Located in northeastern Le Flore County, Rock Island is near the Arkansas state line about thirteen miles from Poteau, which is southwest via State Highway 112. State Highways 112 and 120 intersect within the town boundaries. The community was first called Maney Junction. In 1886 the Fort Smith and Southern Railway built tracks through the region and the next year sold the line to the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad. In 1903-04 the Midland Valley Railroad laid an east-west line. Maney Junction stood at the crossing of these major arteries through the Choctaw Nation.
In 1905 the Post Office Department established a post office named Rock Island, which historian George Shirk contends was named for Rock Island, Illinois. The post office continued until 1961. In 1911 the estimated population stood at thirty, with R. Lessel owning a grocery store. The surrounding land consisted of sandy loam soil suited to raising field crops and livestock. In early years many locals engaged in subsistence farming. In 1918 Rock Island's estimated population of twenty-five patronized one grocer, and a sorghum mill operated there. Residents organized the first school in 1918 and in 1924 added a two-year high school. Coal reserves served as another important area resource. In 1938 a coal slope mine opened, employing thirty to forty men until it ceased production in the 1950s. In the 1940s two stores continued to operate, but in the 1950s the railroads suspended passenger service, and the Midland Valley Railroad ended operations, removing its tracks. Also in that decade the town lost its school system.
In 1989 Rock Island reorganized when residents voted to incorporate an area of approximately sixteen square miles. The duly elected board of trustees included Harvey Bolinger, George Bustin, Charley Dunn, Katy Emerson, and Belinda Morris. The county commissioners did not officially approve the incorporation until 2004. Rock Island's 1990 population was 478. Farming and ranching continued, and new businesses included rock yards, greenhouses, a restaurant, and a corner market. By the end of the twentieth century many residents commuted to jobs in larger towns, including Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Poteau. Northeast of Rock Island the Fort Smith and Southern built the Jensen Tunnel through Backbone Mountain. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 76001567), it is the only railroad tunnel ever built in the state of Oklahoma. On State Highway 112, in Rock Island's northern city limits, a marker commemorates the Civil War Battle of Backbone Mountain. In 2000 the population stood at 709.
SEE ALSO: SETTLEMENT PATTERNS.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 30 December 1973 and 3 March 2004. Henry L. Peck, The Proud Heritage of LeFlore County: A History of an Oklahoma County (Van Buren, Ark.: Press Argus, 1963).
Charlene Williams Dunn
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