The history of Pittsburg County, especially that of the City of McAlester is a story of growth and change
According to Pittsburg County historian the late Dr. Thurman Shuller, James J. McAlester opened a store in 1869 in a tent at a location known as "Crossroads," where the Texas Road was crossed by one of the California trails. He was aware before hand that there were coal outcroppings in the area.
“His store prospered, particularly after the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (Katy) constructed a line nearby in 1872. The railroad dubbed the little station "McAlister" (spelling changed to "McAlester" by the U.S. Post Office Department in 1885). In 1872 J. J. McAlester married Rebecca Burney, the daughter of a prominent Chickasaw family, allowing him citizenship in the nation. This enabled him to acquire control over the area's valuable coal claims. In 1875 he and three partners leased the land to the Osage Coal and Mining Company, which was served by a spur from the railroad. This was the beginning of Indian Territory's coal mining industry. There quickly developed a thriving little community of McAlester, with a drugstore, hotel, livery stable, and at least three other retail stores. The 1890 population stood at three thousand residentsm” Shuller said.
In 1889 an east-west railroad, the Choctaw Coal and Railway (later to become the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway), was built to serve the rich coal fields east of McAlester. That railroad intersected the Katy one and one-half miles south of McAlester, creating a new settlement that became known as South McAlester, according to Shuller.
“Because of its advantageous location at the railroad crossing, it quickly outgrew the older town. By 1900 the populations were 3,470 to 642,” Shuller said.
In 1899 both towns incorporated, McAlester in January and South McAlester in November. In 1906 the towns were combined into one with the name of McAlester. The older town became known as North McAlester. Since the former town of South McAlester was the larger, its city government took municipal control. Newspapers had served the town since 1893, when the Baptist Watchman first published. Three of the more prominent newspapers, the McAlester Capital, the McAlester Democrat, and the McAlester News, all eventually merged, the Democrat joining the others in 1978, creating the McAlester News-Capital and Democrat.
Shuller said McAlester was considered the capital of the rapidly growing coal industry in southeastern Oklahoma, which brought with it an influx of immigrant coal miners. Most of the original workers were of British extraction from the mines of Pennsylvania, but they were insufficient in number, so many more were imported from Europe. Italians were the largest number, but immigrants from Germany, France, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, the Slavic countries, Mexico, and other places also arrived. By 1900 McAlester's population was 25 percent foreign born. In other surrounding towns the percentage was even higher, making an ethnic mix in this area like no other in the state.
Mining was not entirely responsible for the development of McAlester, according to Shuller. A fertile area for farming and ranching surrounded the town, with cotton being the principle cash crop. Each outlying community had one or more cotton gins, and McAlester held three within the city limits, plus a cotton compress which could process as many as twelve hundred bales per day and forty thousand per year.
The 1895 establishment of a federal court in South McAlester attracted a number of attorneys, and the construction of the All Saints Hospital, one of the first in Indian Territory, lured competent physicians. The availability of railroad transportation in all directions made McAlester ideally situated for wholesale houses, businesses and stores of all sorts, and six banks. The population in 1910 was 12,954. It had schools, brick streets, good municipal water system, a macaroni factory, an ice manufacturing plant, a fine hotel, a theater, and a trolley system that connected McAlester with Hartshorne and all towns and communities in between. Business leaders predicted it would quickly double in population, but that proved false, according to Shuller.
The boll weevil almost completely destroyed cotton production, and by 1920 the railroads were converting to the use of oil as fuel for their locomotives, which almost destroyed the market for coal. That, together with the Great Depression, stalled McAlester's growth, and it did not see a large population spurt until World War II. The 1920 population was 12,095, slowly dropping to 11,804 in 1930 but rising to 12,401 in 1940. The U.S. Census reported 17,878 McAlester residents in 1950.
In 1911, McAlester's social and athletic life was was brought to a new level when a small group citizens formed the McAlester Country Club, according to mcalestercountryclub.com.
In 1910, a strip of land 160 acres long was rented for the cost of thirty-two dollars and fifty cents per year. This land, which just four years before had been Indian Territory, was in 1914 bought for the price of $2,400. This included all 160 acres.
