Poteau Main Street Matters

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History

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A Brief History of Poteau

The Caddoan Culture

The earliest known settlement in LeFlore County was that of the Caddoan Culture.  Spiro Mounds was part of a Native American empire that stretched all along the Mississippi Valley.  A political, cultural, and religious center, Spiro Mounds was the furthest western outpost of the Native American empire.

The Vikings

Long before Columbus arrived in the new world, it has been proven that Vikings also explored parts of present day North America.  One of the largest examples of this can be found in Heavener where a large runestone stone was hidden in a deep ravine.  It is possible that Poteau was also visited by Vikings.  In the early 1900's, the Poteau Runestone was found by a couple of teenagers on top of Cavanal Hill. It is likely that the ancient Vikings explored this part of America as well.

French Influence

Until 1803, all of LeFlore County was controlled by the French Crown.  Many place names originated during this time, including Poteau and Cavanal Mountain.

During the mid-1700's, French fur  traders roamed throughout the area.  After they arrived, they established a trading camp at Cavanal where they would meet throughout the year.  From this base, they would carry fur pelts up the Poteau River to Belle Point.  From Belle Point, the pelts would travel down the Arkansas River to the Mississippi, where they would finally end up in New Orleans. 

Outlaw Haven

After the Civil War, Oklahoma quickly became known as a bandits haven.  In Poteau, during the 1880's, notorious outlaws such as Belle Starr and Jesse James could be found roaming the streets of Poteau Switch.  It is reputed that the James Gang had a hideout on Sugar Loaf Mountain.  According to old legends, a large fortune of stolen plunder was hidden  in one of the caves nearby.

Known as "Poteau Switch", the town began in the late 1870's as a few families began to settle the area.  By 1880, Poteau Switch began to resemble that of an old Wild West boomtown.  Bandits and  outlaws mixed with well-to-do citizens on the dusty streets of  Poteau Switch. U.S. Deputy Marshal "Coon" Ratterree would occasionally come into town to follow up on reports of bootlegging and whiskey peddling.  During it's early days, the town remained wild and rugged.  Through strength and determination, those pioneers slowly began to shape what would one day be one of Eastern Oklahoma's largest cities.

Origins of Poteau

Life in Poteau Switch changed dramatically in 1886.  That year, the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad laid tracks through town, which began a population growth that would last another 40 years.  Just a few miles east of the Frisco, the Kansas City Southern established a new line through the Indian Territory in 1894, cementing Poteau Switch's status as a true railroad town.  As with most pioneer towns, railroads played an important part in connecting Poteau Switch with the rest of the country.

Throughout the early 1900's, coal played an important part in the development of Poteau.  The Witteville Mines, located on the northern end of Cavanal Mountain, was one of the largest employers in the area.  More than 100 men and boys, some as young as 13, worked in cramped and dangerous conditions from morning until night.  For all of this hard labor, the miners only received a mere five cents for each ton of coal they extracted.  During the time that the mines were in operation, explosions, cave-in's, and lack of oxygen were constant companions.

The Roaring 20's

The Roaring 20's came to Poteau with a boom.  It was an age of progress, full of excitement and optimism.  The streets of Poteau were teeming with life; automobiles mixed with horse-drawn wagons, new buildings were erected at a startling pace, and shoppers thronged the sidewalks.  With all of this excitement, there was also a quiet underworld lurking just out of sight.  As prohibition took hold throughout the country, bootleggers and whiskey peddlers began to make their way into Poteau.  While much of the alcohol was smuggled into town by train or automobile, a lot of it was made locally.  Hundreds of moonshine whiskey stills were found and destroyed throughout the area.  Despite all efforts by law enforcement, there still remained hundreds more stills in operation around Poteau.

Bonnie and Clyde

During the 1930's, Poteau's Central National Bank was robbed by Bonnie and Clyde.  A historical reenactment was filmed by Sugarloaf Mountain Productions in 2013.  This film takes the view back in time to witness how things would have been during the 1930's robbery. An online article by "Oklahoma Traveler" details the account. 

Poteau Today

Today, Poteau remains a vibrant and industrious city.  Traces of it's history can be found everywhere; from the rock and brick buildings that line the downtown streets to the remnants of the coal mines.

In the downtown area, there are numerous historically significant buildings, from the old Indian Territory Federal Courthouse to the twin-offices of the Oklahoma Immigration Company.  The importance of preserving these buildings and their history is paramount, and is one of the chief goals of Poteau Main Street Matters.