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Following the tracks of time PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jack Money   
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 05:05


   Closing down Oklahoma City's rail-based commuter system had been hinted at for years. But this week in 1946, area residents learned it finally would happen.

   The Oklahoma Railway Co., operator of both street trolleys and central Oklahoma's Interurban, announced it would do away with both commuter systems in favor of rubber-tired buses. These buses, company officials said, would operate on crosstown routes designed to eliminate the need for passenger transfers.
trolleys at downtown station in OKC   Another advantage to the plan would be a reduction in the numbers of turns mass-transit vehicles made in downtown Oklahoma City.

   The modernization plan would mean better service for at least 30,000 people, said Marmion D. Mills, vice president and general manager of the company. (1)

Is the future our past?

   Talk of recreating Oklahoma City's rail-based commuter service, both locally and regionally, has surfaced routinely in the decades since the Oklahoma Railway Co. killed the city's existing system.

   It's on the lips of city residents again, thanks to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett's discussions of the need for bringing such a system back, perhaps as part of MAPS 3.

   Once upon a time, the system of street cars, and then an Interurban system running from Oklahoma City north to Guthrie, west to El Reno and south to Norman, was as much a part of Oklahoma City as its wind and wild temperature swings.

   After all, these systems both were being planned and built before Oklahoma ever became a state.

  A station manager sits by his phone in this 1939 picture. Courtesy, U.S. Library of Congress

The company was started by civic leaders who wanted a way to get people who were working downtown to new homes being built essentially in what then were rural areas, particularly north of the central business district.

   An initial trip for an Interurban car from the downtown station to Belle Ise happened in January 1907. (2)

   By late 1939, rail-based cars on the two operations were traveling more than7,000 miles every day. But by then, buses also were part of the mix, covering another 6,000 miles each day as it carried commuters to and from existing rail lines. (3)

Unexpected Problems

   Just more than a month after that glowing feature about the systems was written, the company went into bankruptcy  - with nary a mention of potential problems in the local newspaper.

   In January 1940, the case started making its way through the federal courts, with company leaders blaming a large increase in the numbers of privately-owned automobiles as one reason for its problems. Low-priced taxi cabs and the depression also were sited.

    Federal Judge Edgar S. Vaught presided over the company's reorganization, and named city businessman Robert K. Johnston as its trustee.

   Books like this one have been written by Oklahoma City's trolley and Interurban systems.

Johnston was clear about the direction he would take the company, saying tearing out the tracks and switching the commuter system to streamlined buses were "all in the future" for the company. (4)

   In July 1940, the company asked the court for permission to scrap five trolley car lines, to abandon its downtown terminal and to get more buses on the street. "We want to make the changes to modernize our transportation system so we may better serve the public," said A.C. DeBolt, the company's president. (5)

   The judge approved most of the plan later the same month, but kept a street car operating on the system's Lincoln Park line - the owner of the Springlake amusement park convinced the judge to keep that line operating, at least temporarily.

   Additional buses were added to the system in December, 1940, with city leaders and Oklahoma Railway Co. officials enjoying "the upholstered, jerkless luxury" provided by the ride.(6) 

   Company officials even held a mock-funeral for street cars, sending the last one to the car barn draped in black, while a new bus, gaily decorated, followed behind. (7)

   By then, World War II started, and the company had to start dealing with the realities of fuel, rubber and parts  shortages. In 1942, it started skipping stops in residential areas to save on bus wear and tear.

   Then, in 1944, it flirted with the idea of getting away from using fuel entirely, floating a plan to replace its conventional powered buses with electric-powered vehicles. It also continued to seek the elimination of its remaining street cars, but a war-time order barring the abandonment of in-use rail lines.

   "Our whole purpose is to modernize our system just as rapidly as we can," said A.C. DeBolt, now the operating trustee of the transportation system.  (8)

Changing Times

   The end of World War II meant new ownership for the system, however. New owners Eugene Jordan, president of Jordan Petroleum Co., and Robert S. Bowers, president of the Oklahoma Transportation Co. - a competing bus company - pledged new and modern lines for the system. To do that, the remaining street cars would have to go, and the owners said the steel rails would be removed from Oklahoma City streets as soon as possible.(9)

   A "modern, dependable, safe and economical public transportation system is essential to the growth of any city," the new owners said in a statement.

   Next, the owners filed a petition with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to close down the Interurban in a move termed by a company spokesman as "part of the nationwide modernization trend to on-rubber transportation." (10) 

   As the company prepared to wind down its Interurban Service, Bowers' Oklahoma Transportation Co. put fleets of buses on the road offering cheaper fares, cutting into the older system's already declining ridership numbers.

Carving the Remains

   Meanwhile, local and state officials circled the Interurban routes between Oklahoma City and Guthrie and between Oklahoma City and Norman like buzzards. Norman's Chamber of Commerce kicked off the process even before the Interurban quit running by initiating a meeting with Moore, Capitol Hill and Oklahoma City officials to propose an idea to make the Oklahoma Railway Co.'s Interurban right-of-way between its community and Oklahoma City a four-lane highway.

   Using that route as a path for the new road would considerably lower its land acquisition expenses, Norman officials explained. (11)

   Meanwhile, street cars that used to run Oklahoma City streets had many more miles of rail travel still to make. They started their new journeys on flatbed cars that would take them to Mexico City, where they would be returned to service. (12)

   At the end of September in 1947, the Interurbans made their last runs between Oklahoma City and Norman.

