When we think about transportation in Oklahoma today, what comes to mind includes interstate highways, other highways and roads across the plains, electric trains, world class airports and the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
However, it was not always that way. The expanded settlement of Oklahoma in the 19th and early 20th centuries was influenced tremendously by transportation. It involved roads and eventually two-lane highways, coal-fired, locomotive-powered trains, early-day airports and riverboats.
The impact of transportation on the expansion of towns, cities and our culture is presented at the Harvey House and Santa Fe Depot in Waynoka, in the Steamboat Heroine exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City and through the dramatic 72-stop Oklahoma Route 66 Mobile Tour created by the State Historic Preservation Office.
“Route 66 played a tremendous role in the overwhelming role of cars and trucks traveling across Oklahoma and across the country,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “The Waynoka depot played a major role in the development of both train and air travel in Oklahoma, and the History Center is presenting a new exhibit on the Arkansas and Red Rivers.
“To understand Oklahoma, you have to understand the challenge of getting from here to there, whether in business, politics or the settlement of families. Transportation is central to the definition of Oklahoma and its history.”
Route 66 Mobile Tour
Route 66’s creation in 1926 connected the American Midwest by linking Chicago and the Great Lakes to Los Angeles and the West Coast, said Melvena Heisch, director of the State Historic Preservation Office.
“The road brought numerous people through Oklahoma and allowed Oklahomans to better explore their state at their leisure,” Heisch said. “The 2,400 miles of Route 66 linked rural communities to urban ones, permitting an unprecedented flow of ideas and economic growth across the country.”
The “Mother Road” gained legendary status through song, film, television, book and personal experiences, Heisch said. In 1985, Route 66 was decommissioned as a federal highway, but Oklahomans have continued to celebrate the road and its landmarks. Through State Historic Preservation Office programs, dozens of Route 66 roadbed segments, bridges, service stations, motels, cafes and related landmarks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Route 66 was labeled as the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” said Pat Smith, director of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton.
“The shift from goods and materials moving on American railways to freight traveling on American highways meant more large trucks on Route 66,” Smith said. “During World War II, hitