Fossil and artifact hunters who slowly survey the sandbars and examine the nooks and crannies under the rocky bluffs and points of the Arkansas River say that walking those places is like stepping back in time.
Bits and pieces of Oklahoma’s history — some of it dating back to the Ice Age, some a reflection of more modern times — disappear under the water and sands and resurface at the whim of the ever-flowing, widely fluctuating current.
Recently, one piece not seen in three decades resurfaced with the 2019 flood, and with it the rumors and mystery of its origins lived again as well.
Standing by the rusted husk of the thing early Wednesday morning, landowner Jimmy Ginn dubbed it, “The Stone Bluff Titanic.”
Stone Bluff, once a thriving township named for a rocky bluff on the river roughly 3 miles downstream from Leonard, is where Ginn’s family settled around the time of statehood.
On the property is an old platform where a cable stretched across the river for a ferry. Just downstream from there, a small stream passes under an old concrete-arch railroad bridge. And just a few yards up that stream is an ancient limestone cave, likely a spot that sheltered early inhabitants of the area. Water cascades from a hole in the center of its ceiling after a rain, still taking the path that eroded the rock formation for centuries.
And near there, on the riverbank, lie the remains of an old steam boiler firebox dating back to the turn of the last century.
“This whole bank here washed away during the flood,” Ginn said.
But the firebox remained anchored. It re-emerged but still is visible only when the river level is low. It was last seen in the late 1980s.
Its existence was news to Ginn, who is not a fossil hunter. His neighbor, Tim Fitzer, told him he should look for what everyone who knows that stretch of river has assumed for decades was part of an old railroad locomotive.
The story was that it derailed off the Midland Valley Railroad in the early 1900s. Bridges and other remnants of the old Midland Railroad line still are clearly visible along the river between Bixby and Haskell.
“I heard about that train more than 20 years ago, when I had my pawn shop in Tulsa in the ‘90s,” Fitzer said. “The story was the river eroded part of the track and it may have gone off, something like that.”
Longtime artifact hunter Donny Replogle saw the firebox back in 1987.
“It’s still there, huh?” he said Thursday. “It wasn’t in the greatest of shape when we saw it back then.”
Legend of the locomotive
The turn-of-the-century locomotive idea came from an old Bixby newspaper clipping that hung in the Bixby Tag Agency, formerly owned by the late Jim T. Roy Barnes, according to Replogle.
Barnes, known for his eclectic collections of historic items and also a former freight train conductor, lined the walls of his tag agencies in Bixby and at 91st Street and Yale Avenue in Tulsa with framed historic newspaper front pages.
The 91st and Yale site still sports that décor. The Bixby site was sold after his death in 2018, however, and the fate of that train clip could not be found for this story.
Archives of the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune contained no mention of a derailment during that era.
Replogle said he couldn’t remember many details of the train story but that the pieces in the news clip seemed to fit the location.
“We all just assumed that was the train,” Replogle said. “Is that old wheel still there, too?”
A 120-year-old artifact
As Ginn and Fitzer surveyed the old husk and pulled river detritus from its body to uncover more, it was easy to imagine the old boiler inside a train of the 1900s, with someone shoveling coal through the still visible fire door into the keyhole-shaped firebox.
With half the casing around the boiler gone, the steam pipes inside are exposed.
Next to it lies what appears to be an old axle with the remainder of the hub of a wheel on one end and a wedge-style eccentric crank the size of a man’s chest on the other.
Parts of the steel husk are brittle to the touch and the more solid items, like the axle attached to that wheel and crank, are flaking and have a texture like tree bark.
Its longevity in the river likely is thanks to its time under ground. Replogle said it was only a matter of months before it was covered up by silt again in late 1987 or ‘88.
“We saw a ’57 Chevy below the Coweta bridge once, and when we first saw it, it was actually pretty, the chrome, the trim, everything,” he said. “Within six months that thing rusted to nothing. I guess it was buried so long and it was fine and then once it was exposed to the air, the rust and the corrosion just took off.”
The firebox is indeed an historical artifact that likely dates back to about 1900, but it is not a part of a train, according to a local expert.
Contacted through the Oklahoma Railway Museum, Marc Montray of Catoosa identified the piece from photos provided by the Tulsa World. He has been a railroad historian, photographer and model builder for 60 years and has a personal library of more than 400 reference books on the subject.
As he noted via email, “I am deep into the nuts and bolts and minutia of modern or historical railroading in its many forms.”
“It is an old boiler, but not from a locomotive,” he reported. The keyhole firebox does date the piece to “about 1900.”
Such fireboxes were used on locomotives, traction engines and stationary boilers of the day and named for the shape that resembled the keyholes that were fit with skeleton-style keys. But this one is relatively small and lacks any locomotive-type frame or appliances, according to Montray.
A mystery remains
The derailment story remains a bit of a mystery without locating that old news clip, but records of locomotives are well kept. The locomotives were valuable, and even if one did go into the river, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have been salvaged, Montray noted.
“I checked three Midland Valley locomotive rosters and talked with two other railroad historians. None of us could find mention or ever recall hearing or reading anything about losing one in a creek or river. All locomotives were accounted for,” he wrote.
The firebox still reflects a fascinating period of Tulsa’s history, however.
“I believe that this was an oil field boiler, one of many used to power the hundreds of pumping jacks in the Glenn Pool oil fields just upriver,” he said. “Interesting find nonetheless.”
Stay up-to-date on what's happening
Receive the latest in local entertainment news in your inbox weekly!