Dr. George Cross, president of the University of Oklahoma, began writing a heartfelt letter to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission at his desk. It was the summer of 1946 and the new owners of the Oklahoma Railway Company had just petitioned the commission seeking to discontinue commuter rail service from Oklahoma City to Norman.
Dr. Cross’ concern, as well as that of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, was that ending commuter rail service would greatly affect people needing to get to Norman.
Many have forgotten that Oklahoma City had a commuter rail service from 1903 to 1946. At its height, Oklahoma City passengers could ride the electric rails from downtown OKC to Guthrie, El Reno or Norman for a fare ranging anywhere from a nickel to a quarter. Oklahoma City’s Belle Isle Power Plant, owned by the Oklahoma Railway Company until 1928, was not constructed to provide electricity to the city, but in order to power the “interurbans,” as electric trains were called.
Oklahoma City was not alone in the state with interurban rail service.
McAlester started up a service the same year Oklahoma City did while Guthrie and Muskogee followed up with theirs the following year. A total of 17 electric interurbans eventually operated in the state by 1915, including such seemingly rural settings as Nowata, Clinton, Ardmore, Bartlesville and Miami, and continued to operate until the end of World War II.
“Originally, they were used by workers getting from point A to point B,” said Michael Dean, public relations director with the Oklahoma Historical Society. “If you were incredibly rich, you had a carriage and a driver to get you to work. For Oklahoma City, the interurbans were used to get people from their homes to downtown or to the meat packing plants by the stockyards.”
EXPANDING THE LINE
Before statehood, and even before Oklahoma City became the capital of Oklahoma, WW Storm began the Metropolitan Railway Company in 1902. It was a very modest affair, consisting of four miles of track centered in downtown Oklahoma City. In January 1904, Anton Classen and John Shartel took over the interurban, renaming it the Oklahoma Railway Company. The two were very ambitious, running track up what would become Classen Boulevard from downtown.
In 1908, they finished construction of the Belle Isle Power Plant to provide electricity for their trains. They also developed Belle Isle Park as a destination ” conveniently at the end of one of their interurban lines ” for Oklahoma City residents to escape the city. By the next year, they had bought 29 new trains, built two on their own and had laid 32 miles of track.
“It was a marketing tool to sell houses,” Dean said. “They were building housing additions and were laying rail from them to where people worked.”
In 1910, they took over another Oklahoma City interurban company. By now, Classen and Shartel had 46 passenger cars, had connected Britton with Oklahoma City and were beginning to lay track to Guthrie.
In 1911, they absorbed a similar El Reno firm and linked up with Norman to the south and Edmond to the north. The Guthrie connection was completed in 1916.
With a passenger and freight terminal at Grand Avenue and Hudson, the interurban line was now taking people not only to work, but the state fairgrounds, the University of Oklahoma, the teachers’ college in Edmond (now the University of Central Oklahoma), and to amusement parks at Belle Isle and Wheeler Park.
“There was enormous pressure on them from the city and officials to expand their line,” said Dean, noting the Oklahoma Railway had gone far beyond the housing districts Classen and Shartel had built.
A workers strike in 1911 demonstrated how important the interurbans had become to a city of 65,000.
By the early 1920s, both Classen and Shartel were out of the interurban rail business.
“In the 1920s, they were in constant receivership,” Dean pointed out. “The interurbans never paid a dividend to their investors.”
A large part of the reason for this was due to continually expanding the system.
BORROWING TO PAY
To do so, the Oklahoma Railway was constantly borrowing to pay for the expansion. The firm found itself it a catch-22 situation. The public and local government demanded their expansion and in so doing the lines’ profits were eaten away from paying off loans.
This was demonstrated after Hubert Hudson took over the company in 1927, spending more than $2 million for expansion. To offset costs, Hudson sold Belle Isle to Oklahoma City.
Then Oklahoma City saw its interurban commuter train system hit by both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Revenues plunged and the company was handed over to the federal government to be administered from 1939 to 1945.
“During the ’30s, you can see they were doing everything they could to keep going,” said Dean. “They were adjusting rates and they were adjusting routes.”
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the green and cream electric trolleys were running just five routes: along Classen, Belle Isle to the state Capitol, to the fairgrounds, to the stockyards, and a loop around downtown.
World War II, however, created a boom in interurban usage. In 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor, 39 train runs were conducted daily; by 1944, that number was up to 192.
All that traffic was overwhelming the 11 interurbans and 40 streetcars the firm operated. The U.S. Navy helped some: Since the line served the two naval bases on Norman’s north side, the Navy bought 10 and converted two that were being used as roadside diners.
By 1944, there had been over two million commuter rides on the interurban trains and 52 million on the streetcars.
END OF THE LINE
But the end of the war brought an end to the boom in business. The two naval bases were closed. Revenue plummeted.
Postwar prosperity, with its cheap fuel and emphasis on cars, was ending the need for the interurbans.
“Oklahoma City was already starting to spread out by then,” Dean said. “The first shopping center had already gone up.”
But, Eugene Jordan of Jordan Petroleum and his partner Robert Bowers still saw the interurbans as a threat. They had earlier bought the Oklahoma Transportation Corporation, an instate version of Greyhound, for $1.6 million. Now they petitioned the court to buy the Oklahoma Railway Company with its interurbans and city buses for $2.5 million. The court agreed, transferring ownership to the Oklahoma Transportation Corporation in the fall of 1945.
Jordan and Bowers quickly sold off the firm’s assets. The trains were sold to a firm in Mexico City.
By 1947, only old rail tracks embedded into city streets were left of commuter rail in Oklahoma City.
The next year, in 1948, the last of the commuter rails, the Nowata-Union Electric Railway shut down, ending commuter rail within the state. “Mike Coppock