Rust bonanza on Rust Road

According to a 1917 plat map of Shirley Township, Cloud County, the Kansas White Way followed its current route eastward from Concordia to cross the Republican River at Clyde with only one minor exception, a little dogleg north at the unincorporated town of Rice. Nothing on the map indicated a town there at all nor is there much of one now but four houses (two which appear vacant), a large quonset hut and some farm implements, plus a few things I’ll get around to in a minute. The road turned east to cross a narrow stone arch bridge built in 1899 by one J.B. Tremblay for the sum of $200. After crossing Elm Creek it went another mile and a half to meet up with the main road which followed the Union Pacific Central Branch Railroad.

What fascinated me about the map was its detail. If I had the luxury of time I could dig up every plat map along the route from Beloit to Atchison and know without equivocation the exact path of the highway. That’s about as likely as me recovering my hearing, unfortunately. About the best I can hope for is a few snatches of historical reference for our trips down Highway 9, the White Way’s most current iteration.

The Rice Stone Arch Bridge, as it’s named, served highway travelers until 1920 when the little dogleg was shifted south to parallel the tracks. If residents of Rice ever had dreams of bigger things they undoubtedly died then and there. Traffic was still allowed on what was suddenly a minor tributary until 1950 when flooding in Elm Creek made the bridge untenable. If not for a restoration project undertaken in 1990 by Ray Doyen, the bridge would have eventually collapsed into the stream bed like so many limestone building blocks. It is now closed to vehicular traffic, not that the road goes anywhere other than dead ending in a thin skim of woods bordering a plowed field. Pedestrians are welcome.

As it stands, the bridge is a monument to early days of transportation and, for us, anyway, another piece in the puzzle. To reach the bridge, turn north off Highway 9 on North 200th Road, go one block and turn right on a small dirt road to a parking lot.

We’d visited the bridge numerous times during our initial highway explorations in 2006, but always in the spring when trees were leafed out and the weather was warm. This time it was early winter on a return leg from Concordia for a planning session with Cloud County Travel and Tourism, the fields white with snow and an approaching storm reducing visibility to about a mile. The lowering gray skies and dropping temperatures created an aura of austerity that seemed evocative of the diminishing effects of time and history, man’s insignificant mark on the land stripped of all excess to the bare minimum. This is what was left, all that was left, and there would neveragain be more.

Equally applicable, though I didn’t know it at the time and wouldn’t for another week, was that the highway had a name. Not the White Way, of course, that was left behind in the mid-twenties when highways were given numbers and the music of those early fabled names was forever silenced. No more Golden Belt or Red Line or Rock Island, or White Way for that matter, the designations anachronistic, obsolete.

This section of Highway 9 was named Rust Road. To the west where the road dead-ends on the far side of Concordia, roads branching to the north and west are named Rock and Shell. Rock, Shell, Rust. I imagine the one gleaming white from crushed oyster shells like you’d find in the South along the Gulf Coast and the other a tawny ochre from limestone millings. Rust left me scratching my head. One does not surface roads with rust. Rust happens, an oxidation process of moisture meeting metal.

It became apparent as we entered the settlement of Rice that rust was paramount. The loss of leafy vegetable was like pulling back a heavy veil. A sizable vehicle junkyard stretched away from the intersection that led to the bridge, each ancient rustbucket more appealing than its neighbor. More old cars could be seen emerging from the woods on the west side of the main road, including a turquoise school bus with a yellow roof from whose engine compartment rose a towering three-pronged tree. I was agog with the possibilities for photographs, rust and abandonment my favorite themes, but it wasn’t until we toured the bridge and were on our way back to Highway 9 when we came to what can only be described as the motherlode for old vehicles.

It was as if every neglected, unused, dead or dying vehicle in all of Cloud County had crawled here to die, shielded from the hurtful world by a lattice of woods and bathed in cool shadows with the sweet songs of birds and the buzzing of bees. Our own vehicle was abandoned as for the next 45 minutes we photographed everything we could find until the cold drove us back shivering and numb, but ecstatic over our discovery. And later, when I saw the Rust Road designation, it made sense in an odd sort of way, and better yet I felt a ray of hope that the music had returned to at least one short stretch of Kansas highway.

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