Electric to Eco Trolley: Champions of Tulsa Transportation

by Steve Gerkin


Sitting at the bar in Doe’s Eat Place, I gazed up Quincy Street daydreaming a nostalgic movie reel of an era gone by. The opening scene showed a daybreak shot along a dusty Tulsa street. The year, 1906. I order a Rombauer Zinfandel and a plate of six tamales and let the traffic go through its usual paces. Under the pavement of 15th Street run the tracks of my musings.

Cherry Street, then: in the early morning, three men wearing coveralls and smoking cigarettes stood on this corner of the dirt-packed streets before punching their time cards. Their clean-faced kids made their way to Longfellow Elementary school at Sixth and Peoria while their wives travelled to a muddy downtown Main Street for a few groceries and maybe some headache powders from the druggist. Families reunited in the late afternoon, reversing their morning routes to the Brady Heights neighborhood miles away. The options of horse or foot travel were not practical. And the trolleys ran on time.

Mass transit at the turn of the century linked early-day Tulsans to work, school, stores, parks, theatre, recreation and neighboring towns. There were no cars, skateboards or Harley Davidsons.

The trolley rails that ended at 15th and Quincy—where Doe’s now grills steaks and shakes cocktails—have been covered with asphalt for decades. Their colorful story involved wild promises, vital connectivity and typical politics.

A growing Tulsey Town demanded suitable infrastructure to support the thousands who were converging on the settlement to work the oil industry. They needed homes, stores, schools and bars. They needed reliable utilities, and they needed more than horses and wagons. Many knew that Tulsa needed a mass transit system. The solution began as an enticement to an educational institution.

The electric trolley system was a bargaining chip used by land developer Grant C. Stebbins, a founding father of the Tulsa Commercial Club. He used it to persuade Kendall College of Muscogee—a Presbyterian, all-girls school—to relocate its campus to Tulsa. He promised the college’s board that if they moved to Tulsa, their institution would enjoy water, utilities and a streetcar depot. Although there was no such transportation option at that time, Stebbins vowed he would make it happen.

The college made the move, setting up classrooms for the future Tulsa University in a local Presbyterian church while awaiting construction of some buildings and the required utilities on Stebbins’ land at Sixth and Delaware. The promised rail system was nowhere in sight.

At first the Tulsa City Council strongly opposed Stebbins’ plan, suspecting it as just another utility company conundrum for them to monitor and regulate. Though they had no construction materials on hand, Stebbins and his cohorts promised the trolley line would lay track “right down the middle of Main Street” from 10th to Cameron and agreed to a firm date—13 city blocks in a scant 60 days. With difficulty, Stebbins and his executive crew wrangled the financing for the first arm of their proposed route. Fully expecting the rash promises and aggressive deadlines to fail, the council reluctantly agreed to the 1905 ordinance creating the Tulsa Street Railway (TSR).

Delivery of rails, “rolling stock” (cars) and electric motors was delayed, and it appeared that Stebbins would never meet the two-month goal for setting the first section of track. When the fateful make-or-break day arrived, there were no tracks extending up Main. Undaunted, Stebbins and a few hands laid down several ties at Third and Main. They nailed two borrowed rails to the ties and, having delivered their token of progress, smugly walked away.

The installation of the two rails temporarily placated the Council but the steel tracks were nothing more than Tulsa’s first speed bumps endangering the middle of the most traveled intersection in downtown. So that horses, buggies and wagons could again proceed without danger, the tracks were completely covered with dirt.

By 1909 there were TSR electric trolleys traversing up Main Street from 10th to Cameron and down Frisco to 15th, the site of the residential Sophian Plaza. Other routes traveled along North Cheyenne to the Fairgrounds, The University of Tulsa and several points between. All along the former TSR system are physical reminders of trolley rails buried in shallow graves beneath aging asphalt. Like corpses pushing up to expose their existence, the submerged rails created superficial stress fractures caused by traffic compacting the soft road surface above the unyielding steel rails. Efforts to fill in the crevices with new asphalt created permanent traces of the submerged urban landmarks. The fissures have become memorials to a long, lost time of trolley traffic.

Track scars of one TSR route stop just short of 15th Street on Quincy Avenue, visible from Doe’s Eat Place. Several blocks earlier, between Eighth and 10th streets, obvious rail lines provide evidence of two, side-by-side sets of tracks—passing lanes, if you will—that converged to form a single north and south set of tracks.

TSR was not the only intra-city trolley company transporting Tulsans. A second trolley company, the Oklahoma Union Traction Co. (OUT), connected Tulsans to popular Orcutt Park in Swan Lake. As passenger-only lines, the two carriers struggled to develop and fund new routes of service. TSR, with its extensive route system, carried significantly larger numbers of people.

The gently swaying trolleys connected businesses, schools and citizens. Roaring 20s Tulsans could make the short trek to an entertainment mecca near the Red Fork community on the west side of the Arkansas River. Opened as Electric Park, it later became Crystal City Park. Pleasure seekers from outlying areas rolled past Southwest Boulevard’s Howard Park before reaching Crystal City where they could ride the giant roller coaster Zingo that operated at that location until 1937. Yet, the real attraction was a legendary dance and drink emporium, the Casa Loma and its legendary terrace. Nestled at the base of Red Fork’s Turkey Mountain near the current location of Billy Ray’s Barbeque, the Casa Loma supplied the best big bands of the era and attracted people from around the region to dance and misbehave.

For a little spare change, families traveled in comfort to the carnival setting and Ferris wheel at Orcutt Park on Swan Lake or headed north of downtown to Tulsa’s first park, Owen Park, named after Tulsa’s Founding Father Chauncey Owen. The park site was originally a dowry awarded to Owen for marrying a local Creek woman.

The trolley routes were so integral to living patterns that new housing developments were often built within close proximity of existing routes. With rumors that an arm of the route close to their home might be discontinued, families made decisions to move closer to a more reliable extension. The development of more trolley systems near Tulsa created a network of active railways with adjacent cities. Yet, troubling events were on the horizon.

For twenty years, TSR linked citizens to neighborhoods, parks, entertainment and commerce. By 1923, it had 21 miles of track and 52 cars. The banner year of 1916 showed a profit of over $1.2 million by 2010 standards but the advent of World War I, and its resulting inflation, were a blow to the intra-city trolley lines.

For six of those twenty, people got around on “jitneys,” used Fords with running boards, “jit,” meaning nickel, the price of a ride. A jitney could carry up to 11 passengers along established trolley routes challenging and nearly financially crippling TSR.

The advent of Henry Ford’s affordable Model T and small, comfortable buses sealed the fate of Tulsa street cars. Trolley pioneer Tulsa Street Railway made its last run in 1926 while the romantic adventure of electric trolley passenger travel on the OUT came to a halt in 1935.

Cherry Street, now: the dream ends, the reel spins with the rapid, flapping sound of celluloid jarring me out of a past made pleasant by my own pondering. I step back into the evening, the light of Doe’s bar yellowing the sidewalk. So many lights, and the nights will never be as dark as they once were.

A bus rumbles down 15th, fueled by natural gas. A ride is a buck-fifty, half that for those with disabilities or on Medicare. But I have a car, and I get into it and drive the several blocks home, alone.