Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.
Okmulgee, Oklahoma: A Historical Treasure
Situated only 40 minutes south of Tulsa, Okmulgee is a small town rich with history and teeming with wildlife.
The history of Okmulgee begins in 1868. After the Civil War, the Creek Nation began restoring order to their devastated homeland and came together in a great council to establish a capitol building. The first post office was opened on April 29, 1869, under the spelling Okmulkee. The town didn't get the name it now holds until November 15, 1883, at which time it became known as Okmulgee. Okmulgee is a creek word, oki mulgi, which means "boiling waters". The name was taken from a town in their native region, which is in present-day Russell County, Alabama.
Since its birth, Okmulgee has gone from being a small village to one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, and then back again to a small, sleepy town. Remnants of Okmulgee's glorious past can be seen everywhere, from the Spanish Baroque-style Orpheum Theater and the run-down ruins of 1920s factories to the many mansions and the five-story petroleum building in downtown.
Besides its rich history, Okmulgee offers a quiet step into the solitude of nature. There are many great places in and around Okmulgee to immerse yourself in the serenity that can only come from nature.
The 20-block Okmulgee downtown area has been designated as a National Historic District by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Main Street Program has raised more than $13 million in private funds since it's inception in 1986 in order to restore and revitalize downtown Okmulgee. While there is still a lot that needs to be done, amazing strides have been made into creating one of the most interesting and alluring areas in Oklahoma.
Highlights of Downtown Okmulgee
The Severs Block played an important role in Okmulgee's early development. It served as the major regional commercial center from 1907 through the first half of the twentieth century. Frederick B. Severs constructed the half-block building in 1907, incorporating the west wall of an earlier 1882 sandstone structure. Known as the Severs Block, the building was the location for prominent commercial establishments until the oil boom in 1911. The Severs Block is one of downtown Okmulgee historic districts most important buildings.
The Okmulgee County Courthouse was constructed in 1916 and is one of the best examples of Revivalist architecture in northeastern Oklahoma. The overall symmetry and monumental proportions are representative of the academicism and “proper” nature of both styles. The eclectic mix of details is typical of American architecture between 1900 and 1920. At one time, it housed the regional jail on its top floor. Ask around, many residents of Okmulgee will be able to share quite fascinating stories of this historic building.
The Okmulgee Library was built in 1917 on land donated to the city by two local families. Completed in 1921, the Okmulgee Library was the first city library in Oklahoma to be built with municipal bond funding. The library recently underwent a major renovation, restoring it to its original 1921 condition. In addition to its historical significance, the library also hosts one of the largest genealogical research centers in the area.
The Orpheum Theater was formerly a vaudeville theater that has been converted into a modern movie theater. The architecture is amazing, and much of the original vaudeville stage is still intact.
St. Anthonys Catholic Church is just a few blocks away from downtown Okmulgee. It is one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial Revival style in the area.
Of course, there's much more to explore in the downtown Okmulgee historic district. Visit the Chamber of Commerce and pick up some guide maps, and while you're there, ask about the tunnels that run under Okmulgee.
Creek Council House Museum
The two-story, log council house of the Creek Nation was constructed near the edge of a stand of timber and quickly became the center of town. In 1878, a fire destroyed the original Creek Council house, and a stone structure was built in its place. The Creek Council House received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. After restoration was completed in 1993, the capitol served as a museum with displays and exhibits reflecting the history of the Okmulgee area and the Creek Nation. Okmulgee remains the home of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Complex.
In the heart of Okmulgee's town square, in the center of the historic downtown district, the Creek Council House Museum is a National Historic Landmark featuring Creek Indian art and history. While you're visiting the museum, check out the Red Stick Gallery, a gift shop featuring American Indian art, jewelry, books and other assorted gift items and collectibles.
Okmulgee State Park
Just minutes from downtown, Okmulgee State Park and the Okmulgee lake spillway offer a variety of fun-filled outdoor activities in a tranquil and scenic setting. The parks feature boating, fishing, camping, RV sites, handicapped-accessible nature trails and an adjacent public hunting area. Truly a hidden jewel among Oklahoma's state parks!
Before turning off onto the main road that enters Okmulgee State Park, be sure follow state road 56 until you come to the spillway cascade. The Okmulgee Spillway, built in 1939-1940 by the Works Projects Administration, sits at the northeastern most point of the Lake Okmulgee Dam. The 40-foot-high by 250-foot- long cascade which is being nominated, is a series of upwardly rising limestone steps which buttress the original 1927-28 spillway (built by a private contractor), on the dry side of the dam. Stone retaining walls buttress the dry side cuts that were made into the dam to accommodate the spillway. The retaining walls are stepped upward from the creek floor, providing access up and down the slope. The center of the stepped cascade is additionally buttressed by a 72 x 72 foot stone platform. The floor of the creek is paved with stone blocks as well. Across the creek from the cascade, a stone retaining wall follows the line of the highway and prevents washouts from Lake Okmulgee. This is the only such flood control/recreational structure of this design, material, and workmanship in Okmulgee County.
Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge
Deep Fork National Wildlife Preserve was established in June 1993 and is primarily composed of lush hardwood forests surrounding oxbow lakes and a meandering river. This vanishing ecosystem is over 9,000 acres. There are several parks throughout the preserve that allows one to view the beauty and tranquility of this unique ecosystem.
One of the most interesting places to visit within Deep Fork Wildlife Preserve is the Cussetah Bottoms Boardwalk Trail. While the park in itself isn't that large, once you enter you are immediately surrounded by a great variety of wildlife and can easily get lost in its tranquil solitude. This park isn't widely known, but it's a gem that's certainly worth a visit.
Listed here are just a few of the great places to visit in Okmulgee. If you do plan to take a day trip there, be sure to call the Okmulgee Chamber of Commerce first. They will be able to direct you in finding other great places of interest in and around Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
© 2010 Eric Standridge
John Gaston on February 04, 2014:
Don't forget the historic 6 story office building built in 1927 by the Masons name McCulloch Building. Still operational, with space available.
Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on October 27, 2010:
Tippie, you're right. Actually, I think there are more than just the one that you mention, but I haven't been able to get that much information on them yet. I do know that there is a building downtown with an underground swimming pool as well.. I'd love to know more.
Besides Tulsa and Okmulgee, I've also heard that Oklahoma City and Bartlesville also have underground tunnels. Bartlesville actually has a map that's made by the city that shows where they are. When I first moved here, I would have never thought they would exist.. it fascinates me for some reason!
Toppie on August 17, 2010:
Saw your article about the Tunnels that run under Tulsa. There are also tunnels under Okmulgee. If I remember right they run from the buildings on 7th street over to the Orpheum and were used by the actors of the Theater.
Glenn Fincher on March 05, 2010:
We moved here from Tulsa in 2003. I began exploring Okmulgee and I still find the history extremely exciting! My mom's parents met and married here, so I guess I have come "home".