THE STORY OF JOSEPH SWORDS
In the history of Platt National Park and the City of Sulphur, there is probably no other single person who had more to do with the creation of the Sulphur Springs federal reservation than Joseph Swords.
Swords had an influential uncle in Washington D. C. His name was Senator Orville Hitchcock Platt. Senator Platt was a member of several Senate committees, one being the Chairman of the Committee on Territories.
When the Dawes Commission was formed by Congress to prepare the various tribes for the allotment of land in Indian Territory, Senator Platt used his influence to secure a position for his nephew in the rather obscure federal agency for Indian Affairs.
George Wright was the Chief Indian Inspector located in Muskogee, I. T. The purpose of the Indian Inspector was to assure that the various tribes were getting a fair deal during the allotments among other tasks.
The Curtis Act of 1898, and certain subsequent legislation, required that every town with a population of 200 or more be surveyed and platted. The people living in these towns who had made improvements were allowed to buy the lots at a greatly discounted price below appraised values.
One must remember that this was still the Chickasaw Nation and the tribe owned the land. Non-Chickasaws could make improvements on the land such as houses, barns, stores, crops, etc., but the land still belonged to the tribe. This would be their chance to buy the land where they had built their homes and businesses.
The purpose of the Indian Inspectors was to make sure that the surveys were legitimate and the appraisals were honest. As there were many towns in the Indian Territory, George Wright had to appoint many assistants to go to the far reaches of the territory and personally supervise this work. Joseph Swords was such a man and was designated as "Special Inspector for the Indian Service".
Sulphur Springs did not just happen the day the Park was created in 1902. It had been a tourist Mecca for several years prior and received its post office in 1895. People came from all around the country to drink of the variety of mineral waters. There was a town here with a population of nearly 1,200 souls and more than 700 structures.
Swords was a long way from just stepping out into the wilderness. Instead he was stepping into the middle of a thriving community with banks, stores, and hotels and was a growing health resort.
As he looked around the hills and valleys of the area he discovered many beautiful springs and the creeks of the area. He was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place. He began discussing with many of the local leaders the possibility of making a preserve of the area around the springs and creeks.
This, if it was going to be done, had to be done immediately. When the town site was platted it was discovered that there were over 700 lots in the town. If the owners were allowed to buy their lots then the land would be divided with 700 different owners and the probability of ever getting it back together would be nil.
The problem is readily apparent. If a reservation is to be had, immediate action was necessary. Leaders of the community and Swords began a campaign to get the area segregated for the protection of the springs and creeks. Petitions and letters were written to every person and organization that had the least bit to do with the formation of the reserve.
Swords and civic leaders went to Tishomingo to speak to the Chickasaw Governor and the Legislature on several occasions. The Chickasaws were agreeable to the concept because their people had enjoyed the springs for generations but was wary of the government's intentions and sat back waiting for the government to make the first move.
The Secretary of Interior was receptive to the idea and suggested that six square miles be segregated but referred it back to Inspector Wright in Muskogee. Wright suggested that the Chickasaws owned the land they should have the final say.
When the proposal was submitted to the Chickasaw Council they were appalled at the amount of land the government wanted for the reservation. There was no way they were going to allow six square miles of prime real estate be removed from their allotments. The Chickasaws were always the savviest businessmen. The government had made the first move and they countered with the offer of one square mile or 640 acres. The deal was struck between the tribe and the Dawes Commission.
But things were not all sunlight and roses. Most in Congress remembered quiet well the debacle that occurred at Hot Springs National Park. The members were mostly dead set against the government getting back into the bathhouse keeping business again. Few wanted to repeat the mistake.
Swords inundated his uncle with petitions and personal appeals and letters begging that the area be saved. Finally the sheer political power of Senator Platt got the bill pushed through the Senate. Most who finally voted for the bill did so with the understanding that the situation with the reserve was a makeshift solution. The government was acting as a temporary caretaker of the land and the reserve would be handed off soon to some state or other agency. It was not to be made a national park like Hot Springs and no federal money was to be spent developing its resources.
Now all Swords had to do was to move the town. It was going to be difficult when dealing with people's lives and livelihoods. Swords now knew the people of the town. He was more than just another government man doing the government's work. These people were now his neighbors and they had struggled together in a common effort to accomplish an almost insurmountable task.
The moving of the town was a series of difficult efforts to auction off the structures. Swords and the appraisal commission tried to be fair with the owners who now had to move their buildings or sell them to the government.
No doubt there were many nasty confrontations between this government man and the citizens who were forced to move. Swords became the focal point of the many frustrations felt by the disenfranchised populace.
Bob Lewis of Sulphur relates the story told by his mother who visited the residence of Superintendent Swords on several occasions. She told that Swords had a gun in every corner of every room, under the mattress and the place looked like Ft. Apache. Most likely Swords had more than just one threat on his life from disgruntled refugees.
