Railroads endure as the titanic industrial marvel of the 19th-century United States. They embodied many of the pillars of the American character that created them—courage, vision, perseverance, ingenuity, energy, greed, ruthlessness, and violence. Nowhere did they more thunderously impact the destiny of a people more than post-War Between the States Indian Territory.
The railroad that first entered the territory in 1872 would shape its destiny like few others—the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (famously known as the Katy), a branch line of the corporate giant Union Pacific Railroad. The Katy ran roughly along the old wartime Texas Road (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 6), from southeast Kansas to Red River, near the mouth of the Washita. Terminals like Muskogee, Eufaula, and McAlester (named for J. J. McAlester, OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 8) sprang up as flourishing towns.
The Encylopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture described what followed:
“The railroad quickly came to dominate the Indian Territory coal industry. The Katy became part of a complex web of railroads controlled by Jay Gould. In fact, Gould's domination of the Indian Territory coal industry was so complete that a joke circulating around Wall Street at the time referred to ‘Jay Gould's railroad, his Territory, and his Indians.’
“Loosely allied with Francis Gowen's Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf Railroad, which opened up the coalfields between McAlester and Fort Smith, these railroads were a potent force in the regional coal industry. Still, their dominance was not absolute. The Choctaw Nation's financial records indicate that by 1883 at least six railroads were doing business in Indian Territory.”
The railroads knew the potential for profit in this new country was unlimited. Something was missing, however—people. Even though the money and technology was available to crosshatch Oklahoma with railroad tracks, until enough people—and enough of their products—were there to fill the trains, railroading would cost mountains of money rather than make it.
The Cherokees and other tribes had no interest in providing the revenues to make U.S. government-subsidized white industrial tycoons back East richer and more powerful than they already were. The Natives fought the coming of the railroads with all they had, but to no avail. Later, the farmers and other laborers would battle the railroads, and through the industry’s early decades it was often synonymous with corruption, greed, and government graft.
Nothing and no one, however, could stop the American railroads, who threw their colossal resources and political influence into persuading Congress to open Indigenous lands to railway construction and settlement. Behind them came a tidal wave of American humanity that would prove no less irresistible. The Indian republics were gone and the days of the tribes’ owning their own country were numbered. “As long as the grass grows” did not prove to be forever.
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
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