Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Natural Bridge, Part II

Natural Bridge near Sun City, Kansas
Last week's blog, "The Natural Bridge,"   (archives, 8-28-2014), about artist, Birger Sandzen's paintings and prints drew many visitors to the blog.  Some of those visitors left comments, a few at the blog, but many more on face book.  One of those comments was left by Janice Smith Urban with a link to a wonderful website containing many photographs.  The photographs used in this blog are from the Collection of Brenda McLain, courtesy of Kim Fowles, with post card images collected by Kim Fowles, together with images from the Kansas Geological Survey.  I recommend a visit to that website, where specific photo credits are shown and additional photographs may be viewed.  My thanks to Janice, who led me to the site, and to the many others who left comments.

Taken by Stan Roth in 1961, KsGeoSurvey
The face book comments described visits by many people when they were children, and the wonderful old photographs document visits far earlier, judging from the clothing and an old automobile in one image.  Look closely at the photo above to see the three young women in their long, white summer dresses which would have been the fashion from the early 1900s.

The photograph at left was taken in 1961, showing very different dress of the men in the picture.  Compare the condition of the rocks in the two photographs, and notice how the cracks have become more apparent.  The bridge collapsed shortly after the 1961 photograph was taken.

Last week's post included excerpts from an interview published Dec. 5, 1940, in which Sandzen expressed his concern about the stability of the bridge.  He urged the importance of immediate preservation efforts, and, in fact, there were efforts taken for the state to acquire the property as a historical site.  An article in the Barber County Index, dated Feb. 20, 1942, describes passage by the Kansas House, which was sent to the Senate as a joint resolution, directing the Kansas Fish and Game Commission to acquire the Natural Bridge to be supervised and promoted by the state.  Unfortunately, the resolution required acquiring the area described at no cost, and the property remained in private hands.

From Fowles Collection
A detailed description of the bridge by Prof. F. W. Cragin appeared in the 1912 Kansas:  a cyclopedia of state history, Vol. II, p. 336, a copy of which is in the collection of the Pratt Historical Museum.  "The bridge spans the canyon of the creek, here about 55 feet from wall to wall.  The height of the bridge above the bed of the creek is at the highest point 47 feet, at lowest 31, and at middle 38.  The width of the bridge at the middle is 35 feet.  The upper surface of the bridge declines toward the downstream side, but not so much that a wagon drawn by a steady team could not be driven across it."

Children wading under the Natural Bridge
Former Pratt resident Chuck Renner described in a face book comment the creek as being about 4' wide and 2' deep when he was a boy and his father allowed Chuck and his siblings to swim in the water.  Others remembered a dry creek bed, or no more than a trickle of water.

Prof. Cragin's description reads:  "The relief of the vicinity seems to indicate that at a geologically recent time Bear creek here flowed to the east of its present course, and that its waters, becoming partially diverted by an incipient cave, enlarged the latter, and finally were entirely stolen by it, the cave at length collapsing, save at the portion now constituting the natural bridge."  Since present memories of the amount of water in Bear Creek when they visited as children vary, perhaps the amount of rainfall explains the differences.  However, there was certainly water in Bear Creek when the children in the photograph above visited.  (Clothing would indicate the early 1900s.)

Entrance to Havard's Cave
Filley Docent Gary Curtis, upon seeing the Sandzen painting of The Bridge in the "Kansas Ties" exhibition at the Filley Art Museum, described being encouraged by my older brother Clark to enter a cave where Gary became stuck in a narrow passage.  In a 2005 exchange of e-mails between Kim Fowles and David Massey, he described high school boys entering Havard's Cave.  "The tough part was the entrance as you had to lower yourself down into a sink-hole, finally get yourself flat on your stomach and wiggle yourself in for several feet, then it would open up and finally you could stand up.  It was fairly spacious and [I] don't remember how big it was now, but I'm sure it was a lot less than I remember it.  The first fellow that entered it had to have had nerves of steel as there is very little wiggle room at the beginning and its not easy to wiggle backwards if you met something that did not welcome you."  Massey's description sounds as if Gary might have remembered that tight passage into Havard's Cave.  (The photo of Havard's Cave is from the collection of Elizabeth Covington Hoagland, via Kim Hoagland Fowles.)

As for the 'something that did not welcome you,' Chuck Renner may have offered a clue about what that could have been.  His face book comment described a family visit when his sister jumped from the car ahead of the rest of the family and nearly stumbled into a pit with at least twenty rattlesnakes in it!  Chuck had never seen so many rattlesnakes at one time, and he has never forgotten what he saw that day.  Lee Massey, in the 2005 exchange of e-mails, described a cave that ran from one side of the bridge to the other.  "It was exciting to go thru," she wrote. "I was always afraid of Rattlesnakes.  It was always cool.  There was a ledge along one wall and I was afraid snakes would like it."

Collapsed Natural Bridge, KsGeoSurvey
I have saved the saddest photograph for the close of this blog.  The danger of a collapse from natural causes had long been known.  Perhaps that is what occurred.  However, it is suggested by others that the bridge was dynamited because of the liability it presented.  What is obvious from this photograph is that the place remembered fondly by many people living in this area is gone.  There is no question that trespassing was frequent and risks were taken.  The photograph taken in 1961 shows how the cracks had enlarged from what appeared in earlier photographs.  Liability concerns were reasonable, however tragic the destruction of a beautiful natural wonder loved by so many people and worthy of designation as a State Historical Site may have been if, in fact, it was dynamited.  

Jerry Ferrin may have been one of the last to visit the bridge and to crawl through a small tunnel under the bridge, a tunnel Nancy Smith has early home movies of her father and her grandparents with others "coming out of it, shaking the dirt off, laughing and having a good time!"  In the 2005 exchange of e-mails, Jerry wrote, "Dad had heard the natural bridge was to be destroyed, and took us to see it soon before that was done."  

Sadly, those of us who can remember visiting the bridge now have gray in our hair, and family visits can no longer wade under the bridge and crawl through the caves.  However, all of us can visit the Vernon Filley Art Museum now through November 30, 2014 to see Birger Sandzen's painting of The Bridge, on loan from the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg, KS.  Visit last week's blog for more information.

(Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.  Be sure to add comments to this blog if you have memories to share.)

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

VERY interesting! MAny thanks for Part II