The eagle once stood at the side of U.S. Highway 24-40, north of the Mud Creek Bridge near the Douglas-Leavenworth County line.
If Tom Swearingen had not been driving to work behind the highway maintenance truck that fateful morning almost two decades ago, there is no telling where the big bronze eagle might be now.
Swearingen is exhibits director at Kansas University's Natural History Museum. The big bronze eagle, once a roadside monument to World War I dead and part of a promotional scheme to link the East and West Coasts with pavement, stands near the museum entrance, a campus landmark since 1980.
The eagle, wings spread 7.5 feet over a clutch of nested young, once stood at the side of U.S. Highway 24-40, north of the Mud Creek Bridge near the Douglas-Leavenworth county line. It was erected there in 1929 by the Federation of Women's Clubs of Lawrence. A plaque with 33 names was attached to the base of the sculpture, honoring men from Douglas County killed in World War I.
But by 1980, those war dead mostly forgotten, the roadside monument had become an inviting target for vandals.
First they stole the plaque. Then they tried to steal the bird. But apparently it was too heavy to be carried away. Instead, they knocked the sculpture from its granite base where highway workers found it with a cracked wing, stuck in the mud of the nearby creek bank.
Swearingen lived near the sculpture and passed it every day on his way to work at the museum.
``It sat right across the road from where the Paradise Saloon is now,'' Swearingen said. ``Vandals got in first and stole the bronze plaque in memory of the soldiers that lost their lives in World War I. Then about two or three years later they went back and tried to steal the statue. The backside of it was toward Mud Creek. They dropped it and it rolled down the bank.''
Highway workers found it. Using heavy equipment, they loaded it on the back of a highway truck and proceeded toward the maintenance shop.
Swearingen, on his way to work, just happened to pull up behind the eagle-laden truck. The maintenance foreman, Don Barnhart, was his neighbor. Swearingen flagged them down and asked where they were taking it.
Months later, after various rounds of letter writing and petitioning the Kansas Department of Transportation, it was agreed that the statue would be safer at the university. The Thomas C. Ryther family donated the money to build a new base for the bird. Local stonemasons Lawrence Karhoff and Joseph Falkenstein built the base.
The eagle had a new home.
``It all kind of started there that Monday morning,'' at the highway department shop, Swearingen recalled. ``I just hate to see things like that disappear.''
But how did the Eagle come to be on a rural roadside in the first place, rather than in the middle of a city park where most war monuments are constructed?
The answer to that question can be found in the Fall 1994 issue of the Bald Eagle, a publication of the Lecompton Historical Society. Society researchers determined that the eagle was one of three identical statues surviving in Kansas. One is in Topeka's Gage Park, and the other is in a park near Wamego.
Originally all three were meant to be county-line markers on the so-called Victory Highway, which road promoters in the 1920s hoped would be the nation's first transcontinental hard-surface road. Cement roads in the 1920s were still rare. A paved road wasn't completed between Lawrence and Kansas City until 1923.
The first length of the Victory Highway was to tie Kansas City to San Francisco. It was to be a tree-lined road with eagles and a scroll to the war dead at every county line in between. On either end were to be large statues of a single soldier in trench gear. But apparently, few of the eagle statues were ever actually placed. The one now in Topeka's Gage Park was erected near Big Springs at the Douglas-Shawnee county line on Nov. 11, 1923.
Six years later, an identical eagle statue was placed near the current site of the Paradise Saloon, a strip joint.
Swearingen said research has shown that the statue was certified ``ornithologically correct,'' when it was cast by two nationally recognized bird experts. It still is considered a splendid example of eagle statuary.
``We have never found out who the actual artist was,'' Swearingen said.
-- Mike Shields phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is email@example.com.