Soon after the opening of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation in 1901, the Iron Horse couldn’t be corralled any longer. Railroad development that had been stopped at the Indian Territory borders was ready to stampede through the land.
In 1870, no railroads crossed through what would become Oklahoma. In contrast, 52,900 miles of railroad tracks had already been laid in the United States. Missouri already had about 1,300 miles of track and Kansas had 660 miles. A Reconstruction Treaty after the Civil War between the U.S. government and multiple Indian nations allowed one north-south and one east-west railroad to travel through land assigned to Native American tribes.
“Congress had stipulated that the first railroad to reach a certain point on the Kansas border, near Chetopah, was to have the right to cross through Oklahoma and the MK&T (Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway Company) won the competition with the Kansas and Neosho Valley Company,” wrote Augustus J. Veenendaal Jr. for the Oklahoma History Society. “Originally, a land grant in Indian Territory was promised to the railroad in question, and the Katy investors fully believed that they were entitled to this land. However, after protests from the Indian Nations and much legal wrangling, their claim was finally dismissed.”
Indian Territory was located in the middle of the U.S. and became a barrier to commerce and traffic between neighboring states. Congress stepped in to permit railroad construction through Oklahoma. Many lines were built on or near already established trade routes or cattle trails. The railroad line that eventually ran through Fletcher and Elgin, the Frisco (St. Louis and San Francisco Railway) was the first to benefit from Congress’ action. Every railroad company tried to get a share of the new wealth and between 1897 and 1907 Oklahoma had a dense network of branches that often-paralleled other lines.
The arrival of the railroad in Comanche County benefitted the agricultural community and spurred business growth throughout the area. However, with the arrival of trains and commerce, a new chapter of masked men and train robberies emerged. Archived newspapers of the day are full of train robbery stories about the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that became the stuff of legend.
A Kansas newspaper wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in 1901 titled the “Melodramatic West” about there being an improvement in the manners of the hold-up men. The article told a story of a train robbery in Indian Territory (place wasn’t specified).
“The men went through the train and called upon the passengers to give up all their jewelry and money. There was no evidence of ill-breeding on the part of the robbers; they slighted no one and it is easy to imagine that, after relieving the gentlemen passengers of their rolls and watches, they discussed with them the best methods of reorganizing the democratic party … It is not hard to believe that men who were too high-minded to carry their collection in a sack as they proceeded through the train, but forced the postal clerk to do this for them, were sufficiently gallant to raise or lower window sashes for the ladies and allow them to keep their jeweled powder case,” proclaimed the Phillipsburg (Kansas) Herald.
On the flipside, however, another Kansas newspaper wrote in an article that the “dramatic side of that kind of outlawry was always exaggerated.” It claimed that train robbery in Oklahoma never caused the excitement narrated in flashy stories. Regardless of exaggeration or not, local legends and stories about the James and Younger Gang abound about them hiding out at Buzzard’s Roost near Cement and their hiding of loot from train and bank robberies in the Wichita Mountains.
Another Southwest Oklahoma connection to this time period is Al Jennings — an attorney in Oklahoma Territory who also robbed trains. He was reportedly enraged by the justice system, and he fought to resist it, wanting to follow his own personal code of honor. He would not steal from women or preachers.
In 1908, a short film was made in Cache and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge titled “The bank robbery.” It starred Al Jennings and Comanche leader Quanah Parker had a bit part in it. Another noted cast member was famed territory lawman and Lawton’s first police chief Heck Thomas. In the film, Heck Thomas assembled a posse to chase and capture the outlaws.
The Iron Horse’s entrance into Indian and Oklahoma Territory brought prosperity and peril and left legendary tales on its tracks.
Sources for this article also include: The Oklahoma Historical Society, okhistory.org; Phillipsburg Herald (Phillipsburg, Kansas), Sept. 21, 1901, page 1; The Wichita daily eagle (Wichita, Kansas), June 8, 1902, page 1; en.wikipedia.org/wiki_Al Jennings; Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, “The bank robbery.”
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