Our History

“Harrah. Formerly Sweeney. In eastern Oklahoma County. Post office name changed to Harrah, December 22, 1898. Named for Frank Harrah, merchant and business leader.” These words, found in the book Oklahoma Place Names, state the facts. But what were the underlying factors which led to the establishment of this town and which enabled it to remain viable while many others have ceased to exist. The location and the circumstances provided many things to many seekers. As we look at some of the people and events that were involved, we begin to see how Harrah came about and survived.

In the early 1870s, when Louis Navarre came to the area on a hunting expedition, he found the river full of fish, the grass belly-deep on the horses, and the countryside full of deer, wild turkey, and wild hogs. Said his grandson, Robert J. Navarre, Jr., “I’m sure they thought they had found the most wonderful place in the world.” Louis definitely saw something of value, for he later returned to the area and, in 1889, established a residence. It is on a portion of Louis Navarre’s property, which he later sold to Frank Harrah, that the initial townsite of Harrah was platted.

Pressure for the opening of “unoccupied” Indian land had grown steadily from the end of the Civil War. With the opening of the Unassigned Lands in 1889, the demand increased. Potential settlers saw a “new” territory, with an abundance of resources beckoning to the homesteader, the businessman, and the adventurer.

The lands of the Sac and Fox, Iowa, Potawatomi and Absentee Shawnee nations were opened on September 22, 1891. The newspapers touted the country as splendid farming land, with good crops of corn, wheat and cotton being grown; well watered and well timbered, white oak predominating on the uplands, and cottonwood and walnut along the creeks; having coal and oil reserves; and having plenty of turkey, quail, prairie chickens and other game. People crowded in, many agreeing with Louis Navarre, that this was “the most wonderful place in the world,” and they spread the word.

In 1891, E. W. Sweeney purchased the northwest quarter of Section 25, Township 12N, Range 1E (NW¼ S25-T12N-R1E), property which adjoins the current site of Harrah on the east. He started a business operating a ferry across the North Canadian River, and later built a wooden pontoon toll bridge. A 1930 map shows Sweeney Bridge as being located about ¼ mile east of Harrah’s current bridge crossing on Highway 62. Mr. Sweeney helped to improve communication and commerce by providing a means, other than by horseback, for crossing the North Canadian. He brought those on the two sides of the river together.

In 1892, a group of ten Polish families arrived from Marche, Arkansas. Discouraged by poor crop yields, they were looking for something better, and they found it in the fertile farmland of the North Canadian bottom. With hard work and determination, these families survived to form the nucleus of Harrah’s Polish community, and they told others.

Small settlements, perhaps clustered around relay stations or post offices, began to appear in the area. “Cavett. In Oklahoma County, 2 miles southwest of Harrah. A post office from May 24, 1892, to October 27, 1898. It was named for James S. Cavett, early-day resident”. On February 4, 1895, James F. Cavett was granted the patent to the NW¼ of S34-T12N-R1E, which is the SE corner of the intersection of Luther Road and NE 10th Street. Local tales indicate that Cavett lay on the line of a stage coach route, and documentation of the time provides additional information. Oklahoma City’s Daily Oklahoman, in 1894, contains advertisements for the Oklahoma & Tecumseh Stage Line: “The only mail route that runs through the Kickapoo Reservation. Good meal at relay stand. Runs daily except Sunday. Leaves Oklahoma City at 7:30 a. m., arrives at Tecumseh at 6 p. m.; leaves Tecumseh at 7 a. m., reaches Oklahoma City at 6 p. m. J. F. Cavett.” Charles Mooney’s book on the history of Pottawatomie County tells the story of Sarah Kennedy, of Dale, who, in 1895, defended her property against the encroachment of the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad. The story relates, “During the ‘stand-off’, the Cabbot Bros. Stagecoach came rumbling along the nearby trail en route from Choctaw City to Tecumseh.”

“Pennington. Present Harrah, in Oklahoma County. Post office established March 13, 1894, and name changed to Sweeney, June 22, 1896.” According to postal records dated March 30, 1896, the Pennington post office was located in the NW¼ S25-T12N-R1E, 1/3 mile south of the North Canadian River, and 102 feet north of the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad track. The postmaster was listed as J. A. Huskey, a businessman who later moved into Harrah and established a hotel and general mercantile store.

On May 23, 1895, the Kickapoo lands were opened. This land was referred to, in the talk at the time of the land opening, as the “tenderloin of the Oklahoma territory.” The place which was to be called Harrah was located on the south side of the North Canadian River, with the Kickapoo land north of the river, and the Potawatomi land south of the river. It was right in the middle of a land rush.

In April 1889, the Choctaw Coal and Railway Company had announced a plan for a railroad line to stretch from McAlester to the existing Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line in Oklahoma City. In September 1894, The Choctaw Coal and Railway Company was sold and was reorganized under the name Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad company. Later that year, work was continuing to expand the line east from Oklahoma City and west from McAlester. On October 11, 1895, The Edmond Sun-Democrat announced that the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad was open for business from Wister to Fort Reno. This railroad passed through the community soon to be called Harrah, and that community now had people, excellent farm lands, a river crossing, established mail routes, enterprising business men, and the most up-to-date transportation. It had everything going for it, and was waiting for someone to recognize that fact and run with it.

“Sweeney. Present Harrah, in eastern Oklahoma County. Formerly Pennington. Name changed to Sweeney June 22, 1896, and post office name changed to Harrah December 22, 1898. Named for E W. Sweeney, early-day settler.” According to postal records dated February 13, 1899, the Sweeney post office was located in the NE¼ S26-T12N-R1E. It was ½ mile south of the North Canadian River, and 380 feet south of the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad. The postmaster was listed as J. A. Huskey. It was almost time for something big to happen.

In April 1898, Louis and Julia Navarre sold to Frank Harrah the east half of the northeast quarter of Section 26, Township 12N, Range 1E and, on February 18, 1899, approximately 32 acres of this property was platted by Frank Harrah as the original townsite of Harrah. Harrah had been born.

HARRAH: Backward and Forward, published 1999, Harrah Historical Society