Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory, 1889

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Oklahoma City, like San Francisco and Denver, was an instant city. On the morning of April 22, 1889, the future site of the town was an unbroken level prairie lying in a loop of the North Canadian River; by that evening between 6,000 and 10,000 people populated the site. Unlike the people who settled San Francisco and Denver, however, the settlers of Oklahoma City were not lured by the promise of precious metals. Rather, it was the lure of land and the promise of future prosperity that made Oklahoma City a boomtown. The land had belonged to the Creeks and the Seminoles, but in 1889 the United States acquired title to the "Unassigned District," and on April 22 of that year the land was opened for homestead settlement in the first of a series of "runs."

Oklahoma City would become the largest urban center and the most important trade headquarters in central Oklahoma. After 1895, Oklahoma City was served by four railroads, which enabled local wholesale merchants to extend their trade areas. Easy transportation also facilitated the growth of flour and cottonseed oil mills. In May 1909 representatives of the Chicago packing firm of Nelson, Moriss and Company met with a large number of Oklahoma City businessmen to consider the possibility of constructing a packing plant. The businessmen offered a cash bonus of $300,000 and property concessions, and the company built the plant. A second packing plant soon followed. By 1910 these two plants and the attendant holding yards employed more than 4,000 people. In 1910 Oklahoma City became the permanent state capital, which also provided employment for many city residents. The village had quickly grown into a city of 64,000, and much of the impetus for growth had come from dynamic early leaders such as Charles Colcord, Henry Overholser, Hugh M. Johnson, Anton H. Classen, and E. K. Gaylord.

Stimulated by World War I, Oklahoma City boomed, and by 1920 the population had increased to 91,295. The metropolitan area contained 400 manufacturing plants, a similar number of jobbing houses, and 1,100 retail establishments. After World War I the economy became increasingly diversified: the city continued to serve as a processing center for agricultural products, but there were also new iron and steel plants and factories producing furniture, clothing, and electrical equipment. Various large utility companies and brokerage houses established their headquarters in the downtown area, and, most significantly, in the late 1920s a gusher oil field was discovered and developed on the east side of the city. This discovery led to an oil boom that would make Oklahoma City a leading center of the nation's petroleum industry.

The Great Depression had a chilling impact on Oklahoma's two primary economic activities, agriculture and oil. The crisis was so deep that the chamber of commerce advised residents not to invite their relatives or friends to move to the city unless they had a job, and in 1931 the community budget allocated $338,092 of its $450,565 for relief activities. However, although the Depression slowed economic growth in Oklahoma City, it did not stop it: more than 367 new businesses were established in 1931 alone.

But again it was war–World War II–that stimulated growth. Led by business and civic leaders R. A. Singletary, Stanley Draper, Samuel W. Hays, Frank Buttram, Harvey P. Everest, and Dan Hogan, Oklahoma City secured Tinker Air Force Base. By the 1970s Tinker was the city's and the state's largest single employer, with some 22,500 civilian workers and about 3,000 air force personnel and an annual payroll of almost $300 million. Along with further economic development in iron and steel and the electronics industry, Oklahoma City also expanded physically in the 1960s. The city annexed a large number of surrounding areas, increasing in size from about 310 square miles in 1960 to about 635 square miles in 1970. Its population continued to grow, reaching 403,484 in 1980.

Unlike many cities in the 1960s, Oklahoma City was not rocked by violent social upheavals. Clara Luper, sponsor of the naacp Youth Organization, led a generally peaceful sit-in movement that integrated most restaurants and other public facilities in the late 1950s. Integration of Oklahoma City schools by busing in the 1960s, however, did create turmoil and protest.

In the 1970s and early 1980s Oklahoma City reaped the economic and social benefits of a growing oil industry and the construction of a General Motors plant. Unfortunately, the collapse of Penn Square Bank and problems in the oil industry slowed city growth for much of the 1980s. On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City gained prominence that it did not want when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed and destroyed, killing 168 people. In 2000 the population of Oklahoma City proper was 450,000, with more than one million people living in the entire metropolitan statistical area.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Layton, Solomon / INDUSTRY: Petroleum, United States / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Oklahoma City Bombing.

Jack Thompson Oklahoma Christian University

Meredith, Howard L., and George H. Shirk. "Oklahoma City: Growth and Reconstruction, 1889–1939." Chronicles of Oklahoma 55 (1977): 293–300.

Scott, Angels C. The Story of Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City: Times Journal Publishing Company, 1939.

Stewart, Ray P. Born Grown: An Oklahoma City History. Oklahoma City: Fidelity Bank, 1974.

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