Gone Across Oklahoma
The Great State of Transition

OKLAHOMA IS A state that just keeps going. From the evacuated mining towns of Tar Creek, to the historic Dust Bowl departures on the Panhandle, to the oil and gas pipelines coursing under its rolling terrain, Oklahoma is a state of transition. From east to west, it is the third widest state in the lower 48, after Texas and Montana. Looking at a map of the USA, Oklahoma looks like a failed attempt to keep Texas from being simply too damn big. The Red River is the wiggly line along the bottom, separating it from Texas, but the rest is straight lines of longitude and latitude. 

The west side of the state is that curious cartographic appendage, a 165 mile-long, 35 mile-wide panhandle sitting atop Texas’ panhandle (which, being square, looks alot less like a panhandle). These overlapping panhandles are similar terrain, blanketed by cattle, cotton, and wheat, irrigated by the Ogallala aquifer, below which is gas extracted and circulated in a subterranean highway of pipelines. Oklahoma’s panhandle is a remnant, and the last piece of federal land in the contiguous United States to be surveyed by the federal government. Texas would have covered it, joining Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, all lined up along the 37th parallel of latitude, but when Texas joined the Union in 1845, a federal statute known as the Missouri Compromise was in effect, outlawing slavery north of 36 ½ degrees. Texas, wanting to stay a slave state, ceded its terrain north of that line to the federal government in 1850. Half a degree of latitude, 35 miles. By 1861, the boundaries of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and the Oklahoma Territory were established along the 37th parallel. That left this rectangle, the former top of Texas’s panhandle, a no man’s land, a state without a state, a hole near the middle of the nation. A federal survey was finally made of this area in 1890, and the unassigned Public Land Strip, as it was known, was officially added to Oklahoma Territory, which joined the Union in 1907 as the 46th state.

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Initial Point
A close inspection of the state lines at the western edge Oklahoma’s panhandle shows that the 35 miles of its boundary shared with New Mexico do not line up with the otherwise straight 300 mile line dividing New Mexico from Texas. This is because the boundary between New Mexico and Texas was set along the 103rd Meridian, as located by a Spanish survey in 1819. When Oklahoma Territory’s panhandle was surveyed in 1890, using more modern and accurate methods, it was discovered that the 103rd Meridian was actually more than 2 miles east of where the early Spanish survey had it. New Mexico was quite upset about this discovery, as it meant that it had lost more than 600,000 acres to Texas. Over the years the state legislature has made demands for reparations, including monetary compensation, even as recently as 1991, though no action has been taken.

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Kerr McGee Cimarron Plant
This plant, located in north central Oklahoma, once made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. It is famous as the site where Karen Silkwood worked and was exposed to radiation that threatened her life. She gathered what she said was evidence of corporate wrong-doing at the plant, including the possibility that she, an outspoken activist for workers at the plant, was being intentionally poisoned with radiation. In November 1974, she was on her way to a meeting with a reporter from the New York Times, when her car veered off the road and crashed into a culvert, killing her. Suspicions of foul play abounded, and Silkwood, a film made in 1983 about her, supported them. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear fuel plants in 1975, and this one was officially decontaminated and shuttered in 1994. Some of the buildings remain, but nobody works on-site.

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Oklahoma Salt Works
Just after the panhandle connects to the pan of Oklahoma, near the town of Freedom, is Cargill Salt’s solar production plant. It is one of only a few places in the country where salt is produced in large quantities by solar evaporation (most salt that is consumed is mined from large deposits underground). Solar evaporation requires a large amount of surface area and water to make shallow ponds, a dry and sunny atmosphere, as well as a source of salt to extract. Cargill, the largest salt company in the country, only operates in this manner at two other locations in the country: in the San Francisco Bay and at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where the source of salt is the naturally salty water. Here, in high and dry western Oklahoma, the salt in the groundwater along the Cimarron River is high enough to be used to make salt by evaporation.

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Lone Mountain Waste
Remoteness from anything but the local is a quality of northwestern Oklahoma, and an attraction for things that support the industries of away. It is not surprising then to find the Lone Mountain Landfill there, a hazardous waste site operating on a national scale. Operated by Clean Harbors LLC, the nation’s largest hazardous waste company, Lone Mountain treats materials on-site, including liquids and PCBs, to help stabilize them before they are buried in the expansive mounds on the property. The site, near Little Sahara State Park and Wayonka, is one of seven commercial chemical waste landfill sites operated around the country by the company. Two are in California, one each in Colorado, Texas, Utah, and North Dakota.

