Lake Okmulgee in Okmulgee State Park is an hour south of
Tulsa, and a visit will take travelers into Oklahoma's past.
Old established trees canopy the picnic grounds. Older pathways
and roads are paved with hand-chiseled flagstones. Campgrounds,
picnic areas and parking lots are graced with the handiwork
of yesteryear's master stonecutters.
Prior to the building of Okmulgee Lake, the city's water
came from the Deep Fork River. "The sheets came out pink
when washed in water from the Deep Fork," said Pat Doan,
Okmulgee Library director.
"You didn't have a black ring in the tub after a bath.
You had a red one," said Alva Smith, another long-time
At one time Okmulgee was larger than Tulsa and, like Tulsa,
it was an oil town. The town thrived in the 1920s and work
was plentiful. "We weren't destitute for jobs," says Marcel
LeGrand, a long-time resident and renowned catfisherman.
"We were destitute for good water."
In 1925, after several proposals on how to get the needed
water, the city voted $1 million in bonds. Work on an earthen
dam on Salt Creek was begun to provide clean water for Okmulgee.
Ed Hessom of Morris, had a job as a "dump boy" on the
"There were 40 or 50 wagons pulled by horse and mule teams
that would be filled with a steam shovel," he said. "They'd
travel like ants up the dam, and we'd dump them. Those teams
made the trip so many times they didn't even need drivers.
They just kept coming and we'd dump the dirt as they passed."
After two years, the work was complete. A flood in April
1927 filled the lake and a celebration was planned for the
following Fourth of July.
Crowds exceeding 30,000 celebrated with boat races, picnics
and fireworks. One of the men helping to set up the fireworks
was crossing the lake with his son when their boat capsized.
Both drowned. Despite this tragedy, the fireworks went off
The lake has a natural bend which was the scene of many
boat races until recently. There was an elegant boathouse
and dock built in 1938. A crane would lift boats from the
water and place them under cover. The lake and its attractions
became a gathering spot for many local residents.
Years later, the structure was converted into a nightclub,
complete with a hardwood dance floor. Named The Cliff House,
the club was a popular night spot. The structure later burned
when a lightning bolt struck its wooden shingles. Pat Doan
lived across the lake from The Cliff House at the time.
"We were sure sorry it burned. The music coming from the
Cliff House was our only Saturday night entertainment."
The foundation and rock walls of The Cliff House still stand
though graffiti-covered and cracked.
The rockwork of the old boathouse and the shelter houses
around Lake Okmulgee remind older visitors of the construction
projects of the New Deal period. President Franklin Roosevelt
started the Civilian Conservation Corps, and hundreds of
roads, bridges and parks were built across the United States.
The CCC provided work for thousands of young men during
the Great Depression. At the same time, our country benefited
from these needed construction projects.
Many of the structures around the lake were built in 1937
and '38 by Troop 2809 of the CCC.
About a hundred young men from the surrounding area belonged
to the troop under the direction of the U.S. military. These
men lived in barracks in Okmulgee and had their clothes
and food provided by the government. CCC rules required
that $25 of their $30-monthly salary be sent home. Alva
Smith was 17 at the time and a member of Troop 2809. The
money he sent home made loan payments to the Federal Land
Bank on his parents' property thus saving the family farm.
Alva spent his $5 at the local movie house. "Those dollars
were as big as wagon wheels, and a young fella with $5 in
those days was a big man," he said.
They worked hard for $30 a month. Rocks were chiseled by
hand and moved into place with hand-powered winches. Hundreds
of truckloads of dirt and rock had to be moved to build
the boat house. This was done by the CCC boys using shovels
Logs hauled from Wilburton became the rafters of the boat
facility. It was a big job. CCC members were grateful for
the work, and the money sent home saved many families from
ruin during the Great Depression.
But while some of the buildings and fancy rockwork at Lake
Okmulgee are CCC projects, the most esthetic piece of construction
was completed during the 1940s by the Work Projects Administration.
A flood had washed out part of the earthen dam and the WPA
made repairs, covering the damaged area with a beautiful
Out-of-work men were assigned to the project and would arrive
with their mule teams and coffee pots. Camping in tents
and in a nearby cave, they would work an allotted 10 days.
Huge stones from a nearby quarry were hand-cut and hauled
with a minimum of heavy machinery. These stones formed a
giant staircase for overflow water.
When the lake level is down, the intricacy of construction
can be seen, a fabulous example of hand-craftsmanship. The
daring can climb the structure when the water is low.
When the lake is up, the spillway is magnificent. The staircase
is obscured by rushing water, and the noise is deafening.
Water cascades 60 feet, splashing over the huge steps, forming
misty columns and miniature rainbows. This deluge produces
acres of splashing water and a memory not soon forgotten.
Now a State Park, the lake has modern campsites and facilities,
and has produced record-breaking fish. Swimming is allowed
in designated areas and there are abundant picnic grounds.
Lake Okmulgee is from a different era and time has taken
its toll. A large rock table built at the bottom of the
spillway has eroded, and some of the rock work has cracked.
Vandals have done their dirty work on many of the rock structures.
Some of the older buildings are in disrepair.
Despite these ravages, the integrity of the original effort
remains a silent tribute to the need for clean water and
a salute to government programs which really worked and
improved life for its citizens.
Okmulgee State Park charges standard camping fees. City
stickers are required for boats operating on the lake and
can be purchased from rangers on duty. Q
(Eric Lee teaches in the Tulsa Public School System and
is a freelance writer and photographer.)