Located in the southeastern quadrant of Haskell County at the intersection of State Highways 26 and 31, McCurtain is fifty-seven miles east of McAlester and twenty-eight miles south-southwest of Sallisaw. In 1889 European miners and a few enterprising American entrepreneurs, who were drawn to the newly opened coal deposits in southern Haskell County, established the town in the Choctaw Nation. Originally called Panther, in 1902 the name was changed to McCurtain, honoring Greenwood McCurtain, the last principal chief of the Choctaw. McCurtain grew from a tent city to a town of brick and mortar. Very close to McCurtain and intertwined in its history existed another mining community, Chant.
In 1901 the two towns thrived as the Fort Smith and Western Railroad built to McCurtain, connecting it with Ft. Smith, Arkansas. In 1902 the railroad continued building westward, reaching the South (main) Canadian River. The San Bois Coal Company built four hundred company houses, and McCurtain, as well as Chant, saw the addition of banks, stores, schools, newspapers, and even a bottling company. By 1907 statehood the combined population of the communities stood at 1,760, although in 1908 business directories suggested a combined population of 3,800, which would have been the largest to be seen in Haskell County. Newspapers that have served the two communities included the Haskell County Chant News, the Hustler, McCurtain American, McCurtain Leader, and San Bois News.
The towns and all of their successes, however, could not withstand the events of March 20, 1912, when a terrific underground explosion in Mine Number Two took the lives of seventy-three miners and sent the San Bois Coal Company into bankruptcy. With mining all but played out, the town's combined population dropped to 1,341 in 1920. The communities officially consolidated in 1922, but the Chant post office had closed in 1910. In 1940 the population rested at 870, declining to 528 by 1960. By 2000 the last of the mines had all closed, and the town's population had dwindled to 466. The only reminder McCurtain had to show of its once prosperous past was a memorial standing silently at the site of old Mine Number Two and seventy-three graves in the nearby Miners Cemetery.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: John P. Gilday and Mark H. Salt, eds., Oklahoma History, South of the Canadian: Historical and Biographical (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1925). Steve Sewell, "Amongst the Damp: The Dangerous Profession of Coal Mining in Oklahoma, 1870-1935," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Spring 1992). George H. Shirk, Oklahoma Place Names (2d ed.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974).
Glenn O. Hyder
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