Route of Beale road in Eastern Oklahoma
BH Photo #232847
POTEAU RIVER IRON BRIDGE NEAR FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS 1859
In the 1850’s, an improved Central route to California was surveyed from Fort Smith, Arkansas by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale along the 35th parallel as a federal project. Drawing on the previous work of Marcy and Whipple, this survey attempted to improve on routes already in use. It was determined that 6 iron bridges would be needed for the route in Eastern Oklahoma. Iron was chosen because of the threat of saboutage by the Native Americans toward wooden bridges.
An article by “Wanderer” published in Boston on October 5, 1859 says, “The bridges are of iron. They were manufactured in Philadelphia, upon Murphy’s improved Whipple plan, by the contractors, A. P. Roberts & Co., and are being put up by J. R. Nevins, assisted by Messers. Van Anden and Everett, also of Philadelphia. One is to cross the Poteau river near Fort Smith, Arkansas.”
An article in the Van Buren Press (Van Buren, Arkansas) from 1859 says, “Messers James Green and Alexander Graham of this county (Crawford) have contracted for building the substructure for the first six Iron Bridges to be erected on Beale’s road on the 35th parallel to California. From the well known character of Messers Green and Graham, the public interested may rest assured of the work being done in a satisfactory manner. The streams being bridged—Beale’s route to California, will undoubtedly be the favorite way to be traveled by immigrants, as it presents great advantages over any other route as regards wood, water and grass, the three most essential requisites for immigrants, besides being the shortest road.”
I believe that these bridges were of the Whipple (patent) Bowstring Truss design, as the few remaining examples (on the east coast), show a modular construction of the arches, which are bolted together from smaller castings, and with the exception of the Poteau river bridge, all bridge parts would have had to be transported by wagon to their destination. The iron castings of this design were small enough to be crated and shipped in practical size crates, which could be transported by wagon. The wooden floor beams and decking would have been milled locally. The piers and abutments would most probably have been hand cut or natural stacked stone. The Poteau river flows into the Arkansas river at Fort Smith, and it is believed all the bridge parts were shipped via the Arkansas river to Fort Smith. “Wanderer” says, in the October 5, 1859 story, “Miccos-chiefs-large and small, and warriors, gewgawed off in all the absurdity of savage pageantry, assembled upon the banks, and held a pow-wow over the boxes and their iron contents “Henry B. Edwards, Esq., Fort Smith, Arkansas” the direction upon the boxes was eagerly seized upon as giving some clue to the mystery.”
In an article by “Wanderer” in the Philadelphia Press from October 15, 1859, he says, “Mr. Edwards has his men now engaged upon the double span bridge over the Poteau, which will be completed ere long. The Choctaws have commenced to improve the road over the Winchester Mountain, and a project is afoot to turnpike the road from the bridge through the fearful boggy bottom of the Poteau and Arkansas to the village of Skullyville.”
This might indicate that the Poteau River bridge could be a double-span Whipple(patent)bowstring truss. If not a bowstring, then what is known is that it was Iron, and double-span. Precise location of this bridge is as yet unknown. One story has it at “the point at which the Poteau becomes unnavigable.” Further research is needed, and unfortunately the Federal Government documents on this project are missing.
By 1861, due to the civil war, all the bridges (it seems) were made impassable. Whether this was done by demolition, or by removing the wooden plank floor is unknown.
On December 18, 1896, W. J. Weaver wrote in the Fort Smith Elevator newspaper, “Large caravans finally came from the lower towns on the Rio Grande. They passed along west of Fort Gibson, en-route to Independence and West Port (now Kansas City). Their best freight for exchange was silver bullion on its way to the Missouri river towns. (This) drew the attention of the merchants of Fort Smith and Van Buren, (a)nd an effort was made to draw the Mexican trains here, and by congressional influence and the cooperation of the War Department, Iron bridges were built over the large streams on the route west from Fort Smith through the Choctaw Nation……Some of these bridges have disappeared for want of care (remember this is 1896 writing). They were built in 1859, and were used for local and military travel, but the war of the States closed all the Rio Grande traffic with our frontier.
During its brief period of use, The Butterfield Stage used this bridge as its crossing from Fort Smith into Oklahoma.
I am extremely indebted to Mr. Jack Beale Smith for his research and enthusiasm regarding all of the Beale Road bridges. I apologize for not mentioning his name when I first posted this essay. If it weren't for him, I would not even know this bridge (or any Beale road bridge) existed. This little essay is not in any way intended to take any light away from Mr. Smith's extensive research on the subject. Some of the quoted newspaper stories were provided to me by Mr. Smith, as well as additional newspaper accounts researched and provided by Joe Wasson. One quote was from a story in the Fort Smith Historical Society JOURNAL magazine.
If Mr. Smith makes any corrections of the above data and essay in his comments, I would take them as being the most accurate data known to date.