The Samson of the Cimarron is a majestically named railroad bridge that stands tall over the Cimarron River crossing in southwestern Kansas along U.S. Highway 54. When it was completed in 1939, it solved more than a half-century of headaches, including bridge collapses, train wrecks, and the disappearance of an American city.
The Rock Island Railroad came to Seward County in 1888, connecting southwest Kansas to the rest of the country. Towns sprang up all around the state, from Liberal in the west to the town of Arkalon, built by the crossing of the Cimarron River. The rise of the railroad was initially looked at as a boon for Arkalon’s future prospects. However, there was a problem. Arkalon, as it turned out, was built on quicksand.
The railroad trestle bridge built in 1888 was soon washed away. Then another, and another. For the next half-century, railroad bridges would malfunction due to frequent river flooding. Even when the bridges were operational, the change in elevation and shape of the river required hairpin turns and miles of curved track, drastically slowing down freight. The deep heavy sand also made life difficult for goods to be shipped on horseback, and made farming unprofitable. By the end of the 1920s, Arkalon was no more.
On August 18, 1938, the problem came to a head. The Gold Ball freight train was navigating the hairpin turn at Arkalon crossing when the bridge gave way, plunging the train into the river. Over the summer, the bridge was quickly repaired, and just as quickly washed out once again. Families began to congregate around the river to gawk, and hamburger stands popped up near the site of the crash. Fed up, Rock Island COO John Farrington made the bold decision to route the railroad high over the river.
The Mighty Samson of the Cimarron was completed on July 8, 1939, elevating the train tracks 113 feet off the banks of the river. The bridge is 1,268 feet long, and its concrete pilings have been driven 65 feet deep below the riverbed into the soft sand. It was one of the great engineering achievements of its era, and as the nearby historical sign states melodramatically, “It helped speed the commerce of the Southwest to its destination, and Arkalon to oblivion.”