80 Years of the Tulsa District

Pre-Tulsa District

The Tulsa District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was officially established on July 1, 1939 after Harry Hines Woodring, Secretary of War (1936-1940), issued the general order activating the Tulsa District. On the District’s first business day three U.S. Army officers and 275 civilian employees reported for work in the Petroleum Building in downtown Tulsa. Organized to perform civil works functions, the district took charge of the section of the Arkansas River Basin from west and north of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The district was birthed in 1939 but its conception occurred more than a decade prior with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928.  Necessitated by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the major projects authorized by the 1928 Act were the design and construction of flood control projects on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, and the Sacramento River in California by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  More proximate to the establishment of the Tulsa District the 1928 FCA directed the Chief of Engineers to prepare and present reports on eight major river systems, including the Arkansas River and the Red Rivers and their tributaries. The Corps called the documents “Section 308 reports” after House Document 308 which ordered the studies.

Both the Arkansas and Red River basins would eventually come under the auspices of Tulsa District. With its passage, the Flood Control Act of 1928 became the single largest Public Works legislation in the nation’s history at the time.

More than 90 years later, the effects of the 1928 Act continue to impact Corps of Engineers’ projects. The 1928 Act, and the 1927 Mississippi Flood which served as the catalyst for the legislation, created a national conversation about floods, at least among the newspapers of the day.  The 1928 Act also re-iterated the principle of local financial involvement and required federal appropriations to be withheld until local communities or levee districts demonstrated a willingness to maintain and operate completed projects.  A guarantee of flood immunity to the United States government for floods, right of way requirements, flowage easements and balancing of competing interests are some of the other long-term impacts of the 1928 Act.

In 1935 the Corps of Engineers submitted to Congress the “Section 308” report on the Arkansas River and its tributaries tasked by Congress in the 1928 Act. This report would have hydrological, geographical, cultural and economic impacts in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas.

A year later, with passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936, Congress declared flood control “a national priority” as floods were a “threat to the national interest.”  Among the authorizations in the 1936 Flood Control Act were Great Salt Plains Reservoir and Fort Supply Lake in western Oklahoma, which the Tulsa District would inherit.

The significance of the 1936 Flood Control Act to the future of the Corps cannot be overstated. The 1936 FCA allowed Congress to leap the greatest hurdle to declaring flood control projects within the federal interest. 

According to historian Joseph L. Arnold, the 50 years prior to the 1936 Act’s passage was replete with legislation to build dikes and levees under the guise of Navigation efforts.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Ogden v. Gibbons in 1824 made a step toward defining the Interstate Commerce Clause and specifically identified the Federal Government as the regulatory body for Navigation.  Ogden v. Gibbons was the result of a dispute over who could regulate river navigation. Gibbons, a steamboat operator from New Jersey, challenged Ogden’s New York State-licensed monopoly on Hudson River ports in New York.  The court sided with Gibbons, declaring that the Federal Government was the regulator of commerce between states. The ruling also gave the Federal Government regulatory authority in matters of riverine navigation.

That same year Congress appropriated $75,000 for improvements to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers for removal of sandbars and improvements related to riverine navigation with the passage of the River and Harbors Act.  In the first of what would become a series of legislative authorizations and appropriations for navigational improvements, Congress charged the Corps of Engineers with the execution of the project.

World War II

As the Tulsa District inherited construction efforts Great Salt Plains and Fort Supply reservoirs, the powers in Europe and Asia were increasing the volume to the drumbeat of war. Sixty-two days after Tulsa District’s establishment, Germany invaded Poland. Formal war declarations from England and France quickly followed. World War II was officially on.

Just 108 days before the district opened its offices in downtown Tulsa, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia in violation of the Munich Agreement.  In the Pacific, Japanese troops occupied portions of China.

Early in 1940 the U.S. Congress voted for the construction of 30 military aircraft plants and President Franklin Roosevelt called on manufacturers to produce 50,000 warplanes each year. Later that year in December 1940, construction for the Army Air Corps’ installations and projects was transferred from the Quartermaster Corps to the Corps of Engineers.

On January 4, 1941, Tulsa District received its first major military construction project, Tulsa Aircraft Assembly Plant Number Three, which was named the Tulsa Bomber Plant. The City of Tulsa provided land and the Corps built a 320-foot wide, hangar that was nearly one-mile in length. At its zenith, the plant rolled out a new B-24 Liberator every 19.5 hours and modified or built 6000 other planes including the B-17 Flying Fortress.

