The Mighty Samson of the Cimarron sits as a monument to engineering and strength over the Cimarron River. Completed on July 8, 1939, the bridge is nearing its 73rd birthday. L&T photo/Larry Phillips
By KEELEY MOREE
• Leader & Times
As a wise school teacher once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
For the Rock Island Depot crew in the 1930s, a few more “tries” were added into that old adage before trains could safely journey through Seward County.
Built in 1888, the Rock Island railroad stretched across Seward County and put the town of Liberal on the map. The tracks were constructed over mostly level plains, and trains still run through most of the original route today.
The railroad provided area Kansans with a gateway to the rest of the world, allowing the shipment of goods in and out of Liberal and across the country. But the establishment of the railroad didn’t come without its setbacks.
The climate in the county during the late 1930s stood in stark contrast to the drought conditions of modern day. Heavy rainfalls and occasional floods created a problem for the railroad near the town of Arkalon, where trains relied on a bridge to cross the Cimarron River.
After floods resulted in a bridge washout in 1937, another bridge structure supported by wooden pilings was built in its place to keep the railway running. But the rush to reopen a railroad bridge with the same design would prove disastrous the following year.
On Aug. 18, 1938, the “Gold Ball” freight train was traveling along a railway in Seward County during the morning hours. Unbeknownst to the conductor and those aboard, rains had swept away the pilings supporting the railroad bridge over the Cimarron River. The bridge was left suspended over the flooded Cimarron with nothing but air between the steel rails and the rushing river. Once the train drove onto the bridge, the rails collapsed, and the train plunged into the river below. In all, five men were injured and two were killed in the accident.
Seward County Historical Society Secretary Lidia Hook-Gray said watching the cleanup was quite an exciting event for county residents.
“The wreck in 1938 at Arkalon was huge in this area because people would go out and watch them pull all the wreckage up,” Gray explained. “They even had hamburger stands and soda-pop places so people could be refreshed while watching.”
Once again, a hastily built bridge was built over a nearby section of the river to keep the railroad open until the original railway could be repaired. But less than a month later, that bridge was swept away, as well.
Frustrated by the costs of repairing bridges over the Cimarron, chief operating officer for Rock Island John Farrington made a radical move to re-route the entire section of railroad near Arkalon.
A new plan was drafted to take on a daunting, 1,268 foot long bridge project to replace 3.5 miles of curved rails near Arkalon. Less than a year after the 1938 train wreck, the bridge named the “Samson of the Cimarron” was completed on July 8, 1939.
The bridge raised the train tracks more than one hundred feet above the waters of the Cimarron River. More than 21,800 tons of concrete were used to build abutments and construct piers that reached 65 feet below the river bed.
The completion of the stable bridge came just in time to provide the U.S. with a safe transportation system for supplies during World War II. Gray said the bridge was closely watched to prevent sabotage.
“During World War II, there were guard shacks that were placed on the bridge,” Gray said. “Guards would walk the bridge before the train came and they would walk the bridge after the train went over just to make sure no one was trying to blow the thing up during World War II. Once again, it was so very important, just as it is today.”
Despite the many failures of railroad bridges in the county, today the railroad bridge still holds strong over the Cimarron River. While passersby on U.S. Highway 54 can view the Samson from a distance, Gray encourages people to get up close and personal with the massive bridge.
“The piers are just amazing in themselves,” Gray explained. “I think people need to go out and visit it just to stand underneath it and look up – and you get the feeling of the size of it, whereas you don’t when you just drive by. It was an amazing wonder back in the ’30s, and it still is today, I think.”