The Arkansas Keeps on Rolling Through Tulsa

Associate Editor

MORNING HAS BROKEN: For some Greater Tulsans the River Parks offers many small havens of refuge from an otherwise hectic urban life.


Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a multi-part series about the past, present and future growth of Greater Tulsa. In this series Newspapers will look back on the history, examine current developments and explore the possible future of various sectors of Tulsa and surrounding communities to give readers a better overall perspective of the many unique and vibrant parts that make up the whole of what we believe to be the greatest place in the world to live: Greater Tulsa.

Imagine what it would have been like to be a lonely French trapper sometime in the early 1800s polling or paddling your pirogue (pir’o) against the mighty current of the Arkansas River on your way to trade with friendly Quapaw or Osages Indian tribes lining the banks of the shallow, sandy-bottom river. The further north you followed the river, the more the curtain of hardwood forest trees along the shores would give way opening up to tall grass prairie vistas revealing the gentle rolling terrain we call the Osage Hills.

As the 19th century progressed the number of large, steam powered paddleboats on the Arkansas River waterway would increase in number and size bringing settlers up from New Orleans and returning back to the Mississippi River with traders’ wares to bustling centers of commerce like Louisville, Little Rock and finally back to New Orleans.

The settlement of the western territories was in large part made possible by rivers serving as highways initially providing access to the natural resources of the heartland. The sandy bottom of the sometimes gentle, sometimes treacherous old Arkansas River we know today was a big player in that scenario. In so many ways Tulsa’s past, present and future are steadfastly tied to the river that runs through it.

It could be argued that the stage was set for the creation of Tulsa with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. President Thomas Jefferson purchased from France a prodigious swath of land running from the mouth of the Mississippi River north into what is now Canada, encompassing land that would become a whole or part of 14 states. The price was about $15 million and it should be noted the purchase was for France’s “claim” to land that rightfully belonged to the Native American tribes that had inhabited the vast region for centuries.

The territory would quickly become a repository for displaced Indian tribes from the east. The infamous Trail of Tears would become the most noted of the efforts by the U.S. government to “relocate” tribes to the so-called Indian Territories. And so, in 1836 a small grouping of Creek Indians calling themselves the Lochapolkas would gather on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River to solemnly rekindle their ceremonial fire and begin a new life. It is believed the location where this took place is the historic Council Oak Tree located at 18th and Cheyenne Avenue in midtown. This, it seems to most historians, marked the embryonic beginning of Tulsa.

Fast forward now to 1901, oil is discovered in Red Fork on the west side of the Arkansas. Now the river that played a big role in establishing the city was suddenly an impediment to progress. Transporting the black gold across the river to Tulsa was impossible until a couple of enterprising brothers constructed a toll bridge over the river at what is now the general location of the Southwest Boulevard and I-244 Bridge. It was the first of many bridges to span the Arkansas River.

Oil brought amazing growth to Tulsa in the 1920s prompting efforts to tap into the river for drinking water to satisfy a growing city’s thirst. Repeated attempts to reach the threshold of potable water proved futile due to the heavy sediment and brackish content. Then there was the flooding. Most notable was the disastrous Great Flood of 1927 causing an amazing amount of destruction, death and despair throughout the heartland. There is also the more recent memory of the “flood” of 1959, which turned out for the most part to be a false alarm, but nonetheless created quite a scare along with tens of thousands of worthless sandbags heaped and rotting along Riverside Drive. These, along with the all too often tragic drowning of someone unfamiliar with the formidable current raging beneath a seemingly placid river’s surface, cast a very negative light on the old river. It fell into disfavor, was ignored and considered something the city just had to put up with like an unpredictable, grumpy old uncle.

To make matters worse, the river became a convenient dumping ground for petroleum waste discharged from the unregulated oil refineries that sprung up along its west bank. Adding to this was much of Tulsa’s partially treated sewage and storm sewer run off. For decades the river served primarily to carry away the city’s waste taking it all down stream out of sight and out of mind. The river would return the favor by frequently emitting an odiferous reminder – “Remember me? I’m still here.”

In 1964 the Corp of Engineers came to the rescue when they completed Keystone Dam primarily to control the erratic, flooding behavior of the river. It was the dawning of a new era for Tulsa’s segment of the old Arkansas. After a decade of successful flood control, City leaders began to see the grumpy uncle as an asset offering recreational, cultural and economic development possibilities.

In 1974, The River Parks Authority was created through a partnership between the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County. The Authority’s goal was to develop the city’s Arkansas River corridor using public and private funds. The first project undertaken was the conversion of the old abandoned railroad bridge crossing the river at 29th and Riverside Drive into a pedestrian bridge thus connecting the east and west banks. Pedestrian trails were created along the riverbanks. Next came festivals like the Great Raft Race, Oktoberfest and the always spectacular, annual citywide Fourth of July fireworks display. Open-air concerts were also performed on a floating amphitheater.

Today after decades of relentless efforts by a consortium of authorities, agencies, private citizens and local city governments, biking and walking paths meander through the giant Cottonwood, Willow and Oak trees along the river. Greater Tulsa is flocking there daily to bike, walk, run, rollerblade and fish. Any day one can see folks from all walks of life kayaking, sculling, bird watching, playing ultimate Frisbee, Frisbee golf, soccer, rugby, flying kites, walking the dog or just sitting and watching a community at play.

Recent widening of the paths along the river and extensive landscaping improvements came from a generous donation from the Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the city’s generous philanthropic benefactors. Tulsa based QuikTrip recently donated a marvelous water park playground located at 41st and Riverside. In fact much of what has become the star attraction for Greater Tulsa has come about through the generosity of philanthropic corporations and community leaders. Since its inception funding for the River Parks has been split nearly evenly between public and private funds.

Recently commercial development along the river’s edge got a boost when The Blue Rose Restaurant opened its doors in February to enthusiastic patrons. Sitting on the very edge of the shore with cantilevered decks suspended over the water, the facility is located in the 21st Street and Riverside Drive area and will likely serve as a model for similar ventures in the future with its open-air feel taking full advantage of the river’s scenic venue.

In 2003 INCOG and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded the Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan for development of the river. Results of the study identified locations along the defined 42-mile corridor running from Keystone Dam down river to the Wagoner County line as prime “development concept” areas. The study provided vital information on how to best utilize this regional asset for the benefit of all. Overseeing the implementation of the master plan along with the River Parks Authority are Tulsa County, The Corp of Engineers, The City of Tulsa, Indian Nation Council of Governments, officials representing the interests of Jenks, Broken Arrow, Bixby, Sand Springs and a Tulsa based program management consulting firm, Program Management Group (PMg). Earlier in 2003, Tulsa County voters approved Vision 2025, which provided nearly $10 million in local funds to match other funding sources to construct two new low water dams (to be determined by the Master Plan) and major improvements to the existing Zink Dam and lake area.

The good news is development along the Arkansas River corridor is moving ahead bit by bit and every step taken adds to the quality of life for the region and the future. But this process requires changing a mighty river from its natural state. It is a delicate balancing act of preserving the natural beauty and ecological integrity of a mature, prairie river while making it increasingly more compatible for human use and enjoyment. This is no easy task. Much care, concern, expertise, foresight and lots of money will be needed to do it right according to Gaylon Pinc, senior environmental program manger for PMg. But, he adds, the economic, ecological and cultural benefits will far outweigh the investment we make today.

Regardless of what happens in the years ahead, “that old man river, he just keeps rolling along.”

Updated 04-13-2011

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