The Hills Have Eyes

by Steve Gerkin


I climbed the remnants of Standpipe Hill on a recent, windy, early morning with a Wal-Mart canvas chair and a cup of McDonald’s coffee. Atop the towering hill immediately north of downtown Tulsa, Turkey Mountain rose nobly in the west, as it did for pioneers and outlaws past. Trains rumbled by several blocks south, but their click-ety-clack was lost to me in the din of commuter highway traffic immediately below.

You can see for miles up here, and for blocks: old brick buildings tucked beneath cranes erecting brick replicas. The roof of Brady Theater looms nearby, and, further, the futuristic metal design of the BOK Center, house of country, rock, and the Tulsa Shock.

Several blocks away, unfinished construction borders the original building of Tulsa oilman and philanthropist W.K. Warren, now the Gypsy Coffee House. A new green-space at Cincinnati and Cameron jumps out. The Greenwood district resurgence beams with the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, laying out an even larger green venue with statues and benches for contemplation adjacent to the ONEOK baseball stadiums whose centerfield concession building stands on the ruins of the home of Dick Roland, the falsely accused igniter of the Race Riot.

The area teems with music venues, business startups, and drinking habitués, channeling the days when the railroads came to town a hundred years ago. The scene below Standpipe Hill shows a community familiar with transition.

Known during the pioneering decades of Tulsa as Cherokee Heights, Standpipe Hill became an embittered landmark, a vantage point popular with brigands, supremacists, and Pentecostals. The activity perpetrated on its soil gave it a sense of place, a sense of life.

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In 1904, when the city tired of toting five-gallon containers of potable water around, a columnar reservoir was constructed with private funding on a mammoth rise between Cincinnati and Main avenues, rising 100 feet above the hill top, holding over 115,000 gallons of brackish water pumped from the Arkansas River. It looked like an overgrown black stovepipe, actually called a standpipe tank, hence the name Standpipe Hill.

The railroads passed through town between downtown and Standpipe Hill, bringing thousands of new Tulsans, many of them black, to settle around Standpipe. For nearly two decades, the hill towered over a prosperous and growing community called Greenwood. Things changed as racial tensions within the city escalated, prompting the Tulsa Race Riot, when an expansive cloud of hazy smoke created by the torching of Greenwood’s “Black Wall Street” buildings on June 1, 1921 shrouded Standpipe Hill north of the battleground. Private planes dropped bombs while the ammo from Oklahoma National Guard machine guns pelleted those hiding on her southern, earthen slope.

The trees of the hill provided defensive positions for besieged, black Tulsans making a last stand. After three days, those not dead or in custody were left to sort the rubble smoldering in the shadow of Standpipe. In the late 1800s, the hill served a more peaceful function.

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Hell-bent on getting to church on time, the Dalton Gang tied up their horses. From their perch atop the promontory, they scanned the downtown roads of the Indian Territory settlement for any sign of Federal marshals and deputized posses. The boys made a deal: Bob, Grat, and Emmett Dalton promised local law officials that, within city limits and particularly when worshipping, they would leave each other alone.

With the coast clear, the bandits stashed their binoculars in a sweat-stained saddlebag and made for a little white Methodist church of preacher George Mowbray at the foot of the hill. “They all had wonderful voices,” said Hannah Mowbray. They sang in her husband’s church on Sundays and ravaged the country during the week.

Heading for the worship service, near the base of the broad hill, they passed the log cabin home of the first Indian policeman built in 1883—William Burgess, a Cherokee—who was empowered to apprehend whiskey peddlers and disarm non-citizens unauthorized to carry a sidearm. Yet the law looked the other way when the gang strode confidently into stores, cafes, and saloons. Three decades later, a popular all-white organization heavily influenced local law enforcement.

The Ku Klux Klan built and occupied a three-story, whitewashed building called Beno Hall by the locals—an abbreviation for its “Be No Niggers, Be No Jews, Be No Catholics, Be No Immigrants” doctrine. Situated at the western base of Standpipe Hill on Main Street, just north of Cain’s Ballroom, the building, built in January 1923 and known officially as the Tulsa Benevolent Association, hosted local politicians, vigilante perverts, and ice cream socials for the teen Klan Klub. Big enough to seat 3,000, it was the social club for the vilest Klavern in Oklahoma. In time, the Klan became fatalities of their own violence, diminished in numbers by scandal and disgust, ultimately selling their property to a church. After a number of businesses occupied the building, radio evangelist Steve Pringle bought the property and renamed it the Evangelistic Temple. Halleluiah washed up its slopes, as if to reclaim the stained soul of Standpipe.

Where years before the Klan terrorized the Hill, Pringle preached to his revved-up congregation, drawing the attention of a young preacher from Enid ready to burst forth. Oral Roberts, who would come to build a gold-mirrored empire on a fertile bank of the Arkansas River, preached his first tent meeting on the scorched earth adjacent to the Temple in the evening shadows of Standpipe Hill.

When the Reservoir Hill tank became operational in 1924, the old standpipe was demolished. The need to connect Tulsa’s community on the north side of the hill with downtown resulted in the bisection of Standpipe Hill, creating North Cincinnati Avenue with the Oklahoma State University–Tulsa campus just east of that thoroughfare in the area originally called Greenwood.

Overgrown with weeds, inhabited by nocturnal transients, pockmarked with broken concrete stairs to nowhere, Standpipe Hill somewhat survives. QuikTrip cups and memories, spent condoms, and shell casings lie as proof of purpose.