There is a small jazz club in Edmond, Oklahoma, where my wife and I sometimes hang out. One evening a local band played the old standard “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride,” written in the late 1960’s by Taj Mahal and James Rachell. At the conclusion, the lead singer (slightly younger than my 66 years) asked the audience, “Does anyone know what that means?”
At first I thought he was joking, but then I could tell he was serious.
“Sure,” I shouted back, “it’s the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad! She took the train and left him behind!”
He looked at me as though I were joking.
“No, really!” I said.
“I know,” he said softly, almost wistfully. “I just wondered if anyone else did.”
The Land Grant
In 1863, with the Civil War raging, Congress issued land grants for constructing a line from the UP in central Kansas south to Emporia, then down the Neosho and Grand River valleys to the state’s boundary with the Cherokee Nation in what is now northeastern Oklahoma. In February 1864, the Kansas Legislature formally accepted these grants. It transferred all rights to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, requiring the construction of two lines – one west toward Colorado, the other south toward the Cherokee Nation. The Santa Fe constructed the Colorado line, but not the Neosho Valley line. In 1866, it assigned its interests to the “Union Pacific – Southern Branch.”
|Southbound Mixed Freight at Dawn on Lake Eufaula|
|Southbound Manifest on Relocated Track After Creation of Lake Eufaula|
In that year, the forerunner of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad – the MKT or Katy – was born in Emporia Kansas, in the law offices of Preston Plumb and Judge Robert M. Ruggles. The Congressional land grant offered railroad companies 10 square miles for every mile of track constructed in the Indian Nations south of Kansas. After acquiring the rights of the Union Pacific – Southern Branch, the company by 1869 had constructed track from the UP connection at Junction City, Kansas, to Emporia. That year New York investors Colonel Robert Smith Stevens and Judge Levi Parsons bought (some sources say “stole”) these local Kansans’ interests. In 1870, these new investors created the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway Company and assumed the charter of the Union Pacific – Southern Branch.
|Northbound Local on Relocated Track|
|Southbound Merchandise Freight Beside U.S. 69|
The Race South
|Southbound Manifest on the Southern Lake Eufaula Causeway|
|A southbound manifest approaches McAlester, Oklahoma, in January, 1982. Today (2017) this area is overgrown with second growth timber, making this shot impossible.|
South of Emporia, the MKT built through Burlington, Neosho Falls and Chanute, eventually reaching Parsons, named after the Judge. Before reaching the southern border of Kansas, the MKT sent a separate crew to construct a small section of isolated track across the state line – in theory to secure the right to continue building south. By Executive Order, President Grant stopped this project. He decreed that only contiguous construction across the state line would win the race. Shortly thereafter, the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Fort Gibson went broke and quite the competition. Due to surveying errors, the Kansas and Neosho Valley began building track onto land allotted to the Quapaw Tribe, but the K&NV reached the south border of Kansas at Baxter Springs before the MKT had closed its “gap” between the two segments.
|Barriger Red and John Deere Yellow and Gold North of Pryor, Oklahoma -- November 1973|
The contest then shifted from the construction gangs to the courtroom. The MKT claimed the right to proceed into the Cherokee Nation because the land grant act had designated that the winning railroad should enter the Indian country through the valley of the Grand River, down which the Katy was building south of Parsons. The KN&V argued that it had fulfilled the conditions of the grant because Baxter Springs was situated on the banks of a tributary of the Grand River. A special board of commissioners favored giving the MKT permission to build through to Texas. The Secretary of the Interior agreed, as did the President, whose approval on July 20, 1870, gave the MKT the right to proceed across what later became Oklahoma.
|Katy Caboose in Oklahoma City|
|Trailers South of Muskogee, Oklahoma|
The Katy's original plan was to build to Fort Gibson, a military post established in 1824. The Cherokee Nation objected, so construction crews bypassed Fort Gibson in favor of Muskogee on the Arkansas River.
Many in the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations bitterly opposed the railroad. According to one Choctaw Elder quoted many years later in the June 1936 issue of the Chronicles of Oklahoma:
I have ridden on those railroads east of the Mississippi. They have little houses on wheels – whole strings of them. One string can carry several hundred people. These little houses can be shut up and the doors locked. If we allow the railroads to come, the white man will give a picnic some time by the side of the iron road and will invite all the fullbloods to attend. They will get the men to play ball off a piece. Then they will get our women to go into the little houses on wheels and will lock them up and run off with them into Texas or Missouri. Then what will we do for women?
