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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, Port of Catoosa
(photo by Jim Argo, Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection, OHS).


Dedicated on June 5, 1971, by Pres. Richard M. Nixon at the Port of Catoosa, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) had its beginning when Congress passed the 1946 Rivers and Harbors Act. It authorized a nine-foot navigation channel up the Arkansas and Verdigris rivers to Catoosa, Oklahoma, based on a 1943 plan by the Arkansas River Survey Board of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Since the demise of steamboat traffic in the late-nineteenth century various groups have tried to revitalize navigation on the Arkansas River. One of the most influential was the Arkansas Basin Development Association, based in Tulsa. Other influential proponents were Newton Graham, a Tulsa civic leader, and Don McBride, an engineer and head of the Oklahoma Planning and Resources Board. Congress did not allocate funding for the multifaceted project (navigation, flood control, recreation, and hydroelectric power) until 1956, initiating construction on the Eufaula and Keystone dams in the Sooner State. Sen. Robert S. Kerr and Arkansas Sen. John L. McClellan shepherded the project through years of development, compelling Congress to officially name the system after them in January 1971.

Physically, the MKARNS is 445 river miles long and has eighteen locks and dams, creating a staircase from the Mississippi River up to Catoosa. The five Oklahoma locks and dams are the Newt Graham, Chouteau, Webbers Falls, Robert S. Kerr, and W. D. Mayo. Seven upstream reservoirs reinforce the locks and dams. These are Keystone, Oologah, Eufaula, Tenkiller Ferry, Lake O' The Cherokees, Hudson, and Fort Gibson. The Corps of Engineers works to maintain a minimum nine-foot channel depth, and the U.S. Coast Guard has buoyed, marked, and lighted the navigational channel. The federal government spent $1.2 billion to complete the system. The Oklahoma portion offers two public ports, Catoosa and Muskogee, and several private ports.

In 1959 the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law authorizing port authorities that have broad powers to develop, operate, and expand ports. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were three such entities, the Muskogee City-County Port Authority, the Sallisaw Port Authority, and the City of Tulsa–Rogers County Port Authority. The Port of Catoosa contains two thousand acres and an industrial park. The facility provides two large cranes, a conveyor system, ample warehouse space, a grain elevator, pipelines, railroad facilities, and access to U.S. Interstate 44. The Port of Muskogee lies at the headwaters of the Arkansas River portion and is within a 320-acre industrial park. It provides cranes, warehouse storage, oil storage, railroad convenience, a scrap-handling magnet, scales, and grain storage. Both of these ports are designated Foreign Trade Zones.

From 1971 to 1990 an average of 7.6 million tons of commerce was carried on the MKARNS. In 1994 the system transported 10.6 million tons. At the end of the twentieth century sand, gravel, and rock registered as the largest percentage of the commodities shipped along the channel. Other cargo included petroleum products, chemical fertilizers, wheat, coal and coke, iron and steel, soybeans, and other agricultural products. The system has saved billions of dollars in flood damage, created hydroelectric power, provided numerous jobs in the related industries, and created a recreational boon for several areas. In 2004 the system carried nearly thirteen tons of cargo.

Larry O'Dell


S. Charles Bolton, 25 Years Later: A History of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River System in Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark.: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1995).

Robert S. Kerr, Land, Wood and Water (New York: Fleet Publishing Co., 1960).

Ruth B. Mapes, The Arkansas Waterway: People, Places, Events in the Valley, 1817–1971 (Little Rock, Ark.: University Press, 1972).

Ann Hodges Morgan, Robert S. Kerr: The Senate Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=MC009.

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