Tulsa History

Transportation (1850-1945)

Travelers to early day Tulsa probably used some of Oklahoma’s earliest transportation networks, the waterways and the trails. Keelboats and steamboats were also commonly employed during the trapping era of the mid-nineteenth century. The first steamboat on the Arkansas River went as far as Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1822, and, by 1828, steamboats were plying their way as far as Fort Gibson in Indian Territory.

The Santa Fe Trail and the Texas Road were some of the earliest trails through Indian Territory. The Texas Road was a north-south route from Missouri to Texas that was first used by settlers migrating to Texas. It later became a major cattle trail. Another important cattle trail was the East Shawnee Trail. It had a sizable impact on the range cattle industry of northeastern Oklahoma and brought wealth to the Creeks and Cherokees. Originating in Fort Smith, the California Trail also passed through Indian Territory and carried gold seekers to the West Coast. The Osage Trail, used by Indians in the territory, followed the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers. A sixty-five-mile long military road between Fort Smith and Fort Gibson developed later. The first commercial road was the Butterfield Overland Route which brought mail into and through the territory.

The Post-Civil War Reconstruction Treaty of 1866, which introduced railroads and white settlement into Indian Territory, had a profound impact on the future development of urban areas. Focal points were created by rail service, and cities grew along the routes. In 1870, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway was the first railroad to enter Indian Territory. Its route approximated the Texas Road. The Santa Fe and the Atlantic and Pacific railroads soon followed suit by laying tracks into Indian Territory from Kansas. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad reached Tulsa in August of 1882, and marked the beginning of the city’s rail service.

Numerous rail lines eventually converged on the central district of Tulsa. In 1902, the city convinced the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas railway line to go through Tulsa rather than follow a route seven miles to the east. The following year, a strike on the Red Fork line prompted Tulsa’s leaders to seek the service of a third railroad as a form of security against the negative impacts that strikes cause. The Midland Valley Railroad was persuaded to bypass Sapulpa in favor of Tulsa and became Tulsa’s third railroad in 1903. By September of 1905, the highly prestigious Santa Fe Railway had also established service in Tulsa because of the area’s favorable economic outlook. The construction of the Santa Fe line in Tulsa coincided with the boom in the Oklahoma petroleum industry that saw Tulsa rise to global prominence in the energy field.

An outgrowth of rail development was traction and trolley service. In July of 1906, with only a few paved roads within the city limits, trolley service began in Tulsa. By the end of that year, service was offered along Main, Third, and Fifth Streets. The service concentrated primarily on downtown and the area south of downtown. The first company to institute trolley services was the Tulsa Street Railway (TSR).

Two years later, in 1909, a charter was granted to the Oklahoma Union Traction Company (OUT), and the trolley reached Owen Park on the west side of the city. The company linked the trolley line south to Orcutt Lake (now Swan Lake) at 18th Street and St. Louis Avenue. The route went through downtown Tulsa via Fourth Street, south along Elgin Avenue to Eleventh Street, and then on to St. Louis Avenue. Although this area was already well developed, no service from TSR had been located there.

TSR then developed a trolley line to Tulsa University on the east side of town. This line traveled east along First Street from Peoria Avenue to Lewis Avenue. It then ran south on Lewis Avenue until it reached Seventh Street. At Seventh Street it ran east until it terminated at the university. Another line was developed on South Main from 13th to 17th Streets and a line to Owen Park was constructed along West Third Street. Ultimately, OUT built a sixteen-mile long line to Sapulpa which was completed in 1911. By 1915, several more routes in Tulsa were opened. Lines went north along Denver Avenue to Pine Street and southeast to Louisville Avenue and 21st Street. The trolley system continued to thrive through the early 1920s, but competition from jitney cars, taxis, and the private automobile led to its decline. TSR was sold in 1929. OUT went bankrupt in 1935, and was sold to a Minnesota group the following year and converted to a fleet of privately-operated busses.

In 1908, oilman Charles Page purchased a 160-acre site along the Arkansas River west of Tulsa. There he built his Sand Springs Home for orphans and penniless widows. Although this area was served by the Katy Railroad, Page felt its steam-powered passenger trains would not provide adequate service for his Home and the townsite he planned to develop at Sand Springs. To meet his needs, he built his own railroad. Page’s Sand Springs Railway, which operated between Tulsa and Sand Springs, created one of Tulsa’s major transportation corridors.

In 1917, the first official airfield was opened by Tulsa oilman Harold Breene near what is now Admiral Place and Hudson Avenue. By 1919, the Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company, the nation’s first commercial interstate air freight shipping business, was formed. The Company opened an air field near what is now Apache Street and Memorial Drive in 1921. A second airport was built near Federal Drive and Sheridan Road. Tulsans began promoting their city as a national air center. Tulsa Municipal Airport was purchased and underwritten in 1928 by a group of Tulsa businessmen. It was dedicated on July 3, 1928, with the arrival of the Ford Reliability Tour, a coast to coast commercial aviation event that attracted wide attention. In 1929, a bond issue was approved in the amount of $650,000 by the citizens of Tulsa to purchase the airport. Only $530,000 of the money was used and the remainder of the funds was returned to the city. On December 5, 1930, the airport was turned over to the city to be operated under the supervision of the Park Board.

During the early years, the Tulsa Municipal Airport relied primarily on air mail contracts. With the advent of World War II, Tulsans were given the opportunity to have a $15 million plant operated by Douglas Aircraft Company, if Tulsa would furnish the land and the runways. A $750,000 bond issue passed and the city purchased approximately 1,000 acres of land east of the existing airport. In 1947, Tulsa was twelfth in the nation in number of airplanes per capita.

The developing automobile industry had a very important impact on Tulsa in the early twentieth century. The use of the automobile not only affected the physical form of the city, the use of the petroleum products it required fueled the growth of the city.

The development of highway agencies in the 1910s foreshadowed the massive development of the new road systems of the mid-twentieth century. By 1925, more roads were paved in northeastern Oklahoma than in any other part of the state. By the 1970s, freeways were again changing the physical form of Tulsa. In several cases, new freeways, such as US 75, followed old railroad alignments. However, many freeways, such as the Osage Expressway, did not. Some freeways carved significant areas out of established neighborhoods to accommodate their rights-of-way. Even freeways that do follow railroad alignments often have rights-of-way much wider than those of the preexisting railroads and, therefore, are more intrusive than their railroad predecessors. Among the freeways that opened in the early 1970s were I-244 and the Keystone Expressway (US 64). The Cherokee Expressway (US 75) opened circa 1980 and the Osage Expressway opened in 1989.