With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the United States entered the war it had been preparing for in the prior three years.  Nine days after the attack, military construction responsibilities were completely transferred from the Quartermaster Corps to the Corps of Engineers and the Tulsa District’s workforce jumped from 800 employees in June 1941 to 2,700 in less than one year.

In March 1942 the Tulsa District was authorized to construct the Oklahoma Aircraft Assembly Plan Number Five in Oklahoma City. The plant produced 208 C-47 transport planes every month.

The demand for warplanes was so great that aircraft were manufactured at both the Tulsa and Oklahoma City plants before construction of the hangar walls were completed. In the case of the Tulsa plant, the first aircraft rolled off the assembly line in August 1942, 45 days before construction on the hangar was completed.

In April 1941, the War Department awarded Oklahoma City with the Midwest Air Depot. One month after authorization, construction began at an initial cost of $29 million. In 1948, the Air Force renamed the depot after Oklahoma native Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker who died leading a bomber strike on the Japanese at Wake Island in 1942.

During World War II the Tulsa District's military mission resulted in the establishment of several military installations and training sites. Camp Gruber in Muskogee, housed as many as 50,000 men at its peak. The Corps built the Oklahoma Ordnance Works between Chouteau and Pryor, and the facility manufactured military explosives. At a cost of $60 million, it was the largest single military construction project undertaken by the Tulsa District at the time.

By the end of the war the Tulsa District had built flying schools, municipal airports, airfields bombing ranges, hospitals and prisoner-of-war camps and the District placed $800 million in military construction and procured special engineering equipment costing more than $100 million.

Despite realignment of priorities to military construction projects during World War II, Tulsa District managed to complete the Great Salt Plains dam project in July 1941 and the Fort Supply Dam in 1942.  Canton Dam, the District’s first full Civil Works dam construction project broke ground in 1940 but constructed was paused, as with many Civil Works Projects, to focus on the war effort.

In 1945, the geographical area of the district was increased to include that portion of the Red River Basin which lies above Fulton, Ark.  This brought Denison Dam and Lake Texoma, which had been completed by the Denison District in 1944 under the control of Tulsa District.

The Civil Works Era

Following World War II a sense of hope and change became reality as the nation redirected its focus from military construction to Civil Works construction. For every $1 million spent on military construction within the district in 1950, $17 million was spent on domestic Civil Works projects.

The District completed Canton Dam in 1948.  Fall River Dam in Kansas and Wister Dam in eastern Oklahoma were completed in 1949. Heyburn Dam on Polecat Creek southwest of Tulsa, and Hulah Dam, on the Caney River northwest of Bartlesville, Oklahoma were completed in 1950 and 1951 respectively. Tenkiller Ferry Dam on the Illinois River and Fort Gibson Dam on the Grand River in Oklahoma were completed in 1953.  Toronto Dam on the Verdigris River in Kansas was completed in 1960.

During the Korean War military construction ramped up increasing to $50 million per year. In 1960, the District launched a $40 million crash construction program for the 12 Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile sites in the vicinity of Altus AFB, Oklahoma.

In 1961, the Corps of Engineers realigned military responsibilities and boundaries. As a result military construction would no longer be a mission of the Tulsa District. With the change of duties nearly 160 Tulsa District employees were transferred outside the district.

The reorganization resulted in the transfer of major military construction duties to only 17 districts within the Corps of Engineers. In 20 years, the District had built all or part of some three dozen military installations in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.

In the intervening years, the Tulsa District focused on Civil Works projects, especially projects related to the Arkansas River Navigation Project. 

Oologah Dam, the first dam to impact the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation Project in Oklahoma on the Verdigris River in Oklahoma was dedicated in 1963.  Two more Arkansas River Navigation projects, Keystone Dam on the Arkansas River, and Eufaula Dam on the North Canadian River were completed in 1964.

Navigation and the MKARNS

During the twenty year period when the Tulsa District lacked a military construction mission, the focus shifted heavily to the reason it was originally established in the first place – Civil Works projects.  Even as the Cold War continued and the Vietnam War became a polarizing conflict, the district accomplished significant Civil Works progress.  Perhaps the most significant was the Arkansas River Navigation project.

The system was declared open for business on December 31, 1970. A few days later President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill naming the system the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System after Senators John McClellan of Arkansas and Sen. Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma. In June of that year Nixon officially dedicated the MKARNS. Before an audience of 20,000 gathered at the Port of Catoosa, to witness the ceremony Nixon predicted, the waterway would improve farm income and bring industrial development that would cause industry to migrate to the Arkansas River Valley and reverse the trend of rural Americans migrating to industry in large cities.