   By 1951, a new four-lane highway between Oklahoma City and Norman - U.S. 77 - was under construction along the old Interurban right-of-way. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, asked its voters to approve a bond issue to acquire the old Interurban right of way between Oklahoma City and Edmond so that a new highway could be built there.

   In 1954, a local group of businessmen headed by John Singletary, president of the Globe Life & Accident Insurance Co.,  announced they had obtained a lease on ground under the old Interurban terminal downtown at 300 West Grand, and said they would tear the old terminal down to build a four-deck parking garage that could hold 675 cars.

   By the mid-1950s, engineering and building plans for these roads - U.S. 77, south to Norman (today known as Interstate 35) and north to Edmond (today known as the Broadway Extension) and west from Bethany to Yukon were speeded ahead at the request of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and state highway officials. "We can't predict what congress will do, but we want to have these projects ready to go as soon as federal funds are made available," said C.A. Stoldt, Oklahoma's director of state highways. (13)

   Eventually, all of these roads were operational, and memories faded about the city's trolleys, and the Interurbans.


   Mary Jo Nelson, longtime reporter for The Oklahoman, had fun remembering the systems for Orbit Magazine in 1975. Nelson noted that Oklahoma City once had three separate street car lines, each with one or more subsidiaries, all engaged in fierce competition for new routes. Eventually, they merged into the Oklahoma Railway.

Classen Boulevard is one of Oklahoma City's former trolley routes. That's why it has a median!   Nelson remembered that early streetcars were heated with coal stoves, and that the first cars had leaded-glass windows. And they were unique in other ways.

   Cars used on the fairgrounds line, for example, were basically open trailer-type cars with no windows and long benches for seats. While they had roofs to protect their passengers from rain, they were only used during good weather.

   On the El Reno interurban, their cars had arched windows.

   Nelson remembered that even though Oklahoma Railway couldn't survive as a trolley operator, it also failed as a bus operator, with its routes being taken over by City Bus Co. in 1949. City Bus Co. only could last until 1965 before folding itself, leaving it to public governments to take over the responsibility of providing transportation to their citizens. Bus companies, she noted, were "plagued with the same problems that had dogged the electric trains - urban sprawl, the spreading highway system, the private automobile, and every-accelerating costs of labor, employee benefits, equipment and maintenance." (14)

Not a new idea

   Mayor Cornett's proposal to consider bringing back some rail-based transportation is nothing new, really.

   In 1982, MetroTransit officials said they hoped to see commuter rail service back in business in Oklahoma City by 2000.

   "It would be a lot faster than buses," said John T. "Terry" Patillo, executive director of the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority. "Wouldn't you rather speed to work on rails far above the freeway, rather than be stuck in traffic?"

   Oklahoma City hired a consulting firm to evaluate whether such a system could be built. (15)

   In 1985, Mayor Andy Coats came out in support of plans to build a rail line from downtown Oklahoma City to the proposed Remington Park horse racing facility near the Oklahoma City Zoo.

   "It sure would be fun to be able to ride from downtown to the racetrack on a train," Coats said. (16)
   The Association of Central Oklahoma Governments announced it was looking at the possibility of bringing back commuter rail lines in 1988, and in the 1993 election for the penny Metropolitan Area Projects sales tax, a rail-based trolley system downtown was proposed as one of the improvements the tax would pay for.

   Congress derailed federal dollars that could have helped pay for that new system, however, thanks to opposition from former Congressman Ernest Istook.
   Mayor Cornett has discussed the possibility of building a commuter-based rail system, based on the wants of city residents who filled out surveys about how they would like to see future tax money spent.

   Recently, however, he tempered expectations that such a project may be built.


1.)    "Council to Get New City Bus Setup Today," The Oklahoman, April 9, 1946
2.)    "Good Morning," The Oklahoman, January 01, 1957
3.)     "Tram Lines Grow With City," The Oklahoman, September 24, 1939
4.)    "Reorganization: Hearings Set on Retaining Two Trustees," The Oklahoman, January 07, 1940
5.)     "Company Asks Permit to Scrap Five Car Lines," The Oklahoman, July 12, 1940
6.)    "Buses OK - New Service is Dedicated," The Oklahoman, December 5, 1940
7.)    "Rickety Trolleys Rattle Out Today," The Oklahoman, December 7, 1940
8.)    "Trolley Buses Will Replace Street Cars," The Oklahoman, September 15, 1944
9.)    "Oklahoma Railway Sold to City Oil Man State Bus Operator," The Oklahoman, October 25, 1945
10.)  "Petition to End All Interurban Service Filed," The Oklahoman, July 19, 1946
11.)  "Road on Trolley Route Studied," The Oklahoman, September 15, 1947
12.)  "Trolleys Going To Mexico City," The Oklahoman, September 19, 1947
13.) "New City Bypass Survey Rushed," The Oklahoman, November 06, 1954
14.) "Clang! Clang! Clang! Went the Trolleys," The Oklahoman, April 20, 1975
15.)  "Public Transit to Travel New Tracks By the Year 2000," The Oklahoman, November 14, 1982
16.)  "Rail Traffic, Horse Racing Merge Urged," The Oklahoman, November 11, 1985