One of the first items of business tackled by the first Kansas territorial legislature in 1855 was what to do with those of an unsound mind. Not to say that Kansas has or has had more than its share of deranged lunatics, screwballs, unfortunate hallucinatory incoherents, eccentric whackos or habitual drunkards than any other place, but the Victorian era saw many changes in the treatment of mentally ill. Shortly afterward becoming a state 6 years later, the pioneers of the plains established the Kansas Insane Asylum on a tract of land on a hill overlooking the Marais des Cygnes river, donated by the township of Osawatomie and it was filled to maximum occupancy almost immediately. Construction began in earnest of a much larger, state of the art facility in 1868 (see the original plans here: clickie).
The hospital was built using the Kirkbride system of long rambling wings, staggered so that each received plenty of sunlight and fresh air, with ‘improved grounds, tastefully ornamented’, the building itself designed to have a curative effect on the patient. It was indeed an impressive set of structures and with the farm for the patients to work as part of physical exercise and therapy, became a largely self-sustaining entity. By 1910, it had shops, boiler house, electric light and power plant, ice house, bakery, laundry, barns, green houses, a reservoir for a water supply, auditoriums, stages, fountains, butterfly gardens and more.
Sadly, very little remains of the once beautiful structures. Most, including the Queen Anne style Victorian Administration building with the twin 5 story turrets had been adandoned by 1986 , and stood empty and alone on a hill about the Marais des Cygnes river, looking over the little town of Osawatomie like a castle until 2002, when it was demolished. A new hospital is still functioning on the site, and a few of the old buildings remain, boarded up and solitary, a testament to the former grandeur of the site.
Across from the main complex of the current State Hospital is the old Asylum cemetery. Of the 343 souls buried in the cemetery, only two have headstones with their names and information, the others are simply numbered which correspond with a grid kept by the hospital staff. It really speaks as to how the patients were viewed by the staff and the state as less than human, just a number. No name, no date, no beloved daughter, cherished mother, just a fading number.
I would have liked to see more of the grounds and explore a little more, however, it was not long after we arrived that I was greeted by security guards and asked to leave the premises. *sigh* Maybe next time I will have the forethought to ask for permission, but then again…
The cobblestone brick road which led from the old highway to to hospital is still there and in good repair, and if you follow it down the hill towards the town, you will find yourself greeted by a limb obscured sign and the real reason for our visit: the Asylum Bridge. In faded letters, the sign boldy proclaimed: DANGER. It couldn’t have been more inviting to me if it had been backlit with neon flashing red arrows pointing to the entrance. I couldn’t wait to see what lay beyond!
Arming myself with my camera, I climbed out and pushed through the brush, marveling at how nature had enveloped the iron trusses, the vines wrapping themselves and slowly dismantling the once symmetrical iron structure. The 219 foot pin connected Reverse Parker Truss structure is singular in its structure and unique. There is no other standing example of this design, and it may well be the only one of its kind to have ever been built. It has been closed to vehicular traffic since the 1970s, and although it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no effort to maintain or restore the bridge have ever been successfully mounted. It is now decrepit, missing boards and closed to all foot traffic. A flood in 2007 covered the bridge, including much of the truss. Birds have nested in the old gaslight mounts that still adorn the top of the bridge next to the plaque with three names of the city commissioners that were in office when the construction was completed. The bridge was built by Kansas City Bridge and Iron of Kansas City, Missouri for the lowest of numerous bids, $4800.00
After checking out the bridge we drove into town to visit the town Osawatomie and get a bite to eat. The downtown was charming, but we couldn’t find an open restaurant. We stopped at the vintage IGA and purchased some beef jerky, bananas and cokes and took a drive out to the Creamery Street Bridge. One of two triple span Marsh Rainbow Arch bridges in Osawatomie. Set above a lovely dam with nice shade trees, this was the perfect spot for an impromptu picnic.
James Marsh built 11 of these bridges in Kansas, this one spanning the Marais des Cygnes river was completed in 1931 and then its twin over Pottawatomie Creek the following year. Ironically, Marsh’s first job as an engineer was with the Kansas City Bridge and Iron company that built the Asylum Bridge. Marsh is also responsible for the sole remaining Rainbow arch bridge on route 66 which runs through a corner of Kansas – clickie.
We stopped by the John Brown Memorial Park, but the light was fading. On the way out of town, we pulled into the Sonic Drive In to grab a couple chocolate milkshakes. As the sun set, the local teenagers began to fill the empty spots. We sat the watching them, freshly showered, preening and flirting with one another. I was reminded of my own youth, sitting on the bumper of an old Volkswagen Bug with my best friend, drinking a Sonic Milk,shake on a Saturday night. Some things never change.