Wagoner Grew from a Railroad Stop
There are a lot of stories to tell in Wagoner’s history. Many of them are colorful accounts of how the city survived adversity, calamity and good fortune.Each of them changed the city some, but there are two milestones that had the greatest impact on how Wagoner is today; The coming of the railroad to the area and the construction of Fort Gibson Lake.
People traveled through Wagoner from the earliest time of civilization on this continent. The Caddoan Indians left as evidence of their presence in this area the small island just north of Highway 51 at Taylor Ferry. Today called the Norman site, it is one of the most prominent Indian mounds in the state, dating to about 600 A.D.
The Osage Indians trapped and traded in this area in the early 19th century but were forced out of the area when the Creek Indians were removed from their homes in Mississippi and Alabama and resettled in Indian Territory. Wagoner was in the new Creek Nation.
Confederate and Union soldiers were stationed throughout this area in the Civil War and met in a skirmish near just north of Wagoner on Sept. 15, 1864. Just after the war, huge herds of cattle were driven north from Texas up the Texas Road - the East Shawnee Trail - right through the heart of this area - on their way to markets in Kansas and Missouri.And then the railroad came in 1871.
The Missouri-Kansas and Texas Railroad built its way south from Kansas to Gibson Station and beyond. About 12 years later, Henry Samuel “Bigfoot” Wagoner, who was stationed at Parsons, Kan., with the Katy Railroad, decided a switch was needed to load cattle and lumber from the area between Gibson Station and Flat Rock Creek. When the switch was completed, Katy roadmaster Perry telegraphed company officials that “Wagoner’s Switch is ready.”The spot on the prairie had its name.
The Kansas and Arkansas Valley Railroad’s announcement in 1883 that it too would be running tracks through this area put Wagoner in a unique position: it would be the crossroads of rail service. Wagoner got its first permanent residents on June 5, 1887, when William H. and Sallie H. McAnnally, moved their family to Wagoner’s Switch. He had been an MK&T employee who had worked at Wagoner’s Switch. He had planned to settle in the old Katy section house, but there was a work crew living there when the family arrived. At first, they slept on the porch of the section house, then lived in a borrowed tent until they took possession of the section house. Eventually, McAnally quit his job with the Katy and built a wooden structure that railroad employees called the “Cottonwood Hotel.”
In less than a year, a number of enterprises sprang up in the prairie community. On Feb. 25, 1888, the town’s request for a post office was granted and William W. Teague, a native of Indiana, was named the city’s first postmaster.
Cattlemen, hay dealers, business and professional men flocked to the new community from surrounding states, seeing the possibility that the Indian Territory soon would be divided and available for private ownership. The people who came here brought in fine lumber to build business buildings and beautiful homes. While the original businesses were destroyed by fire, many of their original homes still stand as the pride of Wagoner citizens and the delight of city visitors.
Businessmen weren’t the only ones to visit Wagoner in its earliest days. So did some of the most infamous bandits of the day. On September 14, 1891, Bill Doolin slipped into Wagoner to have his photo taken by a local photographer. The next day he and members of the Dalton gang robbed a train at Leliaetta, just north of Wagoner.
By 1892, Wagoner’s population had grown to 400. It boasted “five general mercantile stores, two drug stores, a cotton gin, grist mill, two blacksmith shops, a livery stable, a newspaper, a church and four hotels.
In 1894, the local newspaper, the Record, predicted “that Wagoner is going to be the metropolis of the territory.” The next year, a group of Wagoner citizens met in the office of Captain William Jackson, an Englishman married to a Creek woman, to discuss the possibility of establishing a city government.
On Dec. 3, 1895, a petition signed by 283 heads of families, was filed in the federal court in Muskogee. A hearing was set for Jan. 4, 1896. Later that month, Judge Springer granted the petition. Just nine years after the prairie town got its first settlers, Wagoner became the first town in Indian Territory to incorporate. The city’s population that year was reported at 1,500 and the newspaper boasted that the town had “over 50 good business houses of different kinds.”
Wagoner was described in an 1899 Twin Territories magazine as “having more and finer buildings than any other town in the Indian Territory. The residences of Wagoner are the handsomest in the Indian Territory while the society is refined and cultivated.”
The editor of the Wagoner Record would have disagreed. In 1901, the newspaper charged that “two gambling halls have been running ‘wide open’ in Wagoner for the past year.” That report came three months after a Vinita newspaper had charged that Wagoner’s courts were “notorious on account of their refusal to indict or convict anyone charged with selling liquor.”
