The founding of McAlester might be best attributed to two significant forces: transportation needs and coal deposits. Even before its incorporation in 1899, the region that would become McAlester contained superb connectivity from the crossroads of the Shawnee Trail and a California Trail. This made the area a natural trading hub and helped James Jackson (J.J.) McAlester, an ex-Confederate Army Captain, convince his employers to establish a trading post there in 1869. The trading post was an immediate success, and within a few years, J.J. McAlester was able to buy out his partners. That same store even served as the inspiration for the trading post found in the 1968 novel, True Grit.
By 1871, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (MK&T) was considering establishing a rail line from Kansas, through Indian Territory, into Texas. J.J. McAlester, with knowledge of the extensive coal deposits in the area, hauled a wagon load of coal to Kansas to persuade officials to extend their line through the area. They agreed and by the end of 1872, the proposed line passed directly next to the McAlester General Store and reached the border of Texas. Later, J.J. McAlester negotiated for MK&T to build a spur to his personal coal mine, which allowed for the selling of coal directly to the railroad company. Mining continued to expand east of McAlester, until its eventual decline in the 1920s.
Oklahoma entered statehood in 1907 without any working prison system. At the time, all inmates were transported to Kansas for detainment. In 1908, it was decided to bring all Oklahoma prisoners back in-state to McAlester, the future site of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The first two train loads of fifty prisoners that arrived began building the prison facilities to house the remainder of the prisoners still being held in Kansas. The prison continued to grow over the years and remains in service today. The Oklahoma State Penitentiary makes an appearance in the introduction to the novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Prior to World War II, U.S. military leaders were planning on relocating ammunition depots inland for protection. The task took on new urgency following the Pearl Harbor bombing. Representatives of McAlester traveled to Washington to promote the region for an ammunition depot. After an inspection of the area surrounding McAlester, the U.S. Navy announced its intentions on building the McAlester Navy Depot. The site was rapidly constructed and in production by 1943. The Depot operated for more than 30 years, providing munitions during major conflicts. Finally, in 1977, the Depot became the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant. Today, it still fulfills its role in national munitions production.
Throughout its history, McAlester has been the hometown of several notable organizations and figures. The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls, established in 1922 with a membership of 171, finds its roots and headquarters in McAlester. George Nigh, former Oklahoma governor and recipient of the Jim Thorpe Lifetime Achievement Aware, was born in McAlester in 1927. Carl Albert, the "Little Giant in Little Dixie," was a well known U.S. Congressman of 30 years —including 6 years as Speaker of the House— and played a pivotal role in U.S. politics. He was born in McAlester in 1971.
Shuller, Thurman. (1997) "McAlester." Extracted from Pittsburg County, Oklahoma. Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society.
Hoefling, Larry J. (2008) "Pittsburg County." Images of America. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. pp. 17-21.
A Census Guide to Oklahoma's Poor Farms, Orphanages, Sanitariums, and Institutions. December 17, 2003. (http://web.archive.org/web/20070226192624/http://members.cox.net/awise120/prisonhist.htm) Accessed: February 2, 2015.
Oklahoma Historical Society. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. "U.S. Naval Ammuition Depot."
(http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/U/US002.html) Accessed: February 2, 2015.