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Oklahoma Journeys

Opening of the Port of Muskogee, 1971


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This week on Oklahoma Journeys we go rolling on the river. It was in this week of 1971 that residents throughout Oklahoma had reason to celebrate especially in the town of Muskogee. The most expensive government project in the history of the United States up to that time came into being 39 years ago this week. That's the topic on this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

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

The hope of taming yearly floods and expanding commerce were the catalysts that brought about the beginning of what was to become the most expensive single government project in the history of the United States at that time. In 1946 Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr saw the beginning of a dream. Kerr along with Arkansas Senator John McClellan, both visionaries, successfully pushed through Congress the necessary legislation and funding to connect both states with the ocean and therefore with maritime commerce. The plan was for barges and other commercial traffic to be able to travel from the Gulf of Mexico up the Mississippi, up the White River to the Arkansas River, eventually ending at the Port of Catoosa north of Tulsa. But before any of that could happen a monumental series of events had to occur, not the least of which was government funding.

The plan began in 1946 with a series of dams constructed creating lakes Keystone, Oologah, Eufaula and Tenkiller, as well as others in Arkansas. The massive work of constructing the dams continued into the 1950s before being completed in the early 1960s. Work then began on widening and deepening the Arkansas and Verdigris rivers to a uniform depth of nine feet and 300- to 150-feet wide respectively. In addition four locks along the Oklahoma system had to be constructed in order to allow river traffic to rise and lower. For a shipment to make the journey from the Atlantic Ocean to Oklahoma, it would have to be raised a total of 420 feet and the locks, completed in 1968, allowed that to happen. In 1969 construction was begun on the 4.2 million dollar port facility in Muskogee, the first of its kind ever in Oklahoma. On January 22, 1971, then-Governor David Hall officially opened Oklahoma's waterway to the ocean, forever changing commerce, trade and industry in our state. The Port of Catoosa near Tulsa opened shortly thereafter completing the project that began as a dream of Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr in 1946.

Today millions of tons of goods enter and leave via Oklahoma ports with the first shipments entering the state in this week of 1971. The incredible success story of the Kerr-McClellan waterway, a project 25 years in the making, can be traced and followed through official governor's papers and newspaper holdings at the Oklahoma Historical Society research facility in the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.