The Earliest Roads and Bridges
Oklahoma surprises people who come to the state expecting to find it part of the flat and arid Southwest. What they encounter instead is a diverse geography, embracing rugged mountain formations in the southeast and southwest, rolling prairie and plains in central and western areas, and low-lying hills along the southern border. More than 2,500 lakes (most of them man-made) and over 500 named rivers and creeks are found; the streams in the west tending to be broad, shallow, and muddy in comparison to the swift-moving currents that run in the deeper and narrower creeks of the east. The Arkansas River with its numerous tributaries drains most of the state, while the wide and sandy Red River drains southern areas. Most of the waterways, even those which are dry or carry only a small volume of water during most of the year can suddenly rise in heavy rainstorms and become raging torrents. The floods and swirling currents produced by these "Oklahoma gully-washers," can combine with beds of quicksand to make normally placid rivers dangerous waterways and formidable barriers to travel and trade.
Unpredictable streams and stretches of difficult terrain posed challenges at all times to those who moved overland. This was true for settlers who wanted means of local trade and transportation orfor those people who crossed through Okalhoma on their way to other destinations. The earliest routes of travel followed trails initially blazed by herds of migrating animals which cut through areas offering the least resistance to their movement and crossed streams at natural fords. Early people such as the Osage, who occupied northeastern Oklahoma, developed paths in all directions from their villages; one known as the "Big Osage War and Hunting Trail", for example, made it possible for them to make war on their traditional enemies.2 Many more trails were setablished beginning in the 1830s as a result of the Mississippi River to lands reserved for their settlement in Indian Territory. While many of these dispossessed people came on steamboats running up the Arkansas, significant numbers of them traveled overland and opened new paths into a frontier, a bitter experiance remembered as the "Trail of Tears." These events, reflecting the westward push of America and the emerging significance of the Southwest in the nation's history, also signalled the start of more extensive development of overland routes through Indian Territory.
Some of the new activity stemmed from the efforts of the U. S. Army to carry out its duties in the territory. Among its responsibilities, the army enforced government Indian policies and explored the region, the latter to strengthen American claims to the Southwest against those of foreign rivals. Beginning in the 1820s and lasting until 1870s army units constructed a chain of military posts which they linked together with a primative network of roads.3 In the earliest years soldiers had available little more than spades and axes to cut a swath through the trees and brush, and they put together drags made of heavy logs to cut down river banks and establish crossing points on the major streams. Under ordinary circumstances man and beast waded across--though sometimes makeshift wooden rafts were used--but the army also erected some simple timber plank bridges for supply wagons, intending them only for temporary use. By the 1850s, however, needing better transportation and more dependable facilities, the army introduced some of the first "permanent" bridges in the region, putting wooden and wrought iron spans across larger creeks, such as the San Bois, and the Poteau and Little rivers in the southeastern part of the territory.4 In most cases roads laid out by the military had a long-term impact. Besides being routinely used by settlers in the area and sought out by passing wagon trains, they had an influence on the routes chosen by railroad builders and highway planners.
Prior to the Civil War, immigrants and their wagons crossed Oklahoma on trails which acquired national significance as Americans moved south and west to occupy the lands of Texas and California. The Texas Road entered Oklahoma at the northeastern corner and followed the Grand River Valley, shifting to the southwest at Three Forks (where the Grand and Verdigris rivers flow into the Arkansas) and crossing the Red River south of present-day Durant.5 This route became the principal north-south passageway for the settlers heading into Texas. For gold seekers rushing to California after discovery of precious metal there in 1849, a major route was staked out west from Fort Smith, Arkansas, generally running along the southern bank of the Canadian River. So steady did the traffic become on the California road that it developed into an economic asset for the territory, spurring commerce and town building at many points on its way west. Simular enterprises sprung up on the route of the Butterfield Stage Line that angled its way through southeastern Oklahoma and across the Red River, conveying passengers and mail to the Pacific Coast between 1856 and 1861.6
Figure 2. The first "permanent" bridges across the Arkansas River at Tulsa. The wagon bridge (foreground) was opened in 1904, and the Frisco Line railway bridge entered service during the 1800s.
Realizing a chance to profit from the greater volume of people and trade through their territory, tribal leaders decided to permit the setting up of toll roads, bridges, and ferries at strategic points. The Choctaw Nation, for instance, authorized the collection of tolls for six-year periods, exempting Choctaws from these levies while gathering revenues from outside travelers to pay for local improvements--an advantage still stressed by proponents of tollways. Toll bridges operated by Native Americans became so popular that by 1870 only a single free bridge supposedly could be found along the Texas Road. One bridge on the route, standing across Hickory Creek, southwest of Muskogee, became a stratgic prize in the Battle of Honey Springs in 1863, one of the few major engagements that occured in Indian Territory during the Cival War.7 At another site where the Texas and Butterfield roads crossed the Red River, a Chickasaw named Benjamin F. Colbert initially operated a ferry and then erected a toll bridge in the 1870s. When the territory's pioneering railroad came through the area during the 1870s, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, popularly called the Katy, built its bridge at Colbert's Ferry, further establishing this location as a main route into Texas.
Figure 3. Bridge 40E1272N4707000, a Midland Valley Railroad truss converted to automobile use in LeFlore County.
The coming of the railroad to the territory after the Civil War made a dramatic improvement in overland transportation and set in motion far-reaching economic and political changes that culminated in statehood in 1907. The metal truss bridge, a symbol of American industrial progress and the ability of the railroads to conquer natural obstacles with engineering and technology, multiplied in Oklahoma between 1870 and 1910. The Santa Fe, Frisco, Rock Island, Katy, and other railroad companies expanded their routes. American supremacy in the design and construction of iron and steel truss bridges owed much to the railroads, whose need for stronger and more durable spans advanced the art and science of bridge building. As a leading force in Oklahoma's development, the railroads often were the first to erect permanent bridges over major waterways. For example, the Katy built multiple-span truss bridges across both the Canadian and Red rivers during the 1870s. After floods washed away its hastily-built timber trestle on the Arkansas River, the Frisco relaced it with a combination wood and iron truss securely anchored to stone piers (Figure 2), a typical practice of railroads improving their service.8
On occasion the railroads adapted their bridges for horse and wagons by adding a wooden roadway for those travelers willing to pay a toll. A group of homesteaders in 1891 made use of a railroad bridge on the Canadian River when rising waters made fording the river impossible. With considerable effort, fifteen to twenty men dragged three fully loaded wagons at a time across the rails and ties of the 1,900-foot Rock Island bridge, keeping an eye out for approaching trains.9 In an unusual case in 1913, Bryan County, under pressure from voters for a new bridge, ordered the Missouri, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railway to add a wagon road to the bid truss bridge it had built a few years earlier over the Red River.10 Over the years as railroads in the state reduced mileage or replaced obsolete structures their old bridges sometimes found their way onto the road system, a few examples of which remain today. A heavily built, Parker-type truss made in 1903 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company for the Midland Valley Railroad, then building from Arkansas to Muskogee, stands in its original location as an automobile bridge near Poteau (Figure 3).