“You have demonstrated once again the vitality of the American tradition of daring great things and achieving what we dare,” said Nixon.

The MKARNS included a $1.3 billion price tag but it quickly shed its image as a pork barrel project. Though it cost four times the price of the Panama Canal it would return a profit for every dollar spent, the New York Times declared in an article covering the dedication of the David D. Terry Lock and Dam. In the same article Senator J. William Fulbright, who spoke at the ceremony, was quoted as saying the money expenditure would finance only two weeks of the War in Vietnam.

The MKARNS continues to be the public works project of the greatest magnitude and continues to have the greatest economic impact on eastern Oklahoma. The project for improvement of the Arkansas River and its Tributaries was authorized by the Rivers and Harbors Act of July 24, 1946.  The plan provided for integration of developments for navigation, flood control, hydroelectric power and for other beneficial water uses into a single project.  The navigation route extends from Catoosa, Oklahoma to the Mississippi River.  The 448-mile waterway has a minimum depth of 9 feet and total lift of 420 feet.  Eighteen lock and dam structures five in Oklahoma and 13 in Arkansas. Construction of the system began in 1957 and by the end of 1966 work had begun on all of the locks and dams in Oklahoma – W.D. Mayo, Robert S. Kerr, Webbers Falls, Chouteau, and Newt Graham.  The first commercial payload, four barges loaded with pipe, reached the Port of Muskogee on January 3, 1971.  The first two to travel the full length of the MKARNS arrived at the Port of Catoosa on January 21, 1971. At a cost of $1.3 billion each state, Oklahoma and Arkansas each saw projects exceeding $600 million.

The locks on the MKARNS are a uniform 600 feet long by 110 feet wide. Typically a vessel can lock through in about 30 to 45 minutes.  For a vessel travelling the entire 448-mile trek from the Mississippi River to the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, the system of locks and dams allows them to climb more than 420 feet in elevation.

The Return of Military Construction

In 1981, military construction mission was re-introduced and quickly tested.

In November 1984 a fire at Building 3001 at Tinker AFB destroyed 17 acres of roofing and destroyed 12 major aircraft engine repair stations. The fire burned for 40 hours and ruined the structure.

The replacement project, a $63.5 million undertaking, was the largest and most expensive reconstruction effort the Air Force and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had ever essayed.

Construction began in March 1985 and the contractor worked around-the-clock to meet the September completion deadline. The project was completed in August of the same year, on-time and within budget.

The Tulsa District is responsible for military construction projects at Army and Air Force installations in Oklahoma and Texas:

Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma

Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma

Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma

Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas

Fort Sill, Oklahoma

McAlester Army Ammunition Plant McAlester, Oklahoma

In 2013 the Air Force selected Tinker Air Force Base and Altus Air Force Base as depot maintenance and training sites for the Air Force’s new KC-46 Pegasus. The KC-46 Pegasus is an aerial refueler on a Boeing 767 airframe. The larger aircraft will eventually replace the Air Force’s ageing KC-135 Stratotanker fleet built between 1954 and 1965, which is based on the Boeing 707 airframe.

Today the Tulsa District is overseeing construction and contracting of $630 million in Pegasus-related projects at Tinker AFB and Altus AFB over the next several years.

Hydroelectric Power

The eight hydropower facilities within the Tulsa District provide a major portion of electricity for the Southwestern Power Administration.  Three of the eight stations were placed online in the 1970s, Robert S. Kerr, Webbers Falls and Broken Bow.  Additionally, Keystone Dam, Tenkiller Dam, Fort Gibson Dam, Eufaula Dam and Denison Dam which forms Lake Texoma were already online.  These powerplants provide peak power for distribution throughout the region by SWPA, allowing for low-cost electricity to municipalities and electric cooperatives as a result of the Rural Electrification Act.

Within Tulsa District there are actually nine dams that produce hydroelectric power. Kaw Dam, located on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma just beyond the Kansas border produces hydroelectric power as well but the generators were installed by the Okahoma Municipal Power Authority, a local government cooperative, in 1989.

