From its headwaters near Leadville, Colorado, the Arkansas River flows into the western edge of Tulsa County and runs east and south, exiting near the small town of Leonard on its march to the Mississippi River.
In 1803, most of present-day Oklahoma was acquired from France by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. This huge addition to the territory of the United States was seen as a suitable place to relocate Native Americans, forcing them from southern and eastern states in order to make more land available for white settlers. Most of the Indians targeted for relocation were members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes, known as the Five Civilized Tribes because of their sophisticated systems of government, law and agriculture. From 1812 to 1837, tens of thousands of Native Americans were force-marched hundreds of miles without sufficient food or clothing. Ravaged by malnutrition, disease and the harsh winter weather, thousands died on the infamous “Trail of Tears.”
One group of Creek Indians called the Lochapokas, from the name of their former home in Alabama, arrived at the future site of Tulsa in 1836. On a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River, they kindled a fire, symbolically adding to it ashes brought from their ancestral home. The Council Oak at 18th Street and Cheyenne Avenue marks the site of this solemn ceremony and was at the corner of a ceremonial square built by the Lochapokas. Following tribal custom, the square contained public buildings, with individual dwellings at its outskirts. The small community was known as Tulsey Town, but its growth was cut short by the Civil War. Overrun by soldiers from both sides of the bloody conflict, the only thing left standing at the war’s end in 1865 was the home of Lewis Perryman, a mixed Creek who had opened the area’s first known trading post in 1848. The trading post was believed to have been located near 31st and Riverside Drive and Perryman’s home was at 33rd and Rockford.
Tulsa’s Joined History with the Arkansas River
The Perryman home eventually became the town’s first post office and “Tulsa” was the name given to this stop on the U.S. Mail, Star Route. In 1882, the Frisco Railroad extended its line to Tulsa and the Hall brothers – considered founders of modern Tulsa – began their first store in a tent pitched beside the new railroad. With rail service, Tulsa became an important cattle shipping point and the town continued to grow. The first public school was established in 1884 by a Presbyterian missionary. As yet, there were no churches, but circuit riders and missionaries preached from the porch of Hall’s General Store.
Tulsa, Indian Territory, was very much a part of the “Wild West.” Gunfights were common, cowboys from nearby ranches came to town to drink and celebrate when they got paid, and outlaws including the Dalton gang and Belle Starr were known to frequent the area due to its lack of law enforcement. Land runs in 1889, 1891 and 1893 brought many more settlers into the area and Tulsa was incorporated as a city in 1898.
Then, in 1901, in an area on the west side of the Arkansas River known as Red Fork, oil spewed from the first commercial well in the Tulsa area. Oilmen from the eastern United States headed for Tulsa, making it their headquarters and the city was on its way to becoming the “Oil Capital of the World.” Meanwhile, the Arkansas River posed a real obstacle between the city on the east side of the river and Red Fork on the west side. The solution was a toll bridge completed in 1904 by three enterprising Tulsa businessmen at the site of the current Southwest Boulevard and I-244 bridges. An historical marker installed in 2010 commemorates that first bridge.
From its beginnings as a Creek Indian village, through many years of growth and prosperity, the land along the Arkansas River remained fallow except for the riverfront industries and a few clusters of houses. One of the problems, as observed by the disgruntled owner of a commercial steamboat, was that “the bottom of the Arkansas is too near the top.” And contrasting with the frequent problem of too little water for navigation was the more serious problem of flooding. In all, the river was considered more of a liability than an asset.
The idea of developing Tulsa’s riverfront was unsuccessful until 1974 when it was proposed as one of several civic projects designed to celebrate the city’s 75th birthday. Though met with open skepticism by many, community leaders were inspired by the success of riverfront developments in other cities around the nation. They envisioned public/private partnerships blending open space, industrial, and residential properties into a corridor of public-use areas all along the Arkansas River in Tulsa County. The year 1974 also marked a decade of flood control by Keystone Dam, further building confidence that the river and its banks could be managed and developed for the economic and cultural benefit of the community.
The Creation of River Parks Authority
The River Parks Authority, created by the City of Tulsa and Tulsa County, soon began transforming the riverfront with over $2 million in federal urban renewal funds. The agency’s first project was the conversion of a former railroad bridge at 29th and Riverside into the Pedestrian Bridge, linking the east and west banks of the river. Next came construction of the early phases of the park’s asphalt-surfaced recreation trail with related amenities. To encourage support and use of the new park facilities, public events, such as fireworks and festivals, were introduced to draw people to River Parks to see its potential.
River Parks now includes over 800 acres of land stretching along miles of the Arkansas River. The focal point of the park is its trail system, weaving through open lawns and tree-lined picnic areas, past bronze wildlife sculptures and the seasonal color of native trees and wildflowers. Public events are centered primarily at the River West Festival Park with its amphitheatre and the Reynolds floating stage. Zink Dam and Lake, completed in 1983, have made the river a popular spot for fishing and rowing, while kayaking the “Tulsa Wave” on the river’s west bank is also a popular water sport. Further south, the untamed beauty of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area rises above the riverbed, offering rugged hiking and equestrian trails, as well as a panoramic view of the city from its summit.
Private investment is vital to River Parks’ success, with Tulsa-area businesses, foundations and individuals giving generously to expand and improve the park for the benefit and enjoyment of the entire community. In River Parks’ history, the ratio of public funding to private funding is 49% to 51%. This means that just over $1 in private funds has been contributed for every $1 of City, County, State and Federal money. River Parks symbolizes the best of public and private cooperation, as both work together to enhance a unique park in the heart of the city. With approximately 41 miles of riverfront within Tulsa County, the Arkansas River offers a dynamic resource for the continuing development of outdoor recreation opportunities.