Lake Okmulgee in Okmulgee State Park is an hour south of

Tulsa, and a visit will take travelers into Oklahoma's past.

Old established trees canopy the picnic grounds. Older pathways

and roads are paved with hand-chiseled flagstones. Campgrounds,

picnic areas and parking lots are graced with the handiwork

of yesteryear's master stonecutters.

Prior to the building of Okmulgee Lake, the city's water

came from the Deep Fork River. "The sheets came out pink

when washed in water from the Deep Fork," said Pat Doan,

Okmulgee Library director.

"You didn't have a black ring in the tub after a bath.

You had a red one," said Alva Smith, another long-time


At one time Okmulgee was larger than Tulsa and, like Tulsa,

it was an oil town. The town thrived in the 1920s and work

was plentiful. "We weren't destitute for jobs," says Marcel

LeGrand, a long-time resident and renowned catfisherman.

"We were destitute for good water."

In 1925, after several proposals on how to get the needed

water, the city voted $1 million in bonds. Work on an earthen

dam on Salt Creek was begun to provide clean water for Okmulgee.

Ed Hessom of Morris, had a job as a "dump boy" on the


"There were 40 or 50 wagons pulled by horse and mule teams

that would be filled with a steam shovel," he said. "They'd

travel like ants up the dam, and we'd dump them. Those teams

made the trip so many times they didn't even need drivers.

They just kept coming and we'd dump the dirt as they passed."

After two years, the work was complete. A flood in April

1927 filled the lake and a celebration was planned for the

following Fourth of July.

Crowds exceeding 30,000 celebrated with boat races, picnics

and fireworks. One of the men helping to set up the fireworks

was crossing the lake with his son when their boat capsized.

Both drowned. Despite this tragedy, the fireworks went off

as planned.

The lake has a natural bend which was the scene of many

boat races until recently. There was an elegant boathouse

and dock built in 1938. A crane would lift boats from the

water and place them under cover. The lake and its attractions

became a gathering spot for many local residents.

Years later, the structure was converted into a nightclub,

complete with a hardwood dance floor. Named The Cliff House,

the club was a popular night spot. The structure later burned

when a lightning bolt struck its wooden shingles. Pat Doan

lived across the lake from The Cliff House at the time.

"We were sure sorry it burned. The music coming from the

Cliff House was our only Saturday night entertainment."

The foundation and rock walls of The Cliff House still stand

though graffiti-covered and cracked.

The rockwork of the old boathouse and the shelter houses

around Lake Okmulgee remind older visitors of the construction

projects of the New Deal period. President Franklin Roosevelt

started the Civilian Conservation Corps, and hundreds of

roads, bridges and parks were built across the United States.

The CCC provided work for thousands of young men during

the Great Depression. At the same time, our country benefited

from these needed construction projects.

Many of the structures around the lake were built in 1937

and '38 by Troop 2809 of the CCC.

About a hundred young men from the surrounding area belonged

to the troop under the direction of the U.S. military. These

men lived in barracks in Okmulgee and had their clothes

and food provided by the government. CCC rules required

that $25 of their $30-monthly salary be sent home. Alva

Smith was 17 at the time and a member of Troop 2809. The

money he sent home made loan payments to the Federal Land

Bank on his parents' property thus saving the family farm.

Alva spent his $5 at the local movie house. "Those dollars

were as big as wagon wheels, and a young fella with $5 in

those days was a big man," he said.

They worked hard for $30 a month. Rocks were chiseled by

hand and moved into place with hand-powered winches. Hundreds

of truckloads of dirt and rock had to be moved to build

the boat house. This was done by the CCC boys using shovels

and pickaxes.

Logs hauled from Wilburton became the rafters of the boat

facility. It was a big job. CCC members were grateful for

the work, and the money sent home saved many families from

ruin during the Great Depression.

But while some of the buildings and fancy rockwork at Lake

Okmulgee are CCC projects, the most esthetic piece of construction

was completed during the 1940s by the Work Projects Administration.

A flood had washed out part of the earthen dam and the WPA

made repairs, covering the damaged area with a beautiful

rock spillway.

Out-of-work men were assigned to the project and would arrive

with their mule teams and coffee pots. Camping in tents

and in a nearby cave, they would work an allotted 10 days.

Huge stones from a nearby quarry were hand-cut and hauled

with a minimum of heavy machinery. These stones formed a

giant staircase for overflow water.

When the lake level is down, the intricacy of construction

can be seen, a fabulous example of hand-craftsmanship. The

daring can climb the structure when the water is low.

When the lake is up, the spillway is magnificent. The staircase

is obscured by rushing water, and the noise is deafening.

Water cascades 60 feet, splashing over the huge steps, forming

misty columns and miniature rainbows. This deluge produces

acres of splashing water and a memory not soon forgotten.

Now a State Park, the lake has modern campsites and facilities,

and has produced record-breaking fish. Swimming is allowed

in designated areas and there are abundant picnic grounds.

Lake Okmulgee is from a different era and time has taken

its toll. A large rock table built at the bottom of the

spillway has eroded, and some of the rock work has cracked.

Vandals have done their dirty work on many of the rock structures.

Some of the older buildings are in disrepair.

Despite these ravages, the integrity of the original effort

remains a silent tribute to the need for clean water and

a salute to government programs which really worked and

improved life for its citizens.

Okmulgee State Park charges standard camping fees. City

stickers are required for boats operating on the lake and

can be purchased from rangers on duty. Q

(Eric Lee teaches in the Tulsa Public School System and

is a freelance writer and photographer.)