The source behind the effort was a man by the name of Melvin Cornish, a local attorney and first president of the club.
One of the first problems that the new board of directors faced was what to do with the pest house which stood near what is now the number one green.
Pest houses were common at the time and used to quarantine victims of communicable diseases. Each one of these houses had a cook. They also had several guards to keep the quarantined persons from leaving. This particicular pest house was in use at the time the club bought the land and housed several poor victims of small pox and other such diseases. The board had to decide to shut the pest house down in order to build the golf course.
At the April 29, 1911 board meeting, plans for a building 40 by 60 by 16 feet were requested. All was approved and the building was started on June 14, 1911. The open-air pavillion was finished on September 12, 1911 at a cost of $8,000.
Authur Jackson designed what is now called the "original nine" of the McAlester Golf course. He came to Oklahoma in 1907 from Scotland. In 1912, he became the assistant pro at the Tulsa Golf and Country Club. This was a few years after he designed three Oklahoma golf courses including the McAlester course. The golf course was ready for use in 1911, the first year the club was in operation.
The holes of the original nine stand much like they did when Jackson designed it. Some of the fairways have been lengthened and some have been shortened. Sand greens were used in the first 15 to 20 years, but later in the 1920's bermuda grass was put in by inmate labor from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The Inmates would come early in the morning for work. The club would feed them their noon meal and they would work until late evening.
Hired in 1911, the first golf professional was named Guy P. Crooks. He served as pro for eight years until 1919. He and the next nine men to serve as pros were not "official" because none belonged to the Professional Golf Association. A more appropriate title would have been "greenskeepers" although many of them were good golfers. The first PGA Professional James H. Shelton arrived in 1957.
The clud employed a number of golf-pros such as Bob Dickson, the 1967 U.S. and British Amateur Champion, two-time PGA Tour winner and one-time Champions Tour winner.
Since the original golf course was completed, tennis courts, swimming pools and a driving range have been added. A second nine holes, designed by PGA Professional Carl Higgins, was completed in 1999 which was intermingled with the old nine to form the course in the layout that exists today.
Since 1958, McAlester Country Club is host to one of the longest-running individual medal-play tournaments in Oklahoma. The MCC Invitational.
The future of Pittsburg County employement was changed, according to Shuller in 1942 when two large government projects strained the town's housing capacity. A prisoner-of-war camp was built adjacent to the northern city limits, and a huge U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot was constructed just a few miles south of town.
Shuller said the The depot's construction phase employed fifteen thousand workers. The POW camp housed three thousand German prisoners for three years. The Naval Ammunition Depot, changed to the U.S. Army Ammunition Plant in 1977, was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the main location for the production and storage of ammunition for the armed forces in the United States.
At the end of World War II local business leaders realized that the city's growth and stability should not depend on its two largest government employers, the ammunition plant and the Oklahoma State Prison, which had been established at McAlester in 1911.
Finally industry came to McAlester.
The first was Seamprufe Manufacturing Company (later Komar Company), manufacturer of women's clothing, which began production in 1947, according to Shuller.
From that beginning, numerous other businesses and manufacturing plants have located in McAlester, broadening the employment base.
McAlester early on developed a reputation for being a strong Masonic town, particularly before and after World War I. One class numbered five hundred. The Scottish Rite Consistory dedicated its temple in 1907 and enlarged it in 1930, and it became one of McAlester's show places listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR 80004521). In addition, in 1922 the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls was organized in McAlester, where its Supreme Temple is located.
The downtown area underwent a transformation in the 1960s and 1970s under the twin federal programs of Urban Renewal and Model Cities when in the name of progress,many of the original stone business buildings were replaced with modern steel and brick construction. During that time, reconstruction of streets, utilities, and low rent housing also occurred, Shuller said.
The 1960 population stood at 17,419 and stayed consistent with a population of 17,255 in 1980 and 18,383 in 2010.
McAlester's Regional Health Center opened in 1978 continues to enter serve the community.
Another important facility is the Wanda Bass Higher Education Center, a branch of Eastern Oklahoma State College.
The history McAlester is exciting but the future is full of promise.
Contact Jeanne LeFlore at firstname.lastname@example.org.