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Early Railroads of Southeast Oklahoma

Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.

The KCS 2-8-0 495 is seen in Spiro, Oklahoma.

The KCS 2-8-0 495 is seen in Spiro, Oklahoma.

Development of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad

During the late 1800s, most long-distance travel was done through the railways. In Indian Territory, there were no railroad tracks laid until the 1880s. The first rail line in Indian Territory was the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway Company (MK&T, or Katy). They ran a line from Kansas toward Denison, Texas. The next railroad that came in was the Frisco, which served much of Southeastern Oklahoma.

In 1882, the Fort Smith and Southern Railway acquired rights from Congress to construct its road between Ft. Smith and Red River north of Paris, Texas.

Work began in 1886. By November 1, 1886, the line had extended to Bengal, Oklahoma, which lies almost 30 miles southwest of present-day Poteau. Within a few weeks, a pay train consisting of an engine, a coach car, and a caboose ran to Crockett’s camp at Cavanal, located three miles west of Wister.

The railroad was built in sections, beginning in Ft. Smith at one end and the town of Red River, Texas. At completion, the two lines would eventually be joined at Buck Creek, nearly 118 miles south of Ft. Smith.

Towns along the railroad tracks saw growth at a staggering pace. Sawmills were brought in and ran day and night cutting native lumber for the railroad. Section houses went up every 2.8 miles along the tracks. Towns were established around those section houses to support the railroad workers, many of which are still in existence today.

Poteau was a typical railroad town. Before the Frisco came through, very little existed there: a few farms and a general store. When St. Louis and San Francisco arrived, a large section house was built on the right of way, just north of the present-day courthouse lawn. Melvin Fleener, who would later own one of the largest hotels in Poteau, was section foreman and boarded the section men and traveling salesmen. The section house was the only eating place or hotel in Poteau for about a year.

Road camps were established along the route, allowing the railroad ties to be cut and laid at the same time.

When the railroad crossed the Poteau River, Fleener was directly in charge of the bridge's construction. The rock piers that held the line were quarried on Town Creek, and the lumber came from Cavanal Mountain. The large rocks and lumber were then hauled down to Buck Davis’s ferry, where they would be moved to Fleener’s camp.

Benjamin Hunter Harper, one of the earliest settlers in the area, lived near the base of Cavanal Mountain. As the railroad crews passed through the area, he supplied them with the best beef from his farms. The railroad crews always paid him with silver and gold, which he had to carry back to his home in saddlebags. Carrying around that much gold during those days was almost the same as begging to be robbed, but it never once happened. He knew how to use his .38 Winchester.

On May 14, 1887, the final piece of track was laid at Buck Creek. Shortly after, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company bought out the Fort Smith and Southern Railway and began full passenger service from Ft. Smith to Texas. In addition, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company shipped products to market, brought goods in for local consumption, and provided reliable mail and package service.

That same year, the first railroad depot was established at Poteau. The establishment of this depot ushered in a new era for the budding town.

Frisco and KCS Railroad Crossing, north of Poteau

Frisco and KCS Railroad Crossing, north of Poteau

Impact of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad

Poteau’s growth during the late 1880’s followed that of the railroads. This was typical for most of the railroad towns along the Frisco lines. Within a year after the St. Louis and San Francisco finished laying tracks through the eastern part of Indian Territory, It quickly became apparent that Poteau would play an important role in the future. Because of the towns already booming population, the abundance of flat land on the St. Louis and San Francisco right-of-way, and the great quantity of resources in the area, Poteau provided the perfect place to create a switching station.

Two railroad switches were constructed in order for raw materials to be loaded on to the steam trains, as well providing a safe place for people to board the passenger trains.

The first line was laid to the right of the main track. At the same time, a large stockyard was developed to house cattle and other live animals ready to be transported to market. Concurrently, a second line was being laid to the right of the main line.

This second line was considered the main switch. Steam-powered locomotives would pull in a long line of freight cars onto this switch in order to manage freight. A large cotton platform was located close to the junction where this switch returned to the main line. A warehouse was located closer to the depot that provided ample storage for the various goods that the railroad company handled. Next to the depot, there was another large wood-plank platform designed to help load or offload freight.

The main line continued to serve as the main boarding point for passengers. Both the freight depot and the passenger depot opened up to this side. A 200-foot long wood-plank platform extended out from both ends of the depot. As the train rolled into the station, it passed within inches of this raised platform. Passengers could then safely board the train once it had come to a complete stop.

Between the Frisco and the KCS

Following the Frisco, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad was established further west in 1887. This line ran past Guthrie towards Oklahoma City. The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific followed in 1892, running from Kansas to El Reno. These lines generally followed the lines of the old cattle trails from the mid-1800s.

The Arrival of the Kansas City Southern Railway

The Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad Company (K.C.P. & G.) originated with Arthur E. Stilwell in 1887. He envisioned a railroad that linked the major agricultural centers from Kansas City to a port on the Gulf of Mexico. This began with the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railway. Within ten years, his company succeeded in creating a north-south line that extended from Kansas City, Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1894, the K.C.P. & G. began railroad construction in Indian Territory. After passing through Siloam Springs, Arkansas, the railroad continued south through Poteau. Poteau was the final stop before the K.C.P. & G. left Indian Territory. After passing through the Kiamichi Mountains, the railroad then passed through Dallas, Arkansas before finally ending in Beaumont, Texas.

