Arkansas City, Kansas, 1889. Orrin Ulysses Burright walks into the Derry Brothers photography studio to get his picture taken. One of the thousands of settlers who amassed in camps around this small city prior to the Oklahoma land runs of 1889 and 1891.
Orrin Burright at Derry Brothers Studio
The photograph is faded but Orrin Burright stands tall, his face familiar from other photos taken after he arrived in Oklahoma. There’s little evidence of the Derry Bros online, although there seem to be some references in indexes of Girard, Kansas some miles from Arkansas City. Orrin Burright had traveled to Arkansas City with his family in a wagon train from Cuyahoga County, New York State. The family had paused in Ogle County, Illinois, where other Burright relatives settled. Orrin headed south to take his chances in the newly minted state of Oklahoma.
Arkansas City, Kansas
Orrin Burright arrived in Arkansas City about 30 years after the first white settlers began to lay claim to the area. Arkansas City lies in the county of Cowley, Kansas at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers. Indeed, the original native American settlers who were displaced by the newcomers had previously given the area the name “Nichonka” which roughly translates as “place between the waters”.
It was in 1601 that Juan de Onate, the then New Mexico Governor led an expedition across the Great Plains and discovered large numbers of native Americans in the area along the Arkansas River, that was to become Arkansas City. It wasn’t until around 1860 that white settlers began to lay down roots in the area. By 1870 formal creation of Arkansas City had begun.
Naming the city was contentious. First, townsfolk wanted to name the city after Crewell the then-current postmaster general. It was thought that honoring Crewell in this way would encourage the postal service to give the town a much sought after post office. This proved unnecessary. Having settled on the name Arkansas City the settlement was awarded a post office as soon as May 16th, 1870.
The Railroad Arrives in Arkansas City
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad line arrived in Arkansas City in 1881, furthering the city’s growth. Orrin Ulysses Burright and his family arrived in Arkansas City several years later by wagon train. They were part of the first group of people gathering on the Kansas-Oklahoma border in preparation for the Oklahoma land runs. The Burright’s made the early run in 1889, making their way to Logan County Oklahoma before staking their claim.
Soon after this, in 1891, the Arkansas City population swelled from around 5,000 to an estimated 150,000 prior to the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1891. The sudden growth in population was not to last long though with the population returning to around 5,000 after the run.
The city grew through the 20th century, rivaling Wichita in terms of growth and opportunity. Along with the farming industry, the town developed a health spa at nearby Geurda springs. By the mid-1980s, however, the closure of several large industrial plants, including the Binney & Smith Crayola plant, the Total Petroleum refinery and Winfield State Hospital saw the fortunes of the city fall. Reduction of rail services further limited the city’s growth.
Arkansas City is a transitive settlement. A town on the way to somewhere else. Long gone is the short-lived boom period before the land runs, when Orrin Burright had his photo taken and then made his way to Logan County, Oklahoma.