Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bridges of Western Kansas

Combine past information with storytelling and you get history, which both entertains and provides examples of actions that improve lives. Kansas has had thousands of years of learning how to set up functional communities. At least 155 years of those include practice establishing permanent towns operated by local and state governments.

During post-settlement years, The Great Depression delivered hard lessons as well as some of the greatest infrastructure progress our citizens have experienced. As people directly involved during those years pass and families lose sight of their personal involvement, I worry about disappearing knowledge and landmarks that told us how the Works Progress Administration improved Kansans’ lives. For those interested in this subject, a drive down local roads uncovers cleverly engineered monuments to a program designed to stimulate the economy and create beautiful yet functional structures utilizing native resources. During that Sunday cruise, explore city parks, blue highways, and rural lanes to look for old WPA bridges.

In many regions, locally quarried limestone adds decorative elements that building crews don’t achieve using traditional concrete and rebar construction. For those who enjoy connecting the past to the present, it’s interesting to visit these sites and examine them closely. Those who investigate these historical constructions find imbedded markers establishing the year WPA funds and local labor produced them.

One of the greatest strengths of this federal program was that it depended on local resources, natural and human. Those who know their regional geology can identify the origin of stones used to build the bridges. Marci Penner’s The Guidebook for Kansas Explorers helps to identify the types of limestone construction travelers view as they explore different counties in our state.

Even sightseers without that resource or another like it will recognize that different quarries supplied material used during construction. Ellis County’s light colored Fort Hays limestone clearly differs from grayish toned material found Phillips County. A short trip to view Graham WPA sites frequently reveals the use of green rock.

In theory, history should make us wiser. If that’s true, why hasn’t our state taken advantage of lessons provided during one of the most difficult times Kansans faced? Those hard years proved we could build a skilled workforce that used native material to create functional and beautiful bridges across creeks, rivers, and draws that drain our watersheds. Such efforts stimulated local economies then. Why wouldn’t they do the same today?

When I hear people complaining about a lack of jobs, I wonder why elected officials don’t steal a page from history books. They could train and hire native-born engineers and construction crews to use resources at hand to build necessary infrastructure. To retain jobs, locals could maintain those structures.

Make a point of visiting these monuments to hard work and initiative before it’s too late to see them. Contact legislators to ask what it would take to reinstate such programs. With foresight, Kansans could better utilize resources and support local companies willing to specialize in building and preserving functional bridgework. We’d be taking care of our own in more ways than one, a trait our ancestors would recognize.

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