Holden, Tom: Grand Uncle Jim – a Turn of the Century Railroader in Indian Territory

Dad was full of admiration for his Uncle Jim who died the year I was born so I know of him only through family lore and records research. The lasting impression on my father was, as a child, boarding his uncle’s private rail car when it arrived from Missouri in the Holden family’s home town of Whitby, Ontario. By this time, Jim had carved out a career in railroading in the American MidWest and was Vice-President in charge of Traffic for the Kansas City Southern Railway. In retirement in 1933, he authored an article for the Oklahoma History Society which tells much about his railroading adventures in Indian Territory and something about his values. We’ll come to that later, but first, how did a young man from Whitby come to succeed with the iron horse in the States?

James Franklin Holden was born in the tiny community of Prince Albert, Ontario near Lake Scugog in 1861 to an enterprising and visionary father who was publishing a weekly broadsheet after a retail venture failed. He grew up in exciting times as his father moved the family to Whitby after being appointed Official Assignee for Ontario County, started an insurance and loans business, was Reeve and Mayor, campaigned and lost being elected to the House of Commons, led the fundraising for and laid the cornerstone of the Methodist Tabernacle, founded and managed a railway from Whitby to Port Perry and Lindsay, founded and was President of the Ontario Ladies College, founded and was Director of what became one of Canada’s leading banks. This busy man died when young Jim was barely 20 and in the employ of his father’s railroad.

This railroad was never much of a commercial success and foundered in the recessionary period after the death of my great-grandfather. However, that work experience and the halcyon years with his father launched Jim on his own colourful career through the WPP&L merger with the Midland Railway of Canada, the newly established CPR and thence to various lines in the American Midwest. Here, westward settlement through the late 19th century and discoveries of natural resources fronted up with Indian nations who, themselves, had been earlier transplants from the Southern States displaced by earlier white settlements and displacing other tribes from the lands reserved for them by the great white fathers.

That is the story granduncle Jim relates in his 1933 article, THE B.I.T., The story of an Adventure in Railroad Building (1) . “B.I.T.” stands for the “Beautiful Indian Territory” as advertised for its scenic beauty along the route of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway. The Indian Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase, had been traded by the US government to the “Five Civilized Tribes” (and some smaller ones) for their lands in the south for them to continue as self-governing nations to live in peace in perpetuity. These were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Indians. By 1838, practically all had been removed (some forcibly) to these lands which were to be theirs forever—"as long as grass grows or water runs".

However, European immigration to the United States and the steam revolution along with the racial attitudes of the day brought renewed pressure on these tribes. Jim was undoubtedly an expansionist, a man of his era, yet his story reveals sympathy for the plight of the Indians and the treatment hey received. Initially granted 46,000,000 acres, by 1891 the Five Tribes had been reduced to 20,000,000 acres through sales of lands to the government for the use of other displaced Indians. The Tribes had been devastated by the Civil War, having largely sided with the South and their lands criss-crossed by both armies. In 1866, treaties allowed for the construction of railways across their reserves. “The coming of the railroads into the Indian country was the beginning of the disintegration of the Indian nations, and fore-shadowed the ending of the isolation of the Indian Territory. As the long lines of rail pushed their way farther and farther into the country white people followed them.”

It was the discovery of coal by a turkey-hunting party in Indian Territory that led to the construction of the Choctaw Coal & Railway Co., motivated by a white businessman with an Indian wife which gave him status on the reserve. By 1891, it was in receivership and reorganized to become the Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf Railway which Jim joined during a period when another thousand miles of line were built. During this time a post office named “Holdenville” was established at a siding in Oklahoma around which a community grew to 6,000 today.

The tribal lands had become surrounded by whites and Congress and many Indians thought it was time to abolish the self-governments and divide the remaining lands among the tribal members. Coal, asphalt and timber lands were segregated from allotment, some 1,850,000 acres plus the operating railways. Luckily, oil had not yet been discovered in the Territory or more would have been lost to them. For homesteading, each Choctaw received 160 acres while 40 were allotted to the poorer Seminoles.

Jim relates some of his personal experiences in the higher culture of the little town of South McAlester that was built as the railway headquarters, his encounters with Indians and settlers while exploring routes on buckboard and horseback, and the pushing of tracks through Oklahoma and Arkansas. His article is an interesting reading of the development of the MidWest through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tom Holden

February 20, 2016


1. J.F. Holden: THE B.I.T., The Story of an Adventure in Railroad Building, Oklahoma City, OK, Oklahoma Historical Society: Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No.1, March 1933, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v011/v011p0637.html downloaded 8 Feb 2016 (link broken but again found 5 Jun 2021 at https://cdm17279.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p17279coll4/id/31447/rec/52)

1901 Poor's Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad map
Kansas City Southern Railroad - picKCSmap1951