Most first-time visitors to Turner Falls Park aren’t ready for the breathtaking centerpiece of the Arbuckle Mountains. Who expects to see a 77-foot waterfall spilling into a cool, clear pool in Oklahoma?
If such a sight is thrilling for today’s visitors, imagine what a surprise it must have been for Mazeppa Thomas Turner, who moved to Indian Territory in 1870 and is credited with discovering the waterfall—as far as history books are concerned, anyway—eight years later.
Known as Zep by his friends, Turner served in the Civil War and was wounded twice. Wanting to farm and be a cattleman, he and his wife Laura moved from Tennessee to Indian Territory to claim her tribal land allotment.
Her property was near the current cemetery at Dougherty on Washita River land in the heart of what is now the Arbuckle Mountains. Ancient Native graves were uncovered when their house was being built, so she was allowed to select another location. The Turners settled into a mountain cabin on the edge of Honey Creek, which flows into the waterfall and the natural swimming pool in what is now the park. In 1900, they moved to nearby Davis.
Visitors had begun enjoying the scenery, natural surroundings, creek and mountains for recreational use a decade before Turner’s majestic find in 1878. If the waterfall was discovered earlier, and many believe it’s a possibility, it was kept a secret.
Turner Falls Park is the oldest park in Oklahoma and the falls is considered the state’s tallest. Today, the park and the surrounding 1,500 acres offer picnic and camping areas, caves, cabins, nature trails and two natural swimming pools.
A stone castle is in ruins but continues to tempt visitors for a closer look. Ellsworth Collins, dean of OU’s education department, built the castle in 1930. It had several owners, but in 1977 was purchased by the city of Davis, which had acquired the recreational area in 1919. Davis operated the park until 1950, then leased it out until 1978, when the city resumed management. The city originally purchased 370 acres for the park from the Turner family in 1925 for a reported $17,000.
Along with the Grand Canyon and the Black Hills in South Dakota, the park has been described as one of the three geological windows into earth’s past. Turner Falls Park is nestled at the base of the Arbuckle Mountains, the oldest known formations in the United States between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. The range dates back 1.3 billion years. The park also serves as a classroom for naturalists with its caves and formations of conglomerates, limestone, granite, shale and sandstone.
With all the park has to offer, it’s the breathtaking waterfall, the showpiece of this natural playground, which captures most visitors’ attention, just as it may have done for Turner.
But to those who knew him, he was more than the man who discovered the falls. Turner was active in his community and the Masonic fraternal organization in both Dougherty and Davis. He represented Murray County in the Oklahoma Legislature from 1907 until 1911. He died Aug. 29, 1920, and is buried in the Dougherty cemetery.
His obituary in the Davis newspaper included just one line about the naming of Turner Falls, but much about the man and his character:
“Turner was one of those noble men, the kind that love mankind and honor God. He believed in righteousness, fidelity and in doing your duty and meeting every responsibility which nature and citizenship places upon you.”