Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mighty Sampson of the Cimarron stands tall

The Mighty Sampson of the Cimarron is a bridge that stands tall in Seward County. 
Built in 1888, the Rock Island Railway put Seward County and Liberal on the map.  The railroad stretched over the plains, providing Kansas with a gateway to the rest of the world and transporting goods in and out of southwest Kansas.  In stark contrast to the drought ridden plains and dry river beds common in southwest Kansas today, the Cimarron River, located between Kismet and Liberal, presented a problem for the railroad when it was built.  

The sand-choked, low lying creek was prone to flooding during heavy rainfalls.  The initial crossing was built near the town of Arkalon, where trains slowed to 30 mph to navigate the 3.5 miles of curves and trestles crossing the river. 

In 1937, floods washed out the first of three bridges built to cross the river.  The bridge was rebuilt in the same place, but on Aug. 18, 1938, the “Gold Ball” freight train proceeded across the bridge following a heavy rainfall.  Halfway across, the bridge, weakened by heavy rainfall and turbulent waters, disappeared and dropped the train and crew into the river.  

Floods washed out bridges in 1937 and the Gold Ball freight train attempted to cross the river but fell into the waters killing two and injuring four men. Thirty train cars sank to the bottom of the river. Courtesy photo from the Kansas Historical Society. 

Two men were killed, four men were injured and 30 train cars and the engine sank into the river.  Repairs began immediately, but on Sept. 5 the Cimarron flooded again and destroyed the Arkalon bridge for the second time.  While no trains or freight were lost, John Farrington, Chief Operating Officer for Rock Island, made the radical decision to reroute the railroad. He also decided to build a state-of-the-art bridge at a cost of $1.5 million, an unthinkable amount in 1938.

Plans to build a new bridge were developed after floods weakened the old bridges
Photo Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society

In late September 1938, work began on the new bridge.  Over the next 10 months, crews moved five million cubic yards of earth to build the approaches for the new crossing. Caison-sunk concrete piers, built in the art deco style of the period, were placed on foundation 65 feet below the riverbed.  By the summer of 1939, steelwork was being built and the actual bridge spans began taking shape some 92 feet above the river bed. 

On July 8, 1939, at 2:35 p.m., Rock Island train #13 was the first to cross the new bridge.  According to Lidia Gray-Hook with the Seward County Historical Society, the bridge was completed just in time to provide the U.S. with a safe transportation system for supplies during World War II.  In fact, the bridge was so important to the U.S. that is was closely guarded during the war to prevent sabotage.

A close up view of this 80 year-old bridge.  Courtesy Photo.

Today, 80 years later, the Mighty Sampson of the Cimarron still stands, and is a majestic marvel that can be viewed by passersby on U.S. 54. 

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