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Oklahoma Journeys

Robert S. Kerr

2009-09-12

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Today we remember Robert S. Kerr for having served as both governor and U.S. senator, but his crowning achievement before his death in 1963 was funding for the Arkansas River navigation project that connects Tulsa and the rest of Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. We celebrate Robert S. Kerr's birthday this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

113 years ago, on September 11, 1896, Robert S. Kerr was born in a log cabin near Ada, Oklahoma. When he was elected governor, he was the first governor of Oklahoma to have actually been born in our state. Kerr and his brother-in-law, James Anderson, started an oil company, and by 1929, the Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company had become so prosperous that Kerr abandoned his law practice to focus on oil. Anderson retired in 1936, and Dean McGee, former chief geologist for the Phillips Petroleum Company, joined the firm. In the 1930s Kerr became a force in the state Democratic Party, then in 1942 he ran for governor. For many years Kerr focused on the protection of Oklahoma's natural resources. In nearly every speech he gave, he talked about three things: land, wood and water.

But it was water conservation for which we remember Kerr. He focused on that subject saying that future prosperity and economic growth would be dependent upon water. He often recalled that growing up on a small farm outside of Ada, his dad recognized the effects of water pollution. He said his Dad was drilling a water well and told young Kerr that he drilling on the side of a hill above the barnyard and away from the livestock, because when it rained the runoff from the livestock would flow downhill away from the water well.

Kerr frequently talked about the importance of water in his speeches. He told countless audiences that the key to future prosperity was adequate water supplies. In one speech shortly before his death he said "the value of water to Oklahoma over the next fifty years would far outweigh the value of all the oil and gas produced in Oklahoma in the last fifty years."

Kerr's chief legacy for the state of Oklahoma is the series of water projects and dams that made the Arkansas River into a navigable inland waterway system. During his term as governor, Kerr witnessed the devastation caused by flooding of the Arkansas River and its tributaries due to the river's shallowness, which prevented river traffic from reaching Oklahoma. His first bill in Congress created the Arkansas, White and Red River Study Commission, which planned the water and land development in the region. He died before he saw the commission's work come to fruition as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, a series of 17 locks and dams making the waterway navigable from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa to the Gulf of Mexico.

Kerr left another legacy beside natural resource conservation. He served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. He helped create NASA, then had a vice president of Kerr-McGee, James Webb, appointed the director of NASA.

Kerr didn't live to see the Arkansas River opened for navigation, nor did he see Americans on the moon. He died of a heart attack on January 1, 1963. The Associated Press obituary called Kerr the uncrowned king of the senate.

Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.