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Flashback: City Spent Years Trying to Bring Back Streetcars

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With the recent adoption of a route for a modern streetcar, questions are popping up about the streetcars that once spanned the entire city:

Streetcar system part of city history

By Steve Lackmeyer
Staff Writer

Sunday, February 9, 2003
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 5-A

Fifty-six years ago, Oklahoma City lost its elaborate system of streetcars. And for 35 years, various city leaders have launched study after study trying to bring back its modern-day equivalent: the light rail.

In its heyday, the Oklahoma City Railway covered 138 miles, with a rapid-transit Interurban connecting city residents to Norman, Edmond, Guthrie and El Reno.

The streetcar system was started by developers Anton Classen and John Shartel in 1903 when population in the young city was just 10,000. Historian Bob Blackburn said the system was one of the most elaborate in this part of the country.

“It never made economic sense on nickel fares,” Blackburn said. “But these developers were buying land at $100 an acre, and then selling the lots for $1,000 apiece by connecting them by rail. They subsidized the trolleys for the development. And as long as the railroad lines were linked to a subdivision, they made sense.”

Between 1902 and 1930, the system seemed to grow with every new neighborhood. Streetcar lines were built to NW 23, past Pennsylvania Avenue, to help establish Epworth College (now Oklahoma City University).

Streetcar lines also were built to promote Delmar Gardens, an early-day city amusement park that was along the North Canadian River (now known as the Oklahoma River), and to the Belle Isle electric plant that was at Classen Boulevard and Northwest Expressway.

The trolleys also were used to promote development of Stockyards City, Blackburn said.

Developer G.A. Nichols, who followed the pattern of building one neighborhood directly after another on the streetcar lines, was among the first to abandon the idea when he built Nichols Hills miles away from the existing system.

Cars, not streetcars, would serve the new neighborhood.

By 1929, the Oklahoma City Railway was in financial trouble as passengers began to choose cars over trains. The company declared bankruptcy, reorganized, and began to add buses to their routes.

“They should have failed by World War II,” Blackburn said. “World War II was a shot in the arm. By then, the motivation for continuing the operation wasn’t real estate, it was gas rationing. There were no new cars, no new tires.”

The end came in 1947. News accounts show some city residents applauding the removal of the “noisy” streetcars and proclaiming buses would be the transportation of the future.

Some 30 years later, the first attempt would be made to bring back the streetcars.

In the mid-1960s, Mayor George Shirk proposed building a streetcar system on old rail right of way between downtown and the Oklahoma City Zoo, Blackburn said.

The proposal called for firefighters to operate the trolley as a historic train, with federal grants paying for construction and operations.

In 1982, a study was launched by Oklahoma City to consider rail options between Will Rogers World Airport and the state Capitol. A year later, $100,000 was paid to two firms to come up with a plan. The resulting report recommended a 17.5-mile system that would connect the airport, downtown, State Fair Park, and NW 39 at an estimated cost of $154 million.

By 1987, Oklahoma City was buying up railroad right of way for a light rail using $1.7 million in federal grant money. Early plans calling for construction of a light-rail by the 1989 Land Run Centennial. The plans were discarded, however, as the state plunged into the oil bust.

The last attempt to establish light rail ended in 1996, when Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Warr Acres, blocked $13 million in federal funding for a downtown system that was proposed as part of the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects.

The proposal called for a 2.7-mile light rail circulating around downtown, with trolley stops near the convention center and ballpark.


The Oklahoma City streetcar, 1946,
The Oklahoma City streetcar, 1946,


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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›