The elder was prescient. It became a common practice for a white man to marry a Cherokee or Choctaw woman to get her land. Because each Cherokee and Choctaw woman had obtained a 160 acres allotment through the Dawes Commission (tasked with ending communal ownership of real property), whites referred to the newly-wedded women as “allotment brides.”
|Same Train as Immediately Above South of Savanna, Oklahoma|
|Conrail Blue North of Durant, Oklahoma|
|Conrail Blue, John Deere and Morris-Knudsen Meet at Pryor, Oklahoma|
South to Texas
While Muskogee was the southern terminus of the railroad, operating conditions were horrible. Because this territory was not part of the United States, U.S. authorities had no jurisdiction. A group of outlaws called “terminuses” sprang up. They got that name because they followed the railroad, stopping at each terminus as operations proceeded south. Train robberies were frequent in and around Muskogee, as were derailments caused by purposely misaligned switches. Conditions became so bad that President Grant ordered the United States Cavalry into the “Nations” – the colloquial name for the sovereign Indian territories – to guard federal property. The military eventually drove the outlaws into the mountains of the Choctaw Nation, now southeastern Oklahoma.
|Northbound Manifest Crossing North Causeway at Lake Eufaula|
|MKT 205 North Near Stringtown, Oklahoma|
|MKT 207 South -- Also Near Stringtown|
Eventually, the Katy mainline crossed the Red River into Texas. On Christmas Day 1872, the first regular train arrived in Denison. Eight years later financier Jay Gould acquired the MKT. During the Gould era the railroad entered Dallas, Fort Worth and Waco and worked toward reaching San Antonio and Houston, which would all eventually see Katy service.
|Same Train as Immediately Above, Approaching Dennison, Texas|
|Southbound Loaded Coal Approaching McAlester|
End of the Junction City Line
In 1900, the Katy obtained a line from Parsons to Kanas City by consolidating with the Kansas City and Pacific Railway Company, which had gained entrance to Kansas City by securing trackage rights over the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf, later part of the St. Louis San Francisco Railroad (SLSF). From 1900 until its acquisition by the UP in 1988, the Katy entered Kansas City over this trackage.
Once the Katy had acquired access to Kansas City, the line from Parsons to Junction City became a little-used branch. The railroad closed the depot in Emporia in 1952, the same year passenger service (in the form of a daily “doodlebug”) ended. Freight service halted in 1957. Today, the only remnant of the original line of the Union Pacific – Southern Branch is a restored Katy depot in Council Grove, Kansas, occupied by an antique store.
|Northbound Manifest Approaching Checotah, Oklahoma|
|Southbound on North Causeway at Lake Eufaula|
|Same Train on South Causeway|
|Southbound Merchandise Freight at McAlester, Oklahoma|
In the twentieth century, the Katy mainline through Oklahoma was disrupted by two major Army Corps of Engineers construction projects: The McClelland-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System and Lake Eufaula. The McClelland-Kerr project created a navigable waterway from the Mississippi River to Catoosa, Oklahoma, near Tulsa – fulfilling Will Rodgers’ prediction that “pork barrel” legislators would someday turn his hometown into a seaport.
Both McClelland (Arkansas) and Kerr (Oklahoma) were U.S. Senators, and although Catoosa was not Will Rogers’ hometown of Oolagah, it was close enough. The project required the relocation of the bridges across the Verdigris River used by Katy’s Texas mainline and Missouri Pacific’s line to Texas (the former Kansas, Oklahoma and Gulf). A new structure, called the Okay Bridge, was built to handle the traffic of both railroads.
|Southbound Leaving Canadian, Oklahoma|
|A northbound manifest prepares to duck under U.S. 69 south of Eufaula, Oklahoma, with an arm of Lake Eufaula in the background. When the lake was constructed, both the highway and the railroad were rerouted.|
Damming the Deep Fork, North Canadian and South Canadian Rivers formed Lake Eufaula, a monstrous lake winding and curving through the hill country of east central Oklahoma, with a shoreline hundreds of miles long. Like all nineteenth century rail construction, the Katy had followed river valleys. Inundation required relocating the line through the hills above the flood plains. Some of the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma run to the edge of Lake Eufaula. Although the Katy does not cross those ridges, it runs close enough to create some unique photographic opportunities.
