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Poteau's Growth through the Railroads

Updated on October 22, 2019
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Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

The Frisco Depot in Poteau
The Frisco Depot in Poteau

Development of the Frisco Railroad in Poteau

The Poteau area was growing rapidly, but the biggest growth didn’t come until the railroad.

During the late 1800’s, most long-distance travel was done through the railways. In Indian Territory, there were no railroad tracks laid until the 1880’s. In 1882, the Fort Smith and Southern Railway acquired rights from Congress to construct its road between Ft. Smith and Red River north of Paris, Texas.

Work began in 1886. By November 1, 1886, the line had extended to Bengal, Oklahoma, which lies almost 30 miles southwest of present-day Poteau. Within a few weeks, a pay train consisting of an engine, a coach car, and a caboose ran to Crockett’s camp at Cavanaugh, located three miles west of Wister.

The railroad was built in sections, beginning in Ft. Smith at one end and the town of Red River, Texas. At completion, the two lines would eventually be joined at Buck Creek, nearly 118 miles south of Ft. Smith.

After the St. Louis and San Francisco came in and Poteau began to grow, Sawmills were brought in and ran day and night cutting native lumber for the railroad and general building in Poteau. The St. Louis and San Francisco section house was the first house built. Melvin Flener, who would later own one of the largest hotels in Poteau, was section foreman. He also provided room and board for the section men and traveling salesmen. This “section house” was the only eating-place or hotel in Poteau for about a year.

The Men Who Made it Happen

Road camps were established along the route, allowing the railroad ties to be cut and laid at the same time. Each of these road camps were established 2.8 miles apart, which is why many towns along the old Frisco line are spaced the way they are. One such camp was established at the base of Cavanal Mountain. Melvin Flener was in charge of that camp.

When the railroad crossed the Poteau River, Flener was directly in charge of the bridges construction. As section foreman, there wasn’t much he didn’t oversee. The rock piers that held the line was quarried on Town Creek and the lumber came from Cavanal Mountain. The large rocks and lumber were then hauled down to Buck Davis’s ferry, where they would be moved to Fleener’s camp. Buck was an important man in Poteau. Having arrived a few years earlier, he provided much of the infrastructure that would become modern-day Poteau.

By this time, Buck Davis had moved from the small pioneer shack into a well-built home located about one and one-half blocks west of the present St. Louis and San Francisco and Kansas City Southern Railroad crossing. Eventually, he would add on to this house until it became a large 2-story home. He was in the process of constructing this home when the St. Louis and San Francisco railroad was being built. When the work camps were set up, Davis offered the railroad workers use of his house. During the time they were working on the railroad, they stayed in the original house, which would eventually become the kitchen.

Benjamin Harper, one of the earliest settlers in the area, lived near the base of Cavanal Mountain. As the railroad crews passed through the area, he supplied them with the best beef from his farms. The railroad crews always paid him with silver and gold, which he had to carry back to his home in saddlebags. Carrying around that much gold during those days was almost the same as begging to be robbed, but it never once happened. He knew how to use his .38 Winchester.

This early trend of neighbors helping neighbors would continue throughout Poteau’s history.

Growth and Completion

On May 14, 1887, the final piece of track was laid at Buck Creek. Shortly after, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company bought out the Fort Smith and Southern Railway and began full passenger service from Ft. Smith to Texas. In addition, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway Company shipped products to market, brought goods in for local consumption, and provided reliable mail and package service.

That same year, the first railroad depot was established at Poteau at the corner of Dewey and Broadway, where the gas station is today. The establishment of this depot ushered in a new era for the budding town of Poteau. During the years that the railroad was being built, several businesses had been developed along the west side of the tracks.

Poteau's first railroad depot
Poteau's first railroad depot

Impact of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad in Poteau

Poteau’s growth during the late 1880’s followed that of the railroads. Within a year after the St. Louis and San Francisco finished laying tracks through the eastern part of Indian Territory, it quickly became apparent that the town would play an important role in the future. Because of the towns already booming population, the abundance of flat land on the St. Louis and San Francisco right-of-way, and the great quantity of resources in the area, Poteau provided the perfect place to create a switching station.

Two railroad switches were constructed in order for raw materials to be loaded on to the steam trains, as well providing a safe place for people to board the passenger trains.

The first line was laid to the right of the main track. At the same time, a large stockyard was developed to house cattle and other live animals ready to be transported to market. Concurrently, a second line was being laid to the right of the main line.

This second line was considered the main switch. Steam-powered locomotives would pull in a long line of freight cars onto this switch in order to manage freight. A large cotton platform was located close to the junction where this switch returned to the main line. A warehouse was located closer to the depot that provided ample storage for the various goods that the railroad company handled. Next to the depot, there was another large wood-plank platform designed to help load or offload freight.

The main line continued to serve as the main boarding point for passengers. Both the freight depot and the passenger depot opened up to this side. A 200-foot long wood-plank platform extended out from both ends of the depot. As the train rolled into the station, it passed within inches of this raised platform. Passengers could then safely board the train once it had come to a complete stop.

The railroad continued to have a lasting presence well into the 1960s. By that time, the automobile had replaced many functions of the railroad, however, the railroad spurred on Poteau’s growth through the years. If it hadn’t been for the railroad, Poteau would have gone the way of the many ghost towns found throughout the region.

Poteau Smokeless Coal
Poteau Smokeless Coal


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