In its earliest years, Wagoner was surrounded by a fence, according to a history written by long-time Wagoner librarian Kate Hersman. She wrote in a 1957 Wagoner Record-Democrat article that when her father, Dr. S.D. Lyles, first came to Wagoner in 1898 that Wagoner was enclosed by wire fences on all four sides to keep cattle from the huge herds on area ranches out of town.
There were four or five gates leading out of town but many residents carried wire cutters and did not even bother to hunt a gate. This situation was vexing to the cattlemen, she said. By the time her father arrived here, Wagoner boosters already were claiming the crown of “Queen City of the Prairies” for Wagoner.
The young city had a population of 3,372, the fourth largest in Indian Territory. Wagoner was developing its first tourism business - germicidal baths. The mineral waters were said to have “almost a magical character” and were reported to cure even the most stubborn diseases. Bath houses capable of serving 500 people a day and several hotels offered patrons an opportunity to soak in the miraculous waters. The editor of the Wagoner Weekly Sayings claimed he was reluctant to list the curative powers of the water for fear that he would be accused of exaggeration, but he did suggest that: “This water cures eczema, tetter, acne or face bumps and various forms of skin diseases. It cures old varicose ulcers, matters not of how long standing. It cures lupus and kindred affections, sore eyes, gastrointestinal catarrhal diseases of the head and other catarrhal conditions to which the human system is subject. It cures gonorrhoeal infections and hyperacidity of the blood, constipation, piles and pruritis. It will positively remove dandruff and corns.”
Just after the turn of the century, a number of Wagoner citizens joined the push to make the Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory a state. Statehood was seen as a solution to several problems, including clearing the title to properties that once belonged to the Creek Nation but now was available for ownership by the white intruders.
In the fall of 1900, nearly 100 Wagoner business and professional men had signed a petition calling for a public meeting at City Hall to organize a league to promote the cause of single statehood. That December, delegates from Indian Territory met in a convention in South McAlester. C.E. Castle, a real estate man from Wagoner, was voted permanent chairman of the convention that demanded “immediate single statehood.”
The idea of single statehood did not meet well with the leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes. In an effort to stave off single statehood, they call a constitutional convention in Muskogee in 1905. They proposed the Indian Territory become a single state with 26 districts. Had the constitution they proposed been adopted by President Theodore Roosevelt, Wagoner would have been the county seat of Tumechichee County. Coweta would have been in Koweta County. Instead, Congress passed an act enabling Oklahoma and Indian Territories to prepare for admission to the Union as a single state. In January 1907 an election was held and Wagoner was named the county seat of the new Wagoner County. Porter and Coweta also had vied to have the county seat in their cities.
By 1905, Wagoner had its third railroad going through the city. The Missouri, Oklahoma and Gulf ran from Henryetta to Joplin, Mo. A couple of years later, there were 14 passenger trains a day serving the town’s 5,000 residents and the rural area.
As the town bustled and business grew, the city was developing culturally as well. By 1910, Mrs. S.S. Cobb and other leading women of the community had begun pushing for acquisition of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for construction of a library here. An organization was formed and 200 memberships were quickly sold for $1 each. The City Council rented a room for a library and budgeted $200 a year for the library and librarian. Arabella West got the job, receiving $10 per month. In 1913, the city moved into its present-day library, one of the few Carnegie-funded buildings still in use in Oklahoma. That is due to change with the new century - a new library is proposed for construction at Northeast Second and Main.
Other cultural activities also had started to evolve in the community at about the same time Oklahoma was being granted statehood. The Calumet Dance Club met for formal dances at Cobb’s Hall, the ballroom area of the S.S. Cobb Building.
The Odd Fellows Lodge had been organized here several years before statehood and other civic and social organizations sprang up as the community grew. But the church offered most of the social activities of the community. By the time of statehood, there were several - First Baptist, First Methodist, First Christian, Holy Cross Catholic, St. James Episcopal, First Presbyterian and others.
Wagoner schools also continued to grow. A separate school for blacks was built shortly after Wagoner’s first school for white children opened.
Lincoln High School and Wagoner High School both graduated many outstanding individuals until the two schools were merged in 1966. Today, the schools continue to grow with Ellington Elementary, Maple Park Elementary, Central Intermediate, Wagoner Middle School and Wagoner High School.
Wagoner suffered hard times with the rest of the nation and enjoyed good times as well. It ended the century enjoying a reputation as a spirited community with a new water park, plans for a new library, a developing industrial park, a wonderful holiday lights program and the one thing that has remained constant in the city’s history - wonderful people.