Poteau, Oklahoma: Pictures From the Late 1800s
Poteau Became a Bustling Oklahoma Town in the Late 1800s
Poteau remained a small, sleepy agricultural village until the late 1880s. Once the railroad to Bengal was completed in 1886, the area immediately saw a building boom.
Poteau didn’t gain official status until 1887 when, on October 27th, the first post office in town was established. The new town, officially known as “Poteau Switch,” took its name from the nearby Poteau River and its significance as a switching station for the railroads. Poteau is a French word meaning "post," and comes from when the French had a fur trading post at the base of Cavanal in the late 1700s.
Eight miles northeast of Poteau Switch was the lively, bustling town of Cameron. The town had a population that nearly doubled that of Poteau Switch. As the Federal Court was located in Cameron, residents of Poteau Switch had to travel there for official business. Before the St. Louis and San Francisco established the first passenger service in Poteau, people had to travel on horseback through rugged terrain to reach Cameron. Traffic to Cameron was frequent, as the town also hosted the nearest passenger train service.
Developments in industrial production and technology increased the ability of ordinary Americans to buy what once had been unattainable luxuries. Society no longer viewed children simply as unfinished adults; how best to educate them became a subject of considerable discussion and debate.
By the 1890s, refrigerated railroad cars transported fresh meat, milk, and other perishable products in large quantities over great distances. Over 2,000 ice plants made and delivered ice to cool iceboxes in private homes. Americans became accustomed to eating fresh fruits and vegetables from all over the country for much of the year. The development by 1880 of machinery for mass-producing tin cans made canned foods available year-round.
During this time, life in Poteau Switch resembled much of the rest of the country. The railroad depot served as the core of the town. As in many cities throughout the country, people milled about the depot as they waited for the train to arrive. Other groups congregated in one of the four hotels in the area, engrossed in popular gambling games such as poker or seven-up. During the hot summer months, porches in front of the businesses lining Railroad Avenue would be nearly overcrowded with people, while during the winter they would huddle up around their wood-burning stoves.
Much of the area surrounding Poteau Switch was dotted with large farms. Benjamin Harper, who was mentioned earlier, owned a large cotton farm on the land where the present downtown area of Poteau now resides. His house was located where the current Methodist Church resides now. Horses pulled the farmers crop-laden carts along the wide roads to the freight depot or to the market. Corn and cotton were among the more popular crops to plant. During this time, farmers would produce about 45 bushels of corn or 1 1/2 bales of cotton per acre. Poteau Switch area also contained numerous horse farms, hog farms, dairy farms, and cattle ranches.
Poteau Switch: The First Railroad Depot
During the late 1800s, most long-distance travel was done through the railways. In Indian Territory, there were no railroad tracks laid until the 1880’s. 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.
Although Cameron was still a bigger town than Poteau, it was starting to decline. A small railroad depot was established here but quickly became a popular destination point, especially after the KCS lines were laid a few years later.
The picture of the old railroad depot above was taken around 1890. It was located at the end of Dewey Avenue, approximately where KP's Convenience Store is located today.
The Flener House
Melvin Flener was a railroad man, and can perhaps be called one of the most important men in Poteau. When the railroad crossed the Poteau River, Flener was directly in charge of the bridges construction. The rock piers that held the line was 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 on the river, where they would be moved to Flener’s camp.
Among Flener's other duties, he was also responsible for establishing the camps where the men stayed. On old maps, and this is evident today, he established the camps exactly 2.8 miles apart. If you follow the old Frisco line, this is evident in the spacing between the towns.
After he arrived in Poteau, Flener decided to stay. In 1886, Flener’s Hotel was built directly across the street from Welch’s store. It was one of the most popular destination spots at Poteau Switch. While many visitors came to the two-story hotel for the beds, others came for the entertainment. On weekends and for special occasions, Melvin Flener would convert the dining room into a dance hall. Local musicians would play popular songs such as "When the Foeman Bares His Steel" or "When a Felon's Not Engaged".
Melvin Flener served as the floor manager at these events, and he was a no-nonsense type of guy. One old report told that anyone who became too rowdy “was promptly and quietly visited by Flener who hit the said unwanted customer in the head and took him out for fresh air.” In the front room, it was a common sight to see patrons playing gambling games. For the most part, these games remained civil. Occasionally, especially when whisky was smuggled in from Jensen, Arkansas, the games got too heated. Pistols would appear and Flener would have to take drastic measures.
On October 5, 1898, Melvin Flener closed the hotel for good. By then, he had been in business for twelve years and wanted a rest.
The hotel picture above was located on Fleener and Broadway, just north of the courthouse lawn. It was taken around 1895. If you notice, the street name has been spelled wrong; the correct spelling of his name is Flener.
Welch's General Store
Welch's general store was one of the most important shops in Poteau.
After the railroad came through Poteau Switch in 1886, the main business district began in the area where the courthouse lawn is today. After Bud Tate’s store was moved here, John Dennis and his son, Jim, built a store for William Anderson Welch, Sr.
By 1890, Welch’s store became one of the most visited stores in the area. Welch’s store was close to 30 feet back from the edge of the present courthouse lawn. It was located on the southeast corner of the modern-day courthouse lawn.
Another important location during this time was Bridgman's Furniture. Bridgman’s Furniture was first established along the Frisco railroad in 1896. For over one hundred years, the Bridgman family has remained a solid pillar of Poteau’s success.
Robert S. Bridgman moved to Poteau from Hackett, Arkansas in the fall of 1896. He was 38 years old. Shortly after arriving, he purchased a moderate one and a half story building off Railroad Avenue. That same year, he also gained ownership of the Poteau Journal. He established a furniture store on the first floor building and used the second floor as his printing press. Bridgman’s building measured 24 feet wide by 32 feet deep, providing almost 800 square feet of sales space. Residents of Poteau now had one of the finest furniture stores to be found in eastern Indian Territory.
The photo of Bridgman’s Furniture store was taken in 1896. It was once located along the west side of Broadway, near where beard is today. Left to right: P.O. Bridgman, Sr. and Alton Brehm