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Pruning the Parks: Platt National Park (1906-1976)
Thirty-four years ago today, on March 17, 1976, Congress abolished Platt National Park and folded the property into Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Let’s make it clear at the outset that Chickasaw National Recreation Area in south-central Oklahoma has much to commend it. On its 9,889-acre premises are partly forested hills and an abundance of mineral springs, pleasant streams and lakes, and associated visitor facilities (including many fine CCC-built ones) supporting such popular diversions as picnicking, swimming, boating, fishing, camping, and hiking. As a National Park System unit, Chickasaw joined the million-a-year visitation club way back in 1949 and is still going strong (1.2 million recreational visits in 2009).
Chickasaw’s basic characteristics, such as location, size, shape, geology and hydrology, ecosystems, cultural/historical sites, and recreation facilities, don’t set this NPS unit sharply apart from the rest. History is another story, for it is anything but usual in that respect. It is the only National Recreation Area in the National Park System that was once designated National Park. Therein lies an interesting (and cautionary) tale.
The dawn of the 20th century found Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians in Murray County, Oklahoma, fearing that private developers would create a spa resort like the one at Hot Springs, Arkansas, and bar their access to around 30 strong-smelling mineral springs with reputed healing powers. To prevent this from happening, they sold 640 acres of their land near the town of Sulphur to the federal government, which earmarked it for public use. On July 1, 1902, Congress designated this one square-mile tract (soon expanded to 858 acres) Sulphur Springs Reservation. Few national parks could have had more humble beginnings. None was launched for more blatantly political reasons than helping Indians retain access to healing waters.
In one of the more conspicuous examples of “park barrel politics” to emerge in the early 20th century, Congress redesignated Sulphur Springs Reservation as Platt National Park on June 29, 1906. This nondescript tract with its cluster of mineral springs was now, at least conceptually, in the same league as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake National Parks.
The new designation honored Orville Hitchcock Platt, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Though seemingly bizarre, this label made sense when viewed through the filter of national politics. Platt, who served with distinction in the U.S. Senate for just over a quarter-century (1879-1905), was not only very actively involved in Indian Affairs and the Dawes Commission, but also sponsored the legislation that established the Sulphur Springs Reservation in 1902. By the time Platt died on April 21, 1905, the idea of formally recognizing his contributions to the country, and in behalf of Indians and the new park, was well established. Congress redesignated Sulphur Springs Reservation as Platt National Park just 14 months after the Senator’s death.
The little park had some problems that no naming decision could cure. It was not only off the beaten path and very small (one of the smallest National Park-designated units ever established), but also lacking in physical and cultural attributes that could pass the national significance test. It was, in brief, a moderately scenic tract of land and water whose root appeal – the allegedly health-giving springs notwithstanding-- could be matched or eclipsed by any number of moderately scenic places in the eastern half of the United States.
During the first quarter-century of its existence, Platt National Park attracted little public notice and few visitors from outside the region. It also suffered for want of funds and physical improvements. Supplementing the park’s small staff and meager budget, concerned citizens raised money, donated manpower, and helped to add some infrastructure (bridges, fences, cisterns) and a few amenities (including some swimming pools). To entertain visitors, deer, bison, and elk were kept on the premises (some bison still remain).
Between 1933 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps invested a lot of time, labor, and capital in an effort to make Platt National Park more deserving of its lofty title. Bulldozers resculpted the landscape, leaving various flat or gently rolling surfaces engineered to a hillier condition. Several hundred CCC workers planted trees and constructed waterfalls, ponds, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, pavilions, parking lots, comfort stations, storm sewers, and dams. Projects completed by the Civil Works Administration and the Public Works Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) also substantially improved the road system. All of this made the place more parklike, though still not patently worthy of national park status.
This is not to say that Platt National Park wasn’t popular. The investment in recreational facilities was well received by the public, and as the regional population and highway network grew, more and more people discovered the park. The end of World War II in 1945 triggered a gush of visitation, and annual attendance was topping one million by 1949.
Testifying to the power of political inertia, the property remained on the rolls as a National Park-designated unit for seven decades. It wasn’t until March 17, 1976, that Congress formally abolished it, declaring that:
The Act of June 29, 1906 (34 Stat. 837), which directed that certain lands now included by this subchapter in the recreation area be designated as the Platt National Park, is hereby repealed, and such lands shall hereafter be considered and known as an integral part of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area
In creating the new Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Congress not only incorporated the former Platt National Park into its boundaries, but also added the Arbuckle Recreation Area (with the 2,350-acre Lake of the Arbuckles) and additional lands. After a small land trade with the town of Sulphur in 1983, more boundary changes were made in 1991 and 2004, bringing the Recreation Area’s total holdings to its present 9,889 acres.
Congress didn’t intend for this action to reflect badly on the park’s namesake benefactor, so the legislation abolishing Platt National Park contained a provision for erecting “…. suitable markers or plaques to honor the memory of Orville Hitchcock Platt (1827-1905) and to commemorate the original establishment of Platt National Park.”
A commemorative plaque duly installed on the premises reads:
In 1906, Platt National Park was named in honor of Orville H. Platt in recognition of his distinguished ervices to the Indians and to the country. For Twenty-six years a senator from the state of Connecticut, Platt served for many years as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs. In 1976 Platt National Park and Arbuckle Recreation Area were combined and named Chickasaw National recreation Area.
Postscript: Senator Platt’s work in behalf of Indians and Sulphur Springs Reservation wasn’t the foundation for the fine national reputation he enjoyed. By the time of his death in 1905, Platt had sponsored patent and copyright legislation, chaired a committee that recommended admission of six new western states, and played an important role in the annexation of Hawaii The senator was best known, however, for the Platt Amendment. Actually a rider attached to the Army Appropriations Bill of 1901, the Platt Amendment established terms for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Cuba following the Spanish–American War of 1898, authorized the lease of lands for a U.S. naval base in Cuba, and stipulated the conditions under which the United States could continually intervene in Cuban affairs. Since the Platt Amendment had the effect of making Cuba a U.S. protectorate, many minor interventions and four major ones ensued (in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920). In 1934, Cuba abrogated the terms of the agreement, which had been formalized in the country’s constitution and by treaty with the U.S. The United States retained its naval base lease, however, and that is why the U.S. Navy is still legally ensconced at Guantanamo Bay.