don’t know who the builders were, the bridge stands as a testament to them as 150 years later, a sign still allows 43-ton trucks to pass over it. Now that’s impressive!

And even though we don’t know their names or their faces, we can guess at what their feelings might have been only five years after the bloody Civil War. Following those nearly four years of division, and still being in the middle of Reconstruction, a bridge meant to connect people (coincidentally running north and south), might have seemed like one small way to heal the country and bring people together again. It’s interesting to wonder about.

Finally, instead of a bustling road that it used to be, the route to the Stone Arch Bridge offers a scenic drive through the eastern edge of the Flint Hills. At the bridge, there is an informational sign, as well a metal walkway leading down to the creek to better glimpse the bridge. It’s a peaceful spot, offering a little respite from the worries of life. That might not be what the builders intended it to be, but their memory lives on through the bridge, nonetheless.

Thank you for reading.

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