The Floods of 1984 and 1986

The Memorial Day Flood of 1984 took Tulsa by surprise. Between 6” and 15” of rain from a stalled cold front fell on the city in an eight hour period from May 26 at 8:30 p.m. to May 27, 4:30 a.m. The drainage system, the Mingo Creek area was inundated with 9” of rain. Flooding resulted in the deaths of 14 people and 288 injuries. Damages affected more than 5,500 buildings, 20 schools, 7,000 vehicles and many roads and bridges. Total damages were set at $180 million. The flood led to a cooperative agreement between the Tulsa District and the City to develop an improved storm drainage system.  In 2000, the Tulsa District provided assistance and Mingo completed the Mingo Creek Local Protection Project in Tulsa. The project consists of construction of 23 floodwater detention sites and approx. 10 miles of channelization along Mingo Creek and its tributaries.  It reduced flooding to approx. 3,000 single family residences and 125 apartment buildings in the flood plain.

In the last two weeks of September 1986, heavy rainfall left Oklahoma lands saturated. When Hurricane Paine moved into Oklahoma from the Gulf of Mexico, the moisture and rainfall met a stationary frontal system that produced 10 to 20 inches of rain over north central and northeast Oklahoam. According to the National Weather Service, the Arkansas, Caney, Canadian, South Canadian, Cimarron, Washita, Salt Fork, Neosho, Verdigris Rivers, and the North Fork set or nearly set record crests. Seven stream gages showed record high flood levels. About 30,000 people in 25 towns were evacuated, half of which occurred in Bartlesville. Two people died in the flooding, 509 homes were destroyed, and nearly 4,000 were damaged.

The storm was considered the first true test for Keystone Dam which was forced to release 307,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Arkansas River above Tulsa. The river reached a record height of 25.21 feet, 7.21 feet above the flood stage. Total Damages were estimated at $350 million.

Bombing of the Murrah Building

Following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995, the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dispatched three structural engineers to monitor the site.

Mark McVay and two other civil engineers arrived the next day. The District sent a fourth structural engineer, Mark Burkholder, a couple of weeks later, to monitor the site so demolitions experts could implode the remaining structure.

The bomb that destroyed the building detonated just 15 feet from the building and caused the deaths of 168 people.

“After the blast, a lot of Good Samaritans rushed in to help,” said Mark McVay. “One of the people who responded was a nurse. She just arrived at the site and was trying to help victims when a piece of debris fell and hit her on the head.”

The nurse, Rebecca Anderson, went to the site after seeing news reports on television. She died in the hospital four days later. Though rescue workers sustained numerous injuries searching for and assisting survivors, she was the only one killed.

“The roof of the Murrah Building was made from a mixture of light concrete and insulation, and it just crumbled in the explosion,” McVay said. “There were large chunks of debris hanging from the skeleton of the building that could crush a car if they fell.”

The civil engineers used a transit, a surveying tool used to measure angles, and a telescope to watch for falling debris. They also advised rescue workers as they attempted to remove rubble during the search for survivors.

“We would go into an area and assess the structure and tell them, whether they could move a piece without endangering a survivor,” said McVay. “There were a lot of long days. I remember being exhausted.”

Burkholder was sent in as the building was being prepped it for demolition.

“The demolition experts were drilling holes to weaken the remaining structure and to place the charges,” Burkholder said. “They were concerned that as they weakened it, a slab might fall down. There are critical spots on the building that you don’t want to move and we checked them regularly.”

The engineers set up their transit under an American elm tree in what used to be a parking lot between the Murrah Building and the Journal Record Building. The explosion sent glass and shrapnel into the tree’s trunk and branches, and even destroyed some of the branches. Though the explosion ripped away a portion of the Journal Record Building’s roof, the elm remained.

“At that time it was just a tree,” said Burkholder. “But a lot of people in casual conversation were asking, ‘How did that tree survive?’”

The Survivor Tree has thrived in the years following the bombing. Though it represented a curious improbability at the time, today it is a symbol of a community’s resilience.

“You have to realize that businesses in the area were so damaged they just closed down. I had to go five blocks to buy a sandwich and the sandwich shop that was open had damage. I thought the entire area around the site would be demolished,” said McVay. “I never realized that tree would become a symbol for the survivors or the city, even though we were all commenting, ‘that’s one tough tree.’”

McVay and Burkholder both agree that they were most affected by the destruction of the daycare located on the second floor of the building, and just above the blast zone.

“It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” said McVay. “It hit you in the gut when you see little kids’ toys scattered amongst the debris.”

Burkholder said he visited the site 10 years ago on a field trip with one of his children.

“When I first went back it kind of weighed on my mind,” he said. “It was tough. I can’t imagine the people who were doing the search and rescue operations.”

