Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Stone Cutters (Part 1): George H. Evans

The work on the Kansas Statehouse influenced some of the men hired on as laborers to pursue, at least temporarily, a career in stonework, leading to a profitable career in either the stone industry or as a jumping off point for other successes. Within the past couple of years, three of these individuals have wandered into the cultural resource investigations performed by our company. I am going to do my best to narrate the stories of these amazing men, and hopefully someone can latch on to them and give them more attention <3 . ~wmb

Photo from Illustrated Weekly 1895

Work on the Kansas Statehouse began in the fall of 1866, a contract originally granted to John G. Otis. One of the laborers on the east wing whose work at the capital would lead him to another capital project is George H. Evans. Evans was born in 1849 in Indiana, where he would serve at a young age in the Civil War. He joined the Kansas Statehouse crew first as a teamster and later as a common laborer. His experience on the east wing of the capital compelled him to learn the stone mason’s trade, where he would continue for 5 years as an apprentice and then journeyman before he struck out on his own.

His first individual projects began with limited funds and included owning tenement properties in the capital city of Topeka. Evans filled a niche with his stonework by replacing local bridges that were falling apart, constructing at least 21 bridges in Topeka and the surrounding area by 1884. Evans’ first major solo project was the $30,000 contract on the Old Soldier’s Home in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1885. In the 1890s, more big projects rolled in after he partnered with Joe Cox of Lawrence. The team would use Evans’ ties gained from his work in the capital city to win government funded projects. Evans and Cox would secure the contracts for the addition at the Osawatomie Insane Asylum; buildings at the Indian schools at both Haskell in Lawrence and Osage Mission and others listed at the end of this article.

Because of his previous relationships with others in the stone business, Evans had the inside track on both supplies and equipment that gave him the upper hand in the bidding process. His most important work came with what was ultimately a $1 million contract for the central portion of the Kansas Statehouse in the late 1880s. Evans and Cox were preferred for this project, not just because of the influence of Evans’ political connections, but in part by Evans’ electric derrick which Evans thought gave them a $25,000 advantage. The derrick was an amazing time and laborsaving device that would lift the large stones quickly and easily and place them accurately. The statehouse construction brought the firm significant profits and propelled them further to financial success.

Multiple high cost projects in the 1890s brought the firm increased recognition, however, bad business decisions, loose financial spending and a deterioration of the partnership in this time led to Evans’ downfall. The contracts for the buildings at the new Fort Bliss outside of El Paso, Texas and the Shawnee County, Kansas courthouse were significantly underbid, causing a financial burden on the partnership. Evans became convinced that Joe Cox came under the influence of another Kansas contractor, John Jack, which led to a $50,000 mistake on the Fort Bliss project, even though Evans himself was splashing around money on things like a $2000 banquet for the fort officers. The situation had shifted so significantly that Evans, who had originally prided himself on his fairness to his workers, appreciation for organized labor, and paying of union wages, had in the end had lost the respect of his foremen and ended up paying the price. Financial trouble escalated to the point that the Shawnee County Courthouse had to be completed by another contractor and Evans began losing his tenement properties for his inability to pay the mortgages. 

Shawnee County Courthouse

At the end, Evans was left utterly destitute. The respect he had gained among his peers in the capital city prompted those in the legislature to vote in 1903 to give Evans funds to pay off his depts, keeping him from total financial ruin. With the leftover money from the legislative gift, he bought a modest home in the Oakland neighborhood of Topeka. Still struggling financially, he moved in with his daughter and benefitted by a $.50 per day allowance offered him by the Rev. Charles M. Sheldon (author of the popular novel, In His Steps). Evans died in 1905, a shadow of the architectural giant he had been. He is buried in historic Topeka Cemetery. 

Cooper Memorial College Building, Sterling, KS
Water Works Pump House, Kansas Arts & Industries 1891
Atchison post office during construction. 1893

Evans construction projects (year in parentheses indicates date contract granted or by year mentioned):

4 dwellings and one tenement house in Topeka (1882)

Moon bridge over Mission Creek (T12, R14, Sec.9-razed) (1884)

21 bridges in Shawnee County area (1885)

Cooper Memorial College, Sterling (1887)

Topeka 6th Street Viaduct (1888)

State Industrial/Reformatory School, Hutchinson (1889)

Kansas Statehouse (1890s)

Topeka Water Works Pump House (1891)

Osawatomie Insane Asylum Addition Building (1891)

Indian School Buildings at Osage Mission and Lawrence (1891)

Atchison Post Office (1892/3)

Approaches to El Paso “public building” (1892)

Paving Harrison St., Topeka (1893)

Fort Worth Post Office (1893)

Episcopal Cathedral, Dallas (1893)

Fort Bliss (barracks, officers’ quarters, fort) El Paso (1893)

Shawnee County Courthouse (1894)


 Atchison Daily Globe
1905       Atchison Daily Globe (newspaper), Atchison, KS. August 10, 1905. Page 2.

Daily Commonwealth
1884      “The Improvements at Tenth Avenue Bridge – How the Work Has Been Done – A Better Class of Bridges in Shawnee County.” Daily Commonwealth (newspaper), Topeka, KS. May 27, 1884. Page 4.

1885     “Good for Topeka.” Daily Commonwealth (newspaper), Topeka, KS. April 29, 1885.       Page 5.

Illustrated Weekly
1895     “A Self Made Man,” Illustrated Weekly (newspaper), Topeka, KS. June 15, 1895. Page 3.

Kansas Arts and Industries
1891     “The Topeka Water Company,” Kansas Arts and Industries (newspaper), Topeka, KS. November 1, 1891. Page 6.

Lawrence Daily Journal
1895     Lawrence Daily Journal (newspaper), Lawrence, KS. February 2, 1895. Page 4.

Topeka Mail
1894    “The New Court House.” Topeka Mail (newspaper), Topeka, KS. May 18, 1894. Page 3.

Topeka State Journal
1905    “George Evans Dead,” Topeka State Journal (newspaper) Topeka, KS. August 9, 1905.     Page 6.

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