Writing ‘The Tulsa River’

Author, “The Tulsa River”

PREVIEW PARTY: During the Sept. 28 riverside preview party for the new book “The Tulsa River,” author Ann Patton, left, poses with, from left, Leonard Eaton, founding chair of the River Parks Authority, and former Mayors Robert J. LaFortune, Susan Savage, and Rodger Randle.

GTR Newspapers photos

“The Tulsa River” is a collection of stories about community life with the Arkansas River in Tulsa, with 110 full-color pictures and a foreword by former Mayor Robert J. LaFortune.

It is, simply, a labor of love by photographer Vernis Maxwell, editor Tracy LeGrand, and me.

We spent more than two years living with and learning from our river, in its many moods and seasons, and from those who come to the river’s edge to stroll, run, bike, and re-create.

Why? I like to collect, preserve and tell stories about my home town. And the heritage of our river and our town are intrinsically intertwined.

It is this river that lured us to this place and shaped our community. The view from space is instructive. Viewed from a satellite, our community has one distinct geographic feature, the long thread of the river that snakes in from the west, curves south around the town that became Tulsa, hangs a left around south Tulsa, and heads southeast again, thence toward the Gulf.

Once in a while the planets align. So it was when my long-cherished dream to write a book about the Arkansas River at Tulsa aligned perfectly with dreams of others: Vernis Maxwell to publish his beautiful nature photos; and editor Tracy LeGrand and publisher Matt Crane to populate the pages of their erstwhile magazine, The River’s Edge, with thoughtful stories about Tulsa’s river. And so we began the adventure of this book that we came to call “The Tulsa River,” one chapter at a time as a serendipitous magazine series. This book is the compilation of those magazine articles and a good deal more.

Writing this book gave me a chance to ferret out some little-known facts about our river. Who knew:

• It’s big. The Arkansas River starts as a crystal-clear mountain stream from snowpack of the Colorado Rockies, north and west of Denver

• It’s one of the longest rivers in North America, flowing 1,450 miles to its mouth with the Mississippi near Napoleon, Arkansas. That’s roughly as long as the road from here to Los Angeles.

• It gathers waters from parts of seven states – with a watershed of 168,000 square miles – larger than the entire states of Oklahoma and Kansas combined.

• It’s old – millions of years old. In fact; it’s older than the Rocky Mountains.

• People still find elephant teeth in the sand. Eons ago, the Arkansas River drew dinosaurs, prehistoric elephants, mammoths, and other ancient creatures that left hundreds of bones and fragments.

• There were Vikings on our river – maybe. Many people believe Vikings came up the river to our area even before Columbus discovered America, because there are peculiar markings on rocks on Turkey Mountain. Other people don’t believe it, but no one really knows who made the strange marks.

• Tulsans used to drink the river. And use it for bathing – but it was so sandy, they had to dust themselves off after the bath. Tulsa used the Arkansas River as its water supply until the 1920s.

• You could once buy the Pedestrian Bridge by the inch. The River Parks was Tulsa’s gift to itself for its 75th birthday in 1973, and much of the early park and trails were made with volunteers or recycled goods. A local newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, collected $5.50 donations for an “inch” of the bridge in the early 1970s, allowing the River Parks to make an abandoned railroad bridge into the popular Pedestrian Bridge near 31st Street.

• It’s home to a vast collection of birds, fish and other critters.

• It’s a prairie river, moving from side to side, with its own rhythms and waters that ebb and flow. Whether dry as a bone or at flood, it has a mind of its own. We are wise to respect and cherish our river, which has alternately nurtured and terrorized us over the many years of man’s living along its banks.

The more we know about the phenomenon that is our Tulsa River, the better we can live well in harmony with it. That’s one of the big reasons that I thought it was important to write this book, well worth the cost in time and energy. I hope readers will agree. You can buy the book online from our website, TulsaRiver.net, or at many local retailers including Ida Red in Brookside and Decopolis at 607 S. Boston.

Updated 10-27-2014

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