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A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Oklahoma
(Reworked from episode broadcast on January 17, 2001)

January 15, 2003

Historian's Notes

Having been a landlocked state for millions of years, one can only imagine the excitement of finally watching a barge, which began its journey in the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, enter the state. The idea of connecting the state to the ocean was the dream of Senator Robert S. Kerr. Because of his hard work and imagination -- not to mention his ability to grind favors from other politicians -- Oklahoma was able to realize a completely new market for goods both entering and leaving the state. The Kerr-McClellan waterway is a priceless asset for Oklahoma and is celebrated as such on this segment of the Almanac.

Resources

Material for this segment came from a variety of standard Oklahoma history texts.

Almanac Transcript

A man, a plan, a canal: Oklahoma, this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.

Hello, I am Steven Knoche Kite.

Oklahoma's two main river systems, the Red River and the Arkansas River, has always proven excellent means of transportation for early-day as well as modern residents. From the earliest recorded history of the region until the arrival of the more convenient and reliable railroad, the Arkansas River, the more navigable of the two systems, was heavily utilized as a trade route. Because of the railroad, though, river travel beginning in the 1870s entered a 70-year period of stagnation.

Elected governor of Oklahoma in 1943, Robert S. Kerr put into action an ambitious plan that would forever change travel and commerce in the state. Kerr proposed the canal system connecting the Arkansas River and its main tributary, the Verdigris, to the Mississippi. This canal plan of Kerr's would have two main benefits for the residents of northeastern Oklahoma. First, they would connect the northeastern section of the state to the Gulf of Mexico, theoretically providing unlimited industrial opportunities; and second, a system of locks, dams, and canals would help to tame the wild waters of the Verdigris, whose annual floods wreaked havoc on nearby towns. The canal project officially began in 1943.

With Kerr's election to the U.S. Senate in 1945 and with the help of Arkansas Senator John McClellan, the project began to progress rapidly. Kerr wrangled, manhandled, and bullied funds from Congress for his project, whose cost soared into the billions. The Kerr-McClellan Navigation System, as it is called, is one of the most expensive civil projects in U.S. history behind the Panama Canal and the U.S. Space program. When finished a fully navigable route lay from the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Verdigris River in northeastern Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma portion contains no less than 448 miles of constructed river channel, five locks, three lakes: Eufaula, Keystone, and Oologah. It was a long an arduous process taking over 28 years to complete, but it was in this week of January 1971 when the first commercial barge made its way from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi and into the Port of Catoosa, thereby marking the official opening of the Kerr-McClellan Navigation System: Oklahoma's waterway to the sea.

I'm Steven Knoche Kite.

The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of the Oklahoma State University Library and Oklahoma's Public Radio.

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