The prosperity of most 19th-century Western towns greatly depended on rail service, and no one knew that better than the railroad officials. In 1887 the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway began surveying a route through Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) that closely followed the Chisholm Cattle Trail. Along the way, engineers selected locations for future townsites, knowing that the country would eventually be opened for settlement.
Just south of the Kansas border, in Indian Territory’s 58-mile-wide Cherokee Outlet (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Cherokee Strip), they chose a spot about a mile north of the Salt Fork River, where, back in 1866, explorer James R. Mead had established a trading post that was known as Round Pond. By 1873 it had developed into a combination stagecoach station, supply store and cattle ranch called Pond Creek. Twenty miles farther south, surveyors mapped a possible townsite near a stagecoach station called Skeleton Ranch.
By the summer of 1888, the Rock Island’s subsidiary, the Chicago, Kansas & Nebraska Railway, had laid track from Caldwell, Kan., to Pond Creek, and by 1892 the line reached Texas. At the proposed townsites of Round Pond and Skeleton Ranch, the railroad had put in sidetracks, water tanks and small depots, even though the Cherokee Outlet still belonged to the Cherokees. Ownership, however, was about to change.
In early 1893, the federal government yielded to growing pressure to open the Outlet for settlement by purchasing it from the Cherokee Nation. United States Secretary of Interior Hoke Smith quickly organized a public land opening, setting September 16 as the day for the land run. (For more on Oklahoma’s land runs, see the October 2007 issue of Wild West.) Smith named former Alaska Territorial Governor Alfred P. Swineford as inspector of surveys, a job that entailed locating land offices and county seats.
Where the rail line crossed the Outlet, Swineford’s choice was easy. He platted land around the Rock Island’s depot at Pond Creek for a county seat town in what was to become “L” County (later Grant County). He called it “Round Pond,” the same name given the area by explorer Mead years earlier. Similarly, Swineford selected land bordering the Rock Island’s tracks near Skeleton Ranch for a townsite called “Enid,” the county seat of “O” County (later Garfield County). Available water and timber made both locations even more attractive, and although the Department of Interior initially accepted Swineford’s recommendations, the plan soon changed.
A few days before the September 16 land run, ranking Interior officials rejected the two locations. The reason, although unclear at the time, apparently involved Indian land allotments, a right given the Cherokees by treaty. In his history of the Rock Island Railway, Iron Road to Empire, William Edward Hayes claimed the government’s last-minute rejection resulted from the discovery that “railway officials” had conspired with Cherokee Indian leaders to control property around the sites. Other historians blame U.S. Senator Robert L. Owen, a Cherokee lawyer, lobbyist and agent for the Five Civilized Tribes, who reportedly conspired “illegally” with tribal leaders to select the most valuable allotments.
Ultimately, when U.S. Land Office Commissioner Silas Lamoreaux reviewed the townsite selections, he realized that Indians owned several large pieces of property adjacent to the Round Pond and Enid townsites. Believing that prospective settlers would not be “best served by townsites almost surrounded by Indian allotments” and suspicious of a railroad effort to exploit settlers, Lamoreaux recommended changes.
Secretary of Interior Smith, an attorney who had made a career of prosecuting damage suits against railroads, was more than happy to preempt any chance of railroad skullduggery in Oklahoma Territory. Smith relocated the Round Pond and Enid townsites three miles south of the original locations, changes that would soon create havoc.
The crack of Army rifles all along the borders of the Cherokee Outlet at noon September 16 signaled the start of the land run. Thousands of homesteaders rushed south from Kansas and north from the Guthrie area, swarming over the 7 million available acres. They took claims on every available quarter-section and at every possible townsite, including the original Pond Creek Station site, north of the Salt Fork River, and the recently relocated Round Pond site, barely three miles south. Homesteaders repeated the pattern around Enid, staking property in so-called “railroad Enid,” or “tank town” (later North Enid), and the government-designated town of Enid, three miles farther south. By nightfall all four towns had become crowded tent villages. Round Pond and Enid boasted several thousand tent inhabitants, while Pond Creek Station and North Enid each contained several hundred people.
Within days, crude framed buildings were erected and stores opened, transforming names on a map into viable little towns brimming with commercial activity; yet the two county seat towns were missing an important element: train service. The Rock Island’s trains stopped only in the “north” towns of Pond Creek Station and North Enid where it already had depots. The railroad refused to stop in the two “south” towns just because some Washington bureaucrats had suddenly changed county seat locations.