When the town moved south, west and north they had no water. There were over 30 springs in the old town and more than 50 dug wells. The area where the town moved was solid rock and any well had to be drilled through solid rock. The average cost of this procedure was about $1,500. The average working man at that time earned about $400 a year. Swords allowed the people of the relocated town to freely carry water from the springs as they wished although it was against the rules.
He also hired the displaced workers from the new town to work in the park. Money was tight and Congress refused to allocate little more than the bare minimum to run the reserve. Swords would trade labor from the men for surplus materials from the old town so the homeless could build some type shelter to protect them from the weather.
Few in Washington knew or cared about the problems of housing in the new town. The new railroad brought a trickle of building supplies to Sulphur and the local lumber yards raised the prices to three or four hundred percent their normal prices.
This made it impossible for the ordinary workingman to put a roof over his family's head. Swords allowed these families to live in the reservation in the houses the government had bought and rented them to the families for as little as $1 a month.
When many of the houses were auctioned off and housing became scarce, Swords had the park staff use surplus lumber to subdivide stores so more than one family could live in a building.
When the Sulphur Electric Light Company drilled a well and it went dry Swords allowed them to use water from Rock Creek for their steam-powered generators even though the Secretary of Interior had denied this request. If he had not done so, the lights in Sulphur would have gone out.
Swords asked the Secretary's permission to expend $150 per year to put electric lights in Flower Park because the visitors often stayed late in summer and it was very dark between the Vendome and the Pavilion Springs. Permission was denied to expend the money. Swords allowed the City to put the lights up at no expense to the government.
When Colonel Greene takes over as Superintendent he orders the lights removed as Swords did not have permission to install them. Yet, within a year Greene sends the Secretary a letter imploring the Secretary to allow the expenditure of money for lights as the area is becoming rife with crime as the area has "intense darkness".
When Sulphur needed water for domestic use and fire protection Swords allowed them to tap the supply on Sulphur Creek. Although there was a rule that water could not be carried out of the park, Swords allowed the citizens to carry it out in barrels because there were no wells on the West Side. A whole new town was being built over night.
Yes, Colonel Swords was the first superintendent of Platt National Park. He was also the first superintendent fired at Platt National Park. Swords spent the first five formative years supervising the moving of an entire town from the middle of a national park. He had no guidelines. It had never been done before. There were no instructions from the Department of Interior on exactly how this feat was to be accomplished. He had to play every move by ear. After all, the National Park Service did not come into existence until 1916.
His biggest mistake was getting involved in the petty jealousies of the East Side and the West Side politicians. He made every effort to treat every one equally. The problem was that the civic leaders of each faction did not want to be treated equally. They wanted to be treated more special than the other faction. This often prompted angry and misinformed letters from citizens to the Secretary of Interior regarding Swords decisions and actions.
Swords got into serious trouble with the Secretary because when Professor Gould estimated the cost of repairing the springs in the Park, his numbers were badly mis-figured.
When Colonel Greene took over, he wrote the Secretary a letter chiding Swords for squandering the entire budget for 31 springs by repairing only 5 springs. Within a month Greene writes the Secretary saying that Gould's cost cannot possibly be adhered to as some springs will cost hundreds of dollars more than Gould's estimate.
Swords got into disputes with local unions over the exorbitant wages demanded for laborers such as masons and plumbers in the park. When union wages were twice or three time the going rate, Swords hired non-union workers but still paid them above the prevailing wage. On days when workers had to work in the creeks or waist deep water he always paid them thirty percent higher wages. On the Fourth of July he would buy fireworks and freely pass them out to the kids in town.
Swords was accused of speculating in land in Sulphur and maybe he did. This may have been seen as a conflict of interest by some and maybe it was.
Swords had to deal with crooked politicians and self serving civic leaders.
Swords made a lot of mistakes without a doubt working in a near impossible situation. When he came, he had about 700 structures to move. By the time he was relieved in 1907, with the exception of original towns buildings that were now in use by the park, every structure was gone except for the Bland Hotel. New pavilions had been built at the Seven Springs and the Bromide Springs. Other springs had been repaired to a usable condition. Footbridges were built as well as the Coney Island Ford.
This writer has read more than 2,500 pages of official reports on this man and the years he tried to forge a new park. From private letters and public documents there seems to be no more honest and hard working man than Swords. He was on the job for more than six years. At one point he worked for three years without a day off. His time off was when he came down with malaria and was laid up in bed for a month.
But Swords had a unique problem that no other superintendent of Platt National Park ever had. Every superintendent who succeeded Swords only had a park to build and maintain.
When Swords came here, he had a park with a town in the middle of it. When he left, he had a town with a park in the middle of it. Quite an accomplishment for a guy who was "winging it" all the way!
© 2006 Dennis Muncrief