|Southbound Leaving Eufaula, Oklahoma, on a Portion of the Relocated Line|
|This image gives an excellent view of the relocated highway and railroad. Both the original highway and railroad ran about a half-mile to the west and are now under water.|
The Line to Oklahoma City
My favorite Katy line ran from Parsons, Kansas, to Oklahoma City, originally constructed by the Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad Company and later acquired by the Katy in the early twentieth century. In northeastern Oklahoma, the line bisected the Osage Hills, the same geologic formation that in Kansas is called the Flint Hills. That portion of Oklahoma is remote, isolated and mostly unpopulated.
Near Cushing, Oklahoma, the line crossed the Cimarron River on a unique bridge that supported two different sets of rails. A Santa Fe branch line also used the bridge. The inside rails of each line crossed at both approaches to the bridge, and then the two sets of tracks ran parallel to each other across the river, the inside rail of each track a couple of inches apart from the outside rail of the other track. Thus, the bridge did not have to be wide enough for two tracks, and no switch was required for trains to cross. Semaphore signals guarded the approaches on each side.
|Northbound Empty Coal Leaving Limestone Gap Beneath Chockie Mountain|
|Occasionally, foreign power would appear on the Katy. Here, Chicago and Northwestern locomotives pull a southbound grain train toward Atoka, Oklahoma. Atoka is primarily known for the name of its high school sports teams: the Wampus Cats.|
Past Cushing, the line entered the Cross Timbers, an oak forest running north/south through central Oklahoma. The line crossed several valleys on large “fills.” Over the years, trees began growing on each side of the embankments. Eventually, the trees grew tall enough to arch over the tracks and touch each other, forming “tree tunnels.” There was no reason to trim the trees, because trains were limited to 15 MPH. The tunnels were so thick that sometimes you would not even know that a train was running unless you could hear it above the wind.
|A Southbound Grainer Approaching McAlester, Oklahoma|
|Southbound Mixed Freight Waits in the Siding at Muskogee, Oklahoma|
Detour to McAlester
By 1973, the Oklahoma City line was in horrible condition. That fall, rains were especially heavy, and parts of the approaches to the Cimarron River bridge washed out. The ICC proposed that the Katy rebuild the approaches -- for one train per day, six days per week! The Katy had different ideas, embargoed the line and began running trains between Oklahoma City and Parsons via McAlester, Oklahoma, after obtaining trackage rights over the Rock Island Railroad (part of the old Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf) between Oklahoma City and McAlester – where the trains would transfer back to the Katy north-south mainline for the trip north to Parsons.
This almost doubled the mileage but saved the Katy from the cost of rebuilding the approaches. Finding a Katy train on Rock Island tracks in the daylight was difficult, but I managed to photograph a few. Other than scrap metal, the trains carried little traffic, and the Katy eventually abandoned service completely.
|Same Train Approaching Holdenville, Oklahoma|
|Same Train Leaving Oklahoma City|
|MKT 70-A in Oklahoma City Before Repainting|
|MKT Meets Rock Island (SP Power) Between McCloud and Shawnee, Oklahoma|
Acquisition by Union Pacific
In the early 1980’s, the Katy found itself surrounded by larger railroads – the Burlington Northern (which had acquired the SLSF in 1980) and the Union Pacific (which had taken over the Missouri Pacific in 1982). As a result, the MKT lost traffic from the formerly independent MP and SLSF. The UP then made a bid to acquire the Katy, which the Interstate Commerce Commission approved in 1988. Some have speculated that the UP’s intent was to eliminate a southwestern competitor that had recently lowered rates. As they say, “Follow the money.”
|Southbound Manifest Rolling Toward Stringtown, Oklahoma|
|Southbound on Southern Causeway at Lake Eufaula|
|Southbound on North Causeway at Lake Eufaula|
Grumpy Old Man
When I was younger, I laughed at old men who grumbled about fallen flags and abandoned lines. Now I understand what they meant. I mourn the passage of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas. As my father says, “I once laughed at old men. Now I are one!”
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com