For the remainder of 1893, residents of the nondepot south towns pleaded for train service, to no avail. They were forced to board trains and retrieve freight and mail in the north towns. The two south town mayors finally sought help from Washington, only to be turned down again. The Department of Interior yielded to arguments by Rock Island Railway attorneys who cited their company’s charter, requiring the placement of depots at specific intervals and suitable townsite locations. The railroad insisted it had already complied, thus “it was no fault of the company that Congress had blundered in allowing Indians to choose allotments near said depots,” causing the secretary of interior to move the townsites.
Complicating the impasse over train service was a bitter dispute over town names in both counties. When Pond Creek Station’s newspaper repeatedly ridiculed Round Pond for its lack of train service, the county seat town retaliated by petitioning postal authorities to change its post office name to “Pond Creek.” Round Pond also incorporated under the name “Pond Creek,” making for two towns with the same name, barely three miles apart.
A similar squabble erupted in “O” County, where north town residents called the county seat “South Enid.” This drew a testy editorial from the Enid Wave:
There is but one ENID. The Post
Office address of the city is
simply ENID. The Post Office in
the addition is called North
Enid, but there positively is no
South Enid. You uneducated
scapegoats, can’t you under
Congress finally joined the train service fight with legislation ordering the construction of depots at the two “nonrailroad” towns, but House Bill 3606 languished in conference committee. The Senate, largely populated by railroad lawyers, sabotaged it with an amendment requiring that “L” and “O” counties hold special elections to permanently determine a county seat location. It had the desired effect. Pond Creek and Enid withdrew support of the depot bill in fear of losing a county seat election.
In the meantime, the south towns did secure a government directive requiring the Rock Island to erect mail cranes to serve their post offices, but the cranes caused even more trouble. Trains were supposed to slow enough to transfer the mail pouches, but railroad crews were purposely careless, ripping canvas bags apart and scattering the residents’ precious mail along the right of way.
The south towns tried passing speed laws, limiting trains to 4 mph, but the crews deliberately ignored them. When representatives from Pond Creek and Enid tried to reason with Rock Island officials during a face-to-face meeting at divisional headquarters in Herington, Kan., they got nowhere. “No depots,” said the railroad. “You got depots north of you three miles. That’s what you’ll use. We’re not spending any money to build new depots at your new townsites.”
For the south towns, the time for talking was over. During the early spring of 1894, it was not unusual for Rock Island trains to be peppered with bullets and buckshot as they steamed through Enid and Pond Creek. Passengers became so accustomed to the sound of lead hitting the cars that they would lie on the floor when trains entered town. On southbound trains approaching Pond Creek, porters began calling out to passengers that it was “Forty miles through hell to Hennessey,” which was the first town south of the Cherokee Outlet.
The gunfire only made the trainmen run faster, charging through the south towns with throttles wide open. The locals even placed dynamite caps on the rails and waved red flags and lanterns at the engineers, but the trains sped on.
On the night of April 9, 1894, a gang of would-be bandits tried to capitalize on the hard feelings between townspeople and the railroad by holding up the Rock Island’s southbound express. Two of the robbers, later identified as Bob Hughes and Jim Bourland, secretly boarded the tender during the train’s regular stop at the Pond Creek Station depot. Once the train pulled out and picked up speed to cross the Salt Fork River on its usual dash through Pond Creek, the pair climbed into the cab brandishing pistols. They ordered the engineer to stop at the first crossing south of Pond Creek, where their cohorts waited. There, the inept robbers tried to blow open the express car with dynamite, but the blast jammed one of the doors. Only after they threatened to kill the fireman and engineer did the express messenger finally open the doors to let them in.
The robbers then struggled with the through safe, which required a special key to open. Their futile efforts allowed time for Rock Island Railway detective Bill Fossett, who happened to be riding the train that night, and express guard Jake Harmon to work their way to the rear passenger car, where they began shooting at the gang. Outlaw Bob Hughes fell dead along the tracks in the first volley. The armed resistance by Fossett and Harmon was enough to send the remaining bandits running for their horses. Even some Pond Creek residents, certainly no fans of the railroad, rushed to the scene to help drive them off in the waning moments of the gunfight. Within days the suspects were rounded up and jailed, two at Wichita, the others at Pond Creek, but nothing changed between the railroad and the south towns.
A few weeks later, Enid city police officers seized a rare opportunity when the caboose of a passing southbound freight became uncoupled. The city marshal and some deputies charged it and swarmed inside as it glided to a stop, setting off a brawl with the trapped trainmen. The Enid men wanted the conductor but couldn’t pry him loose from his grip on a ladder. The fireman and several brakemen soon joined the melee as the rest of the train backed up to reattach the caboose. When the train started forward again, the officers jumped off and settled for arresting the fireman, who had been pinned to the ground. They hauled their prisoner before the city judge, who fined him $100 and sentenced him to 30 days in jail for violating Enid’s speed limit.
