Downtown property owner Chuck Wiggin, historian Bob Blackburn and author Michael Hightower are preparing to roll out a series of markers inspired by Boston’s Freedom Trail that will tell the story of the April 1889 founding of Oklahoma City.
The announcement is being made as Oklahoma City celebrates its 125th anniversary Tuesday. Oklahoma City was founded on April 22, 1889, when a single gunshot started a land run authorized by President Benjamin Harrison. By the end of that day, Oklahoma City grew from a prairie train depot to a town of thousands.
Wiggin, who owns the 101 Park Avenue Building, is hoping the installation of markers telling that story – the “89er Trail” – will begin later this year.
“It’s hard not to get excited about history in Oklahoma City,” Wiggin said. “This city was founded in such an unusual way. There is no other city that has such a great story about its beginning as Oklahoma City does.”
Wiggin said he and Blackburn have spent several years planning the project.
Wiggin worked with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation to set up a fund, and the markers will be installed and overseen by a new nonprofit organization. The research and text for the signs is being prepared by historian and author Michael Hightower.
“I moved here from Boston in 1978, and Boston is very famous for its Freedom Trail that encompasses a lot of sites downtown, most having to do with the Revolutionary War,” Wiggin said.
The Freedom Trail, established in 1951, provides a tour of 16 sites including the home of Paul Revere and the Park Avenue Church. The trail is traveled by thousands every year.
Wiggin hopes the story of April 1889, will draw similar interest. Currently, the story is told through only a couple of sites, including the Land Run Monument and the Pioneers of 1889 in Couch Drive/Kerr Park.
“We have all of our history here captured in photographs,” Wiggin said. “You can see them in books at the bookstore, but you can’t find them on the ground where the events took place. And that’s the aim of this trail, to tell this story with the help of these photographs.”
The project, still in conceptual design, calls for 30 of the markers to be placed throughout downtown. They will include photos, text and QR codes for visitors to pull up more photos and information online.
Stories to be told will likely include the chaos and squabbles that emerged during efforts to create a city, the emergence of “Hell’s Half Acre” at what is now the site of the Cox Convention Center, and the failed attempt to build a “grand canal.”
Sites, meanwhile, will likely include the Santa Fe Train Station, which was built in 1930 on the site of the original Oklahoma Station that greeted settlers when they arrived on April 22, 1889.
It’s a story, Wiggin notes, that leads to yet another story – the murder of the city’s first mayor.
A forgotten story
“The Santa Fe Railroad was here before the settlers came,” Wiggin said. “People were here legally working, for the railroad at the station, but the (April 22, 1889 land opening) proclamation stated they had to be gone three days before the run. But many of them stayed.”
One of the three original townsite companies plotted the city’s grid from the station, setting out west by 90 degrees.
One of those working with the railroad was William L. Couch.
“It’s hard not to ignore the story of the Couch family,” Wiggin said. “William L. Couch was a boomer, meaning he was part of a group that came early. He was a lobbyist in Washington who tried to get the lands opened. When April 22 rolled around, he was employed by the railroad. But he didn’t bother to leave three days early, he was here and watched the surveyors go out and lay out the town.”
Couch, who already had a home at Reno and Walker Avenues, used his advantage to set himself up with a homestead, with surrounding properties staked by five brothers and their father. Couch was then elected as the city’s first mayor.
Couch, however, faced several rival homesteaders who protested his claims.
“In April 1890, a man in a dispute with him came with a rifle and shot him in the leg,” Wiggin said. “Two weeks later Mayor Couch was dead from gangrene. I don’t think most people know about this, and I think they will once we get the 89er Trail out on the ground.”