Cimarron River (Arkansas River)

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Cimarron River
Cimarron river near forgan ok.jpg
The Cimarron River, near Forgan, Oklahoma
Country United States
States Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma
Cities Cushing, Oklahoma, Mannford, Oklahoma
Source Confluence of Dry Cimarron River and Carrizozo Creek
 - location Kenton, Cimarron County, Oklahoma
 - elevation 4,318 ft (1,316 m)
 - coordinates 36°54′24″N 102°59′12″W / 36.90667°N 102.98667°W / 36.90667; -102.98667  [1]
Mouth Arkansas River
 - location Keystone Lake, at Westport, Pawnee County, Oklahoma
 - elevation 722 ft (220 m)
 - coordinates 36°10′14″N 96°16′19″W / 36.17056°N 96.27194°W / 36.17056; -96.27194

36°10′14″N 96°16′19″W / 36.17056°N 96.27194°W / 36.17056; -96.27194
Length 698 mi (1,123 km)
Basin 18,950 sq mi (49,080 km2)
Discharge for Guthrie, Oklahoma, 65 miles (105 km) from the mouth
 - average 1,163 cu ft/s (33 m3/s) [2]
 - max 158,000 cu ft/s (4,474 m3/s)
 - min 0.3 cu ft/s (0 m3/s)
Map of the Arkansas River basin with the Cimarron River highlighted.
The Cimarron River (highlighted in red) flows through four states in the American West.

The Cimarron River extends 698 miles (1,123 km) across New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas. The headwaters flow from Johnson Mesa west of Folsom in northeastern New Mexico. Much of the river's length lies in Oklahoma, where it either borders or passes through eleven counties. There are no major cities along its route.The river enters the Oklahoma Panhandle near Kenton, crosses the southeastern corner of Colorado into Kansas, re-enters the Oklahoma Panhandle, re-enters Kansas, and finally returns to Oklahoma where it joins the Arkansas River at Keystone Reservoir west of Tulsa, Oklahoma, its only impoundment. The Cimarron drains a basin that encompasses about 18,927 square miles (49,020 km2). [3]


The river's present name comes from the early Spanish name, Río de los Carneros Cimarrón, which is usually translated as River of the Wild Sheep (literally, 'River of the Feral Rams'). Early American explorers also called it the Red Fork of the Arkansas because of water's red color. Early explorers and map-makers called it by several other names, including Grand Saline, Jefferson (in John Melish's 1820 U.S. map), Red Fork, Salt Fork, and Salt River. [3]


In New Mexico and extreme western Oklahoma the river is known as the Dry Cimarron River. This is by contrast to a wetter Cimarron River located further west and flows only through New Mexico. The Dry Cimarron River is not completely dry but sometimes its water disappears entirely under the sand in the river bed. The Dry Cimarron Scenic Byway follows the river from Folsom to the Oklahoma border. In Oklahoma the river flows along the southern edges of Black Mesa, the highest point in that state. As it first crosses the Kansas border, the river flows through the Cimarron National Grassland.

The quality of Cimarron water is rated as poor because the river flows through natural mineral deposits, salt plains, and saline springs, where it dissolves large amounts of minerals. [3] It also collects quantities of red soil, which it carries to its terminus. Before the Keystone Dam was built, this silt was sufficient to discolor the Arkansas River downstream.

Early explorers

The first Europeans to see the Cimarron River were apparently Spanish conquistadores led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541. The Spanish seemed to do little to exploit the area. The Osage tribe claimed most of the territory west of the confluence of the Cimarron and the Arkansas as theirs. In 1819, Thomas Nuttall explored the lower Cimarron and wrote a report describing the flora and fauna that he found there. In 1821, Mexico threw off Spanish rule and William Becknell opened the Santa Fe Trail. [3]

Historical notes of interest

  • One branch of the Santa Fe Trail, known variously as the Cimarron Route, the Cimarron Cutoff, and the Middle Crossing (of the Arkansas River), ran through the Cimarron Desert and then along the Cimarron River. [4]:144,148 Lower Cimarron Spring on the bank of the river was an important watering and camping spot. [5]
  • In 1831 Comanche Indians killed Jedediah Smith (a famous hunter, trapper, and explorer) on the Santa Fe Trail near the Cimarron River. His body was never recovered. [6]
  • In 1834 General Henry Leavenworth established Camp Arbuckle (Fort Arbuckle) at the mouth of the Cimarron River. [3] This fort, later known as Old Fort Arbuckle, was only active for about a year, and its former site is now submerged beneath the Arkansas River. It should not be confused with the later Fort Arbuckle in Garvin County, Oklahoma.
  • Historic sites along the river include the ruins of Camp Nichols, a stone fort built by Kit Carson in 1865 to protect travelers from raids by Plains Indians on the Cimarron Cutoff. It was located near present-day Wheeless, Oklahoma.
  • The old Chisholm Trail crossed the river at Red Fork Station near present-day Dover, Oklahoma.
  • In the 1890s, the Creek Nation Cave along the Cimarron River near Ingalls in the Oklahoma Territory, was a hideout for the Doolin gang, which included the teenaged bandits, Cattle Annie and Little Britches. [7]
  • On September 18, 1906, a bridge across the Cimarron near Dover, Oklahoma Territory, collapsed beneath a Rock Island train bound for Fort Worth, Texas from Chicago. The bridge was a temporary structure unable to withstand the pressure of debris and high water. Replacement with a permanent structure had been delayed by the railroad for financial reasons. Several sources report that over 100 persons were killed, [8] [9] [10] although this figure is disputed. The true number may be as low as four. [11]


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