The Flood of 2015

The 2015 Flood impacted the entirety of the Tulsa District and much of the Southwestern Division. The basins impacted the most from this event include the Lower Red River, Little River and Lower Arkansas River watersheds. Within these watersheds, a total of 5 reservoirs went into their Surcharge Pools and an additional 8 reservoirs were above 75% of their Flood Control Pools.

As late as mid-May 2010, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were struggling through the fifth year of an unwelcome drought.

From 2010 to 2015 the 39,719 square mile Upper Red River Basin which stretches from eastern New Mexico across the lower portion of the Texas Panhandle, into Oklahoma, and down to the Oklahoma-Texas border, saw minimal rainfall. Low-water conditions had a significant impact on the regional economy and damaged recreation opportunities. Communities on both sides of the border, which Lake Texoma straddles, felt the pain as lake levels remained well-below normal.

Despite increased precipitation during the first four months of 2015, U.S. Drought Monitor maps continued to show tan to dark-red splotches, the color code depicts “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions.

The region remained in near drought from early to mid-May, but the next 19 days would mark the end of dry conditions. May would become the wettest month in recorded history for both Texas and Oklahoma. The Lone Star State recorded 8.81inches while the Sooner State recorded 14.40 inches of rain.

Vast portions of the Upper Red River Basin received significant rainfall through May and June. Reservoirs filled and a water famine transformed into liquid abundance.

From Denison Dam east to the Arkansas border, the 3,400 square mile Lower Red River Basin marks the final leg of the Red River’s 200-mile, meandering trek from the dam to Arkansas’ border with Oklahoma.

Of the five Corps-managed reservoirs in the Lower Red River Basin, three – Pat Mayse, Hugo and Sardis – feed into the Red River. Broken Bow set a pool of record in May which was broken on 28 December with a 629.5 feet more than 108.1% of the flood control pool. The lake also recorded record releases of 41,443 cubic feet per second.

As inland rains continued to fall, tropical Storm Bill made landfall in Texas on June 16 and reached Oklahoma shortly thereafter. The massive storm drenched the region. By June 17 all watersheds in the district’s Red River Area were above 99 percent of their flood control pool, all were receiving inflows and all were forced to release water due to slowly rising lake levels.

This combination of rainfall in the Upper and Lower Red River watersheds presented a difficult situation for water managers in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District’s Water Management Section. As runoff from rainfall into the Red River below Lake Texoma captured valuable channel capacity, water managers attempted offset upstream inflows.

“The challenge was sharing downstream channel capacity with Hugo Lake and downstream runoff into the Red River,” said Tammy Piazza, who managed water releases at Lake Texoma during the 2015 flood. “There was a lot of rainfall below Lake Texoma in an uncontrolled area, and that affected our ability to release.”

Since the impoundment of Lake Texoma behind Denison Dam in 1944, water topped the auxiliary spillway only three times in 1957, 1990 and 2007. Water flowed over Lake Texoma’s spillway twice in 2015 marking the fourth and fifth times the event occurred in the dam’s history.

After a record flood event for much of the Tulsa District in May and June of 2015, rainfall totals were below average through the month of October 2015.  In the Red, Little, and Canadian River watersheds, the below average rainfall had caused most of the lakes to dip below their respective normal levels.

Beginning in November, a series of small but rainfall heavy storms moved across eastern Oklahoma and caused many projects to begin to rise within their respective Flood Control Pools.  The month of December began with many projects in the eastern part of the state trying to release the water that had been stored in their respective Flood Control Pools as conditions allowed downstream.  Further rainfall in the beginning of December further added to the issue of rising waters in eastern lakes setting the area with heavily saturated antecedent conditions.

The rainfall culminated with a large rainfall event which moved through eastern Oklahoma between 26 and 29 December.  This storm event dropped between 4 and 11 inches of rain on average (local maximums were higher) in areas already saturated from previous rainfall events which lead to record inflows.

80th History Sources: The Dawning A New Day for the Southwest: A History of the Tulsa District Corps of Engineers 1939 - 1971 by William A. Settle, Jr. Fifty Years Remembered: The First 50 Years of the Tulsa District U. S. Army Corps of Engineers by Beverly Leland and Patton and the late William J. Settle, Jr. An Era of Change: The Tulsa District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1971-1997 The Evolution of the Flood Control Act of 1936 by Joseph L. Arnold Interviews and Internal Documents Contributed to this information