June 1894 was an especially eventful month at Pond Creek. On the night of the 3rd, several inmates, including three suspected train robbers, managed to gouge a hole in the jailhouse wall and leave town on stolen horses. The successful jailbreak, however, didn’t rank with the seriousness of speeding trains. On the morning of June 5, more than 100 deputized Pond Creek men lined the tracks crossing the main street, intent on arresting a freight train crew for speeding through town. They could only wave red flags at it as it rolled through town. Pond Creek’s Cherokee Sentinel later lamented, “It took the train 47 seconds to cross the city limits.”
The next day a larger crowd rolled a wagon containing a small building on to the tracks. The crew of the southbound freight never even slowed, blasting pieces of the wagon and building in all directions as they roared on.
Cries of “tear up the tracks” rose from the frustrated crowd, and several men began rounding up sledgehammers and crowbars. It took only a few minutes for the crowd of about 200 to pull spikes from the rails and disjoint more than 900 feet of track. Men were then sent running in both directions to flag any oncoming traffic, and a short time later a stock train with 30 loaded cattle cars came swinging up the line from Texas.
When viewed at a distance by engineer Jim Sullivan, the tangled mess of track and ties appeared to be of no threat. Having seen buggies, wagons and other obstacles on the rails, he only smiled as he cruised past the man running down the tracks waving a red flag. Sullivan pulled the whistle cord and called to his fireman, “This time they’re trying a windmill.”
They forged ahead, and by the time Sullivan realized the track was in shambles, it was too late. He and his fireman jumped clear of the cab as the engine plunged into the tangle of ties and rails. The locomotive plowed through nearly 100 yards of trackless roadbed before finally sliding to a stop. Like a collapsing accordion, the trailing cattle cars piled into a heap behind it, most bursting open. More than 100 cows were crippled or killed in the wreck, but miraculously the trainmen escaped serious injury. Local officers arrested and charged them with violating Pond Creek’s strict speed limit. At a hearing the next morning, railroad attorneys were dumbstruck to hear Pond Creek city officials defend the derailment as the only means available to enforce speed laws.
The Pond Creek wreck brought swift response from federal authorities, who realized the depot dispute had become an all-out war. Territorial Marshal E.D. Nix and some deputies arrived in town to investigate, and although Nix obtained arrest warrants for half a dozen Pond Creek citizens, the local court released each of them on bond.
On the night of June 22, the concussion of a massive explosion rocked the two towns of Pond Creek Station and Pond Creek. Railroad workers from the north town pumped their way toward the Salt Fork River bridge on a handcar to find an entire section “blown into splinters.” The Pond Creek Echo reported that the men on the handcar met County Sheriff R.H. Hagar at the far end of the bridge. The newspaper accusingly wondered “how the sheriff could walk twice as far as they [the railroad men] went by handcar, each starting at the time of the explosion?”
Appalled by the continued destruction, Rock Island President Ransom Cable sent a telegram to U.S. Attorney Richard Olney at the territorial capital in Guthrie to assert the gravity of “interference with interstate transportation.” The matter was handed to U.S. Commissioner W.A. Duncan, who promised his Washington bosses that he’d quickly capture the offenders, no matter who they happened to be.
He was a bit optimistic. The next night some Pond Creek men shot up a southbound train as it rambled through town. Train guards returned the fire, wounding the local news dealer as he innocently waited along the tracks for a bundle of newspapers to be tossed from the train.
Pond Creek’s Cherokee Sentinel blamed the latest violence on the railroad:
It is devoutly and sincerely to be hoped that the Rock Island will abandon its openly avowed purpose of crushing this town out of existence….The people here…are ruined unless the railroad is brought to subjection, hence they are growing desperate.
A three hundred dollar depot will put an end to all this trouble.
On the night of July 12, railroad haters in Enid took up the cause by sawing through several key timbers on the bridge over Boggy Creek. At dawn, Friday the 13th, a Rock Island freight thundered onto the bridge. The locomotive and tender barely made it across before the structure collapsed, sending oil tankers and lumber cars into the creek bottom. As the trailing cars went down, they pulled the engine and tender back into the wreckage. Crawling up from the rubble, the bruised and battered engineer told a gathering crowd of townspeople, “Yuh done a damn good job of sawing that trestle.”
The bridge was repaired the next night, and when rail traffic resumed, special trains carrying soldiers from Fort Reno moved north toward the trouble spots. On the 17th, dynamite jolted one of the troop trains as it rolled into Pond Creek. Deputy U.S. Marshal Chris Madsen, on board with a detachment of 3rd Cavalry troopers, sent an urgent wire to Caleb Brooks, U.S. attorney for Oklahoma Territory:
Two bombs, inside the city limits of Round Pond [Pond Creek], exploded when we had passed about one hundred yards. While not caring to meddle with Territorial affairs, I must say it will be necessary at once to suspend sheriffs and other officers, and put in their places, men who will attend to their duty fearlessly.