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Southard Gypsum Mine and Plant
Oklahoma is sometimes ranked as the largest domestic producer of gypsum, and this facility in the northwestern part of the state is one of a few major mines and plants for the material in the state. It is operated by U.S. Gypsum, the largest manufacturer of gypsum products in the country, which includes wallboard, joint compound, and ceiling panels, some of the most common materials used in building construction. Despite the nationwide reach of the company, it operates only eight mines and quarries in the USA.

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Tar Creek
The northeastern corner of Oklahoma was once the largest lead and zinc mining district in the nation–perhaps half the bullets fired by Americans in World War I were made of lead from here. The mines, shut down in the 1960s, undermine the district, leading to surface collapse. Dusty piles of tailings contaminated with lead cover many square miles. These unsafe conditions, and proven health problems with residents in the area, including a high concentration of children with cognitive disabilities as the result of lead poisoning, eventually led to the evacuation of several towns. The federal government declared the region, the Tar Creek drainage area, a Superfund site in 1983. The EPA started buying out residents in 2006. Homes and businesses were moved and torn down over the following years, a process which still continues. Some refuse to leave.

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Interstate-Spanning McDonalds
What has been called the largest McDonalds in the world spans an interstate highway in Oklahoma known as the Will Rogers Turnpike. The first restaurant to operate inside the building was the Glass House, an early chain specializing in highway travel plazas. A Howard Johnson’s also operated there for a while. McDonald’s has been the primary tenant occupying the 29,000 square foot space for a few decades, though it shares the space with other tenants, thus possibly disqualifying it from the “largest McDonald’s” claim. A McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida is said to have 25,000 square feet.

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Totem Pole Park
An unusual park with a dozen brightly painted and sculpted totem poles made of concrete. It is the work of Ed Galloway, a former teacher at a nearby orphanage, who retired to this small farm property in 1937. He began work that year on the largest structure on-site, which he completed 11 years later when it was 90 feet tall. There are chambers inside the concrete tower, which was called “the largest totem pole in the world.” Galloway died in 1962, and much of his work at the site fell into disrepair. Preservationists arrived in the 1990s, and the sculptures were repaired and repainted. It is now an officially recognized historic site. Though Ed Galloway said he made all these things just as something to do, Totem Pole Park is another landmark in the “Cowboys and Indians” identity of Oklahoma.

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Port of Catoosa
The Port of Catoosa is an industrial park northeast of Tulsa, at the end of a constructed waterway known as the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. The system is a re-engineering of the Arkansas River and portions of other rivers with dams, canals, and locks, completed by the Army Corps in 1971. It extends for 445 miles, from the Mississippi River to the Port of Catoosa, enabling ocean-going barges to travel more deeply into the interior of the country. The industrial park at the Port of Catoosa has around 60 companies and around 3,500 people working there. It is referred to as the most inland ocean going port in the nation.

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Tulsa Aircraft Maintenance Center
Tulsa’s Airport is a major maintenance center for civilian aircraft. It is the site of American Airlines’ aircraft maintenance and engineering center, likely the largest aviation maintenance facility in the country. It is the principal facility for the airline’s global operations, and employs 6,400, including 4,700 licensed aircraft mechanics. Next door, Spirit Aerosystems makes wings and other parts for Boeing, in a former Rockwell aircraft plant. Next to that is a ¾ mile-long building once used to make bombers, now mostly used to make school buses.

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Cushing Tank Farm
Though the refineries from its boom years earlier in the century are gone, the town of Cushing, northeast of Oklahoma City, is a major storage site for crude oil and gas that comes and goes by pipeline. Cushing also became famous as a trading benchmark for the industry, when in 1983 the New York Mercantile Exchange selected the price that a 42-gallon barrel of West Texas Intermediate Crude is trading for at Cushing, as an amount reflecting the general price of oil in the global marketplace. Cushing developed as a holding point between supply coming principally from Texas, and demand, the markets of the north and northeast, like Chicago, to which it is connected by transcontinental pipeline. Cushing would be the southern terminus for the Keystone Pipeline from Alberta, should it be built. Several companies operate tank farms south of town, including Magellan, Enbridge, and PXP, with a total capacity of more than 30 million barrels in around 300 above-ground tanks.

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Oklahoma City Memorial
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was destroyed in the 1995 bombing that took 168 lives. A memorial was dedicated in 2000, and includes a reflecting pool on what was once the street where the Ryder truck full of explosives was parked, and the Field of Empty Chairs, one for each of the people killed, on the ground where the damaged building once stood.

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