For Poteau, this was a major boon for business. When the St. Louis and San Francisco came through, it turned a sparsely inhabited wilderness into a thriving frontier town. It helped to establish Poteau as a center for agriculture, mining, and logging, while at the same time bringing a large number of new settlers into the area.

The K. C. P. & G. Railroad, following the best route south, constructed their lines almost half of a mile southeast of the St. Louis and San Francisco Depot. The first K. C. P. & G. depot was located just to the east end of Parker Street. Later, a more modern building would be constructed at the end of Dewey.

After construction was completed on the railroad in 1895, Poteau was thrust into a new era of expansion. Prior to this, the heart of Poteau was located northwest of the St. Louis and San Francisco railroad lines, with the old business district clustered around the St. Louis and San Francisco depot. Almost immediately after the construction of the K. C. P. & G. depot, the town began expanding east along Dewey Avenue. By 1896, the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (acquired by the Kansas City Southern Railway in 1900) initiated freight service through town.

Two years later, in 1898, the K. C. P. & G. built a sixteen-mile branch from Spiro, Indian Territory, to serve the important business center of Fort Smith Arkansas. For Poteau, this meant that both the St. Louis and San Francisco and the K. C. P. & G. offered access to Indian Territory’s most important border city. This helped to cement Poteau’s reputation for being an industrial and progressive town.

The Panic of 1893 and the end of the Railroad Building Boom

Across the United States, Americans enjoyed a great economic bounty during the 1880’s. It was a period of remarkable expansion driven by railroad speculation. New railroads were being built almost on a daily basis, pulling the country closer than it ever was before. As the world seemed to grow smaller, companies continued growth by taking over competitors, endangering their own stability. New mines were being opened, and their products, especially silver, began to flood the market.

It was called “The Gilded Age”, and the U.S. economy grew at the fastest rate in its history. It was the age where super-rich industrialists and financiers such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, J.P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family came into full bloom. It was also an age where corruption ran rampant and commerce remained unchecked.

This rampant growth came to a sudden halt in 1893 as the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing set off a series of bank failures. The severity was great in all American industrial cities and mill towns. Once the banks and railroads began to fail, industrial output plummeted. Many farms failed because of falling prices for export crops such as wheat and cotton. Until the Great Depression, the Panic of 1893 was considered the worst depression the United States had ever experienced.

Despite the bleak economic landscape and turbulent times the country was in, towns and settlements across Indian Territory were thriving. Many people from the more industrialized eastern United States abandoned their homes and moved west. Since the lands in Indian Territory were still relatively untamed, people saw this open expanse of un-moderated land as prime real estate.

This depression was the main reason for the decline of railroad development in Indian Territory. Starting in 1893, very few railroads were built in the future state of Oklahoma.

The U.S. economy finally began to recover in 1897. Confidence in the economy was restored after the election of Republican McKinley. The Klondike Gold Rush that began in July 1897 also helped foster the growth of the U.S. economy.

About the Research

Eric Standridge, author of The Birth of Poteau and Stories of the Mountain Gateway, conducted an in-depth study of Southeast Oklahoma between 2007 and 2012. Much of the research for this article was gathered during that time.

Early railroad information was collected from old Frisco and KCS publications that focused on promoting travel along their rail lines, as well as from sources such as the Oklahoma Corporation Commission Reports and the Railroad Engineer magazines.

Information local to Poteau is based on WPA-era interviews, memoirs, and recollections of many of the areas older residents, as well as other early day publications. Specifics of railroad construction were taken from blueprints such as the "Layout of the Right of Way in Poteau" pictured above.

Questions & Answers

Question: Did the tie cutters travel with the railroad and were there records of who they were?

Answer: Usually, they did, but it depended on the railroad. Most railroads had boxcars for the workers to sleep in. Since most of the ties were cut locally, it was cheaper for the railroad to transport workers rather than hire them in each town. Most railroads will have logs of who the workers are, although most of them aren't anywhere near complete. To find those logs, contact the parent railroad and see if they have a historical society.

© 2017 Eric Standridge


texomajack197110 on December 24, 2019:

I have alot of research information i did on the Railroads of SE Oklahoma Region and i love the fact that someone else has the same love about Railroad history. Great job on your research information!

Ron Cook on October 13, 2017:

My Uncle used to work on the KCS that came through Spiro, I can still remember the train disembarking passengers in Spiro when I was just a kid.. too bad that the passenger trains were ever stopped.

Eunice Kilgore on October 13, 2017:

Working on the railroad picture 1913 is .................

South of Poteau , Le Flore Co. Oklahoma

Working On The Railroad Kansas City Southern Railroad Switch Poteau , Okla. 1913 left to right ...... John Kilgore , Bob Russell , Fred Baker , Wash Tucker ,Ben Johnson , Nate Goins .