A few days later, some small bridges near Pond Creek and Enid were set ablaze. Exasperated Rock Island officials wired the U.S. Attorney’s Office: “If we cannot have protection,” said Rock Island President Cable, “we must abandon the line south of Kansas.”
Attorney Brooks, meanwhile, decided to suspend the sheriff and other lawmen in the counties involved for their failure to uphold the law. His action set off a storm of local newspaper editorials against the railroad and “meddling” territorial officials such as Deputy Marshal Madsen. Said the Cherokee Sentinel:
The fact the Deputy Blowhard Madsen is fixing the railroad in his favor should there ever be a change in the U.S. Marshal ship of the territory is very apparent. Madsen is a rampant Swede [sic], Republican and should be given a dose of Hokey Pokey.
On July 23, an unscheduled passenger train halted at Pond Creek’s Main Street crossing. Two companies of soldiers, commanded by General Nelson A. Miles, along with 20 deputies headed by U.S. Marshal E.D. Nix, filed off the cars. The soldiers formed ranks along the street while Nix and his men walked to the public square, where a large crowd had gathered. Federal officers served arrest warrants on the sheriff, probate judge and city marshal, along with 43 citizens. There was only limited verbal resistance as local residents warily eyed the troops standing ready with fixed bayonets.
The defendants were marched to the train and taken south to Kingfisher, the seat of Kingfisher County, where Attorney Brooks had already requested a change of venue, so he could prosecute federal mail obstruction charges before an unbiased jury. Nearly 40 others from Enid joined the Pond Creek men. The “prisoners” were housed in Kingfisher’s best hotel and given the run of the town under the honor system. On July 25, Judge John L. McAtee opened court and promptly ruled that he had no jurisdiction to hear the cases in Kingfisher County. His order to move the proceedings to Pond Creek and Enid was roundly cheered, and as the courtroom emptied, the local town band led a noisy parade to the depot, where the prisoners boarded trains to return home.
Judge McAtee heard the cases at Pond Creek the next day. Each of the accused waived examination and posted bond pending grand jury action, but no one seriously believed juries in either Pond Creek or Enid would ever render one true bill. Later the same week, Territorial Governor W.C. Renfrow returned from a trip to Chicago with assurances the south towns would finally get their depots if they pledged to cease further hostilities.
Renfrow had persuaded Rock Island President Cable to back off his hard line, but Cable got the last word, promising that the railroad would abide by the law but would “never surrender to a mob.” Cable then wired his Washington attorneys to instruct the powerful railroad lobby to cease opposition to House Bill 3606, which called for depot construction. On August 1, the U.S. Senate removed the troublesome amendment that required county seat elections, and House Bill 3606 passed in its original form by a floor vote of 24 to 20. The news reached the towns of Pond Creek and Enid that afternoon, and by nightfall both towns held huge public victory celebrations.
Although the “railroad war” was officially over, the symbol of victory was slow in coming. It took until the end of 1894 for the Rock Island and the county seat towns to negotiate the price and location of the depots and actually build them. Even then, the railroad reserved one last indignity for the county seat of Pond Creek. It refused to recognize their incorporated name and hung a sign on their new depot that read, “Round Pond.” The railroad argued that “Pond Creek” had always been the name of the station north of the river and should remain so.
This embarrassment lingered until late 1896 when the north town of Pond Creek Station decided to rename its little village “Jefferson” and relocate it a half-mile up the tracks. This move finally freed up the name “Pond Creek” for the south town’s depot, thus ending one of the most peculiar events in Oklahoma’s history.
Through the years, the people of Pond Creek and Enid have maintained that their fight was with the railroad, not neighboring towns. Clearly, had the Rock Island established depots from the beginning, the destruction of its property and loss of business could have been avoided.
The Rock Island Railway has long since disappeared into bankruptcy, but for many years after the railroad war there was an era of goodwill during which the Rock Island became a lifeline for the people and their wheat-producing economy in towns all along its tracks in that portion of Oklahoma.
Jim Fulbright, of Goodlettsville, Tenn., is the author of W.D. “Bill” Fossett: Pioneer and Peace Officer and Trails to Old Pond Creek: The Early Days of Trade and Travel in Northwestern Oklahoma. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Winter 2005 WOLA Journal. Also suggested for further reading: Iron Road to Empire, by William Edward Hayes; and West of Hell’s Fringe, by Glenn Shirley.
This article was written by Jim Fullbright and originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Wild West magazine today!