Fort Reno, El Reno, Oklahoma, USA
The U.S. Government commissioned Fort Reno in 1874, the same year that George Custer’s expedition confirmed reports of gold in the Black Hills, and used the fort as a military post until just after World War II. Fort Reno policed and enforced the government’s aims for the surrounding area. The fort provided support for its transition from Indian Territory to the State of Oklahoma before its location along Route 66 helped make it a military prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.
Many American Indians, including most of the Cheyenne, fought against the government’s plan to confine them to small reservations. The U.S. Army issued an ultimatum to the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne bands to relocate onto reservations by January 31, 1876 and began attacking those who resisted. As part of that campaign, the army forcibly resettled many Cheyenne people near Fort Reno. Late in 1878, 300 American Indians escaped and fled for home, eventually making it to their ancestral land in southern Montana. Ably lead by Dull Knife and Little Wolf, they managed to evade the army.
Soldiers at Fort Reno also supervised the conversion of Oklahoma territory to farms and ranches. Eastern opportunists began trying to claim and settle the area surrounding Fort Reno immediately following the 1876 ultimatum, and troops at Fort Reno worked to expel them. Fort Reno troops also supervised the race to stake claims in the 1889, 1892, and 1894 land rushes after the opening of the territory to legal settlement.
Fort Reno served various purposes during the 20th century. In 1908, the fort shifted from a station for troops to a remount station raising horses and mules for army use, a function it served for nearly four decades. During World War II, Fort Reno continued to foster large-scale movements of people in support of the United States war effort. As defense-related traffic hummed along on adjacent Route 66, stimulating economies adjacent to military bases, nearly 100 acres of Fort Reno’s eastern portion became an internment camp for German prisoners of war. United States forces shipped more than 1,300 German soldiers, mostly captured in North Africa, to Fort Reno, where they became laborers for local farmers and construction crews for the chapel north of the parade ground. The bodies of 70 German and Italian soldiers who died while imprisoned throughout Oklahoma and Texas are interred in plots adjoining the western portion of the cemetery.
After the station’s closure in 1947, Fort Reno hosted the Department of Agriculture’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory. The laboratory continues to operate Fort Reno, which still suggests a frontier fort. Buildings cluster around a parade ground, and a walk around the site reveals mellow brick buildings from the 1880s, old sheds, living quarters, and a rock-walled military cemetery.
The National Park Service recognized the fort’s historic significance in 1970, by listing it in the National Register of Historic Places. Historic Fort Reno, Inc. eventually formed to promote and care for the site. The Fort Reno Visitor Center opened in the summer of 1997 and has since greeted over 80,000 individuals. The National Park Service awarded the site a $598,000 Save American’s Treasures grant, and the Oklahoma Centennial Commission is another major supporter. Historic Fort Reno, Inc. uses the funding to stabilize and restore the fort’s buildings, which presently support education, special events, and the USDA operations. Future plans call for office space, public space, bed and breakfasts, a restaurant, a USDA information center, and a luncheonette.
Fort Reno is located on Old Route 66/Business 40 four miles west of downtown El Reno, OK. The fort’s visitor center at 7107 West Cheyenne St. Fort Reno is open Monday-Friday 10:00am to 5:00pm and Saturday and Sunday 10:00am to 4:00pm and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The grounds and some buildings are wheelchair accessible. Call 405-262-3987