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Robert S. Kerr's "Forgotten" history
From 1926 until 1963, Senator Robert S. Kerr was a force to be reckoned with. Most people know him as an oil baron, partner with the Kerr-McGee Oil Industries, Inc. Others know him as a prominent political figure, moving and shaking things across the country with the likes of President John F. Kennedy.
However, there's much more to the man than the legends. In Southeast Oklahoma, he had a tremendous impact that is still felt today.
First Impacts; McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System
In the 1950’s, Senator Robert S. Kerr fell in love with the area surrounding Poteau. As one of the most powerful senators of the time, he had both a major influence in U.S. politics as well as in his beloved state of Oklahoma.
One of his most ambitious projects was the revitalization of traffic along the Arkansas River. During the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the Arkansas was teeming with steamboat traffic. By the 1910’s, this traffic had virtually disappeared. Since that time, many people had tried to revive the Arkansas as a major transportation route. Still, it would be several decades until the river once again saw boat traffic of the magnitude from days long past.
Officially dedicated on June 5, 1971, by Pres. Richard M. Nixon at the Port of Catoosa, the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was one of Robert S. Kerr's major projects, even though he never lived to see it completed.
With the potential growth of navigation on the Arkansas River, he saw the potential for Poteau to be a major city. He correctly pointed out to Poteau residents that the Poteau River, with its mouth on the Arkansas River at historic Belle Point in Fort Smith, could be made navigable to the city of Poteau. His vision was to see Poteau become one of many ports inside of Oklahoma that could reach south to the Mississippi River, then down in to the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, his dream of "Port Poteau" never came in to existence, but his vision has had a tremendous impact on the economy of Oklahoma and the transportation of goods to the central part of the United States. Today, the Port of Catoosa is the end of the line for the McClellan-Kerr, and is the nations furthest inland port.
The Kerr Mansion and Ranch
Locally, Senator Kerr did his best to promote the area. In the 1950’s, he established a large ranch just south of Poteau. At it's height, the ranch spanned more than 50,000 acres and was one of the several Angus cattle ranches he owned. The home, which was one of two located in the Poteau area, was the center of his political empire. It may be the only home in Oklahoma that has played host to five U.S. Presidents, including President John F. Kennedy. Prior to the dedication at Big Ceder, Sen. Kerr and the president spent a full day at the ranch. Kerr even went as far as to provide a showing of his famous Black Angus Cattle. Besides, President Kennedy, Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush has also stayed at the mansion.
Photos of the Robert S. Kerr Mansion
The Robert S. Kerr Airport
Prior to his death in 1963, Kerr had donated several acres of land to the City of Poteau for use as an airport facility.
Before the Robert S. Kerr Airport was established in 1964, aviators used a much smaller field that was located near where the Carl Albert State College is located today. Dresser’s Field, as it was known, was essentially nothing more than a large pasture. Much of the history of this early airport is unknown; however, old photographs provide clues as to its origin.
The earliest story of its existence tells of when a large aircraft bomber had to make an emergency landing at Dresser’s during World War II. Due to an engine malfunction, the large aircraft was forced to land at the small airfield. For local residents, this created quite a stir. Although the details of this incident are unknown, one can imagine that the entire town turned out to see the aircraft.
Landing the large airplane was one thing, but getting it off of the airfield was quite another. Since the airfield was so small, even after the bomber was repaired, there would not have been enough room for it to take off. Instead, trucks came in from Fort Smith, loaded the aircraft, and returned it to Camp Chaffee.
By the 1950’s, there was at least one hanger and an office located at Dresser’s Field. In addition, there was a more defined runway, although it was mainly constructed of compacted earth. During interviews, some residents recall seeing a radio tower located there as well. Essentially, field could barely have been called an airport; however, it served the community well.
Robert S. Kerr, realizing the need for a more modern airport, encouraged the development of a new airport in Poteau. Unfortunately, this was another one of those projects that he never saw completed before his death.
The Robert S. Kerr Airport was established in Poteau in 1964. At first, the airport consisted of a long strip of cleared land. The earth had been graded, compacted, and overlaid with concrete. In addition to the landing strip, there was also a large parking lot located to the side.
In the mid-1960's, flying was expensive, especially commercial flights. For example, a round trip ticket between Cleveland and Washington D.C. typically cost around $75. Factor in inflation and this would be more than $400 today. Rates on commercial airlines were controlled by regulation, which meant that all airliners had to charge the same rate. Because of this expense, flying was rare. As a result, security was nearly non-existent at most airports. Generally, people would simply up to the ticket counter, purchase their ticket without having to show identification, walked out unsupervised onto the tarmac, and climbed up the stairs and onto the plane. Many airports also offered observation decks where people could watch the airplanes as they arrived and departed.
While this mainly describes larger commercial airports, the practices of the time had a big influence on the newly established airport in Poteau. Because of the high costs involved with flight, professionals in eastern Oklahoma needed a more efficient way to travel. Having a local airport closer than Fort Smith provided both convenience and affordability. Since the airport could only handle smaller planes, most flights on the smaller aircraft weren’t as regulated as the commercial flights were. In addition, this allowed local businessmen more freedom when they had to travel out of town.
The opening celebrations at the newly established Robert S. Kerr Airport were a sight to behold. Local resident Allen White, who worked at the airport at the time, recalls some of the action surrounding the event:
The Shooting Stars paratroopers came in along with the Thunderbirds. The Shooting Stars practiced on Saturday. One landed in the trees and one landed in a pond. We had to fish both of them out. On Sunday the Shooting Stars all landed on the center line of the runway. The Thunderbirds put on quite a show. Kind of like the Blue Angels. There was a "fly in" of people in all kinds of aircraft. The National Stunt Plane pilot came in. He let people look and touch his airplane. When he was arriving, I thought we had a crash at the end of the runway because he came straight down and then at the last second turned the nose of the plane up and taxied to an area we had roped off for celebrity planes. He said he couldn't see over the front of the plane so that was the way he landed. The planes came in on Saturday and the Grand Opening was on Sunday. The Shooting Stars and Thunderbirds had quite a party at the Black Angus Motel on Saturday Night. There was limited parking at the airport so a lot of people parked on Ridge Road for a good view. Several aircraft owners took people for plane rides on Saturday. I got my first plane ride that day as payment for working Saturday and Sunday without pay.
The Life of Kerr in Photos
Robert S. Kerr Biography: Oklahoma Historical Society
- Kerr, Robert Samuel | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
Learn more about Sen. Robert S. Kerr through the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History.
© 2017 Eric Standridge