Select Page

Boom Town

Boom Town

by William H. Benson

September 20, 2018

     Before Federal government officials granted Oklahoma statehood in 1907, people called it the “Indian Territory,” a reserve between Texas and Kansas that the Federal government had granted to certain Native American tribes decades before.

     After the Civil War, both whites and blacks requested that the Federal government allow them to settle on certain “Unassigned Lands,” within the “Indian Territory.” By the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers could claim 160 acres of land for free, if they settled there first.

     On March 23, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison gave in and signed legislation that opened up two million acres for homesteading on the “Unassigned Lands,” within the “Indian Territory.” The legislation set the date of April 22, 1889, as the day when “Boomers” could rush in and stake claims.

     At noon that day, bugles blared, and cannons blasted, and the great Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 began. Men on wagons whipped their horses into a frenzy and raced toward the center, the point where the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad met the Northern Canadian River.

     On that spot, Oklahoma City was born. Its population exploded from 0 to 10,000, in a single day .

     The “Boomers” then looked and discovered that others had not waited for the bugles and cannons, but had “jumped the gun” days before. These “Sooners” had already claimed certain prime areas.

     In Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, Oklahoma, the cowboy Curly sings, “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain, and the wavin’ wheat, can sure smell sweet, when the wind comes right behind the rain.”

     The constant, strong, and red dust-filled wind in Oklahoma though does not blow mainly from the north or northwest, as it does here, and as the word “down” in the lyrics would indicate. Instead, the wind blows “up” from Texas, from a south / southeast direction, causing trees to lean to the north.

     A new book came out early in September. Sam Anderson, a sports writer who now works for the New York Times, has written, Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World Class Metropolis. That long title describes the book best.

     Anderson writes about Oklahoma City’s beginning and its subsequent history, but he then intersperses that history with tales of the city’s well-loved basketball team, the Thunder, and its current and former star players, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, the guy with the beard.

     Anderson also mentions the strong prevailing wind, the devastating tornadoes, and the hot summers.

     Anderson’s motif is “boom.” The city has endured a succession of economic booms, as well as its unwelcome sister, the busts. For example, wildcatters discovered oil under the city in 1928, and its residents have enjoyed numerous booms, followed by the busts whenever a barrel of oil’s price drops.

     Another type of boom Anderson mentions is the sonic boom. On February 3, 1964, a fighter jet, flying faster than the speed of sound, soared over the city, causing a series of loud booms. Eight times a day, for the next six months, the jets roared overhead, generating 1253 sonic booms. Windows broke, residents complained, but the Federal Aviation Authority refused to address the complaints.

     The city’s Chamber of Commerce had applied for and won Operation Bongo II, a Federal government study to quantify the effects of transcontinental supersonic transport on a city. The project measured the booms’ effects on buildings and houses, as well as the public responses. The study’s results caused the FAA in 1971 to withdraw from supersonic transport plans.

     Another boom was Oklahoma City’s land grab. In the mid-twentieth century, the city’s fathers gobbled up huge swaths of adjacent lands, incorporating them into the city, until it was one of the biggest cities in the world, in terms of land area. Today it sprawls over 620.34 square miles.

     Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Manhattan, San Francisco, and Miami could fit inside Oklahoma City, with extra space remaining. Los Angeles covers 502.7 square miles.

     The biggest boom ever to occur in the city was the home-built bomb that Timothy McVeigh exploded next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building on April 19, 1995, causing “a fiery 7,000-mile-per-hour wind and the deaths of 168 citizens,” a ghastly and most unfortunate event in the city’s past. 

     One glaring thing though that Anderson fails to include in his book is the citizen’s overwhelming devotion to Fundamentalist religion. After all, Oklahoma City lies in the very heart of the Bible Belt.

     Next time in these pages, I will consider Oklahoma City’s basketball team, the Thunder, a most interesting part of Sam Anderson’s book.