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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Marion pioneer was 'rustling' bridge-builder years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Not known as a regular user of automobiles, early-day road and bridge contractor John C. Watson of Marion employed a rather unusual form of mule-drawn automotive transport in this undated photo, estimated to be from the mid-1910s and provided by his great-grandson, also named John, now of Kingman.

In its early days, Marion didn’t have to look to outside contractors to build and maintain roads and bridges.

Marion’s John C. Watson was one of the state’s preeminent bridge contractors, who built bridges throughout the state and in neighboring states.

Business in the 1890s was lucrative.

One week in 1890, he secured contracts for one bridge in Shawnee County, two in McPherson County, and one more in Harvey County, the Marion Headlight, later to merge with the Record, reported.

Later that year, he secured three more contracts in Shawnee County, winning half the contracts let despite 16 competing bidders.

Just a year after that, the Record marveled how Watson had just returned from Topeka, “where he gobbled four new bridge contracts beside a job of repairing an fifth.”

“This makes 10 bridge contracts he has taken within the last month,” the Record reported. “Watson is a rustler, and then his work also talks for him.”

The bridge-building business was not without its drawbacks, however.

“Our fellow townsman J.C. Watson, the rustling bridge contractor, fell from one of these structures near Topeka recently and sustained quite serious injuries but recovered sufficiently to return home last Saturday,” the Headlight reported in 1892. “We suspect there is another prospective bridge at some point along the line and that John had an eye on the thing, for nothing short of a broken neck will keep that fellow quiet if there is any bridge in sight.”

The next year he was back at it, building huge wooden bridges in Holton and Junction City.

Watson, who moved to Marion from his native Ohio in 1889, wasted little time getting involved in bridge and road work.

One of his first jobs was the initial macadamizing of Main St. from Walnut St. to the Luta Creek bridge that year — a project unsuccessfully opposed by pioneer land and real estate agent Alex Case.

That was the same year in which curb and gutter were installed on most downtown streets and in which the Marion Belt and Chingawasa Springs Railroad right-of-way through downtown was established.

Watson also was an advocate for improving county roads. In 1909, after he had somewhat retired from bridge-building to spend more time with family, he spoke at length at a two-day Farmers’ and Stockmen’s Association symposium about the need to improve county roads by better grading.

Even as a farmer he was an entrepreneur, earning a patent on his 1911 invention of a process to keep alfalfa mower knives sharp by sprinkling water on them and preventing them from gumming while cutting. He not only sold versions of his contraption but also sold rights to manufacture similar products in other states.

Regarded as person who could always be expected to discuss politics in a civil manner, he was deeply involved in both Democratic and Populist politics until becoming disillusioned by an 1898 scandal in which he lost a paving job around the state Capitol after refusing to pay a bribe of $1,500 ($45,000 in today’s buying power), the Headlight reported.

After a long illness, Watson died at age 78 in 1920 and was buried in Marion Cemetery.

“He was a man of unusually congenial nature, a fount of knowledge, and a happy gift of wit and humor, which made acquaintance with him and visiting with him a great pleasure,” the Marion Review, later to merge with the Record, reported at the time.

Last modified April 17, 2019

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