McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Features

January 2, 2013

A Sketch of the Origin and History of Robbers Cave State Park

McALESTER — We’re having some cold nights out here at the park and that tends to minimize the number of folks using the camping areas. I’m not sure why that happens.

A brisk night in a tent with the temperature hovering around twenty degrees is exhilarating. Well, maybe not. I guess most of us would rather be sitting by a warm fire in the comfort of our living room.

So instead, it might be a good time to just sit back and learn a little bit about the origin and history of Robbers Cave. When considering the park’s history, I think the best place to start is with the nearby community of Wilburton.

Wilburton was established on the old Butterfield Overland Mail and Stage Route back in 1890. It was originally part of the Choctaw Nation and early on it functioned as a service point for the large cattle ranches in the area. Though there are many stories about how the community got its name, the one that seems most probable tells of a surveyor who helped build the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company’s line from Wister to McAlester. His full name was Will Burton. Apparently he platted the township with his first and last name combined on the survey maps and that became the name of the town, with the second “L”later dropped.

Wilburton was originally in Gaines County, Choctaw Nation, but on November 16, 1907, when Oklahoma became the 46th State in the Union, the county name was changed to Latimer, and Wilburton became the county seat. That may seem like a long time ago, but just 36 years later Rodgers and Hammerstein began their very first collaboration by writing the words and music to the most beautiful musical arrangement ever, “Oklahoma.”That sort of puts time in perspective when you think about it.

As you head north out of Wilburton on Highway 2, you’ll enter the southern boundary of Robbers Cave State Park marked by a large, rustic sign. The park was originally named Latimer State Park, but was renamed in 1936 with its present name. Today, the total park area encompasses more than eight thousand acres and includes three principal lakes; Lake Wayne Wallace, Lake Carlton and Coon Creek Lake.

There’s a certain lore related to the park’s name that goes back to the eighteen-seventies when Belle Starr, the Younger brothers, the Dalton Gang and others consorted on various criminal enterprises, usually robbing banks. They found the cave we now call Robbers Cave to be an ideal hideout from the law. It afforded security, a bit of comfort from the elements and it’s been said there’s a secret back exit for making a clean getaway. Where that rear exit might be, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s intriguing to think about, if it really does exist.

Other than its close proximity, Wilburton’s tie with the park revolves around a gentleman by the name of Carlton Weaver. He was a Wilburton Newspaper editor and state representative who owned the parcel of land where Robbers Cave sits. In 1929 he donated 120 acres of that land to the Boy Scouts of America for use as a scout camp. With the help of inmates from the Oklahoma State Prison, the site was improved and a kitchen and several buildings were erected to be used as headquarters for scout troops. The camp was named Camp Tom Hale, honoring a McAlester business man who was a BSA supporter. That site was adjacent to another tract of land that Carlton Weaver later donated to the State Fish and Game Commission to create a large game preserve. 

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was organized and set up a camp in the game preserve. Between 1935 through 1941 they built a bathhouse, cabins, trails, group camps, shelters and roads, extensively using the native stone quarried in the area. During that time the CCC and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) worked together to construct the dam that created Lake Carlton.

Over the years, the park has become a living legacy from Carlton Weaver. It has continued to expand with new cabins, the lodge, additional shelters and campgrounds, new hiking trails and much more.

 And guess what? In the past two years, two dedicated scout camps have been built, Eagle’s Nest and one, yet to be named, so Carlton Weaver’s dream continues to live on. As the weather warms, come on out and explore the bounty of our beautiful park. If you haven’t already been here, you’ll wonder why you’ve waited so long.

Mr. Weaver passed away on August 17, 1947, but his vision lives on and it’s only fitting that he was laid to rest near the lake named for him. If you visit his grave, you can almost feel his spirit watching over this beautiful park we call, “Robbers Cave State Park.”

Contact Dan Park at DANP@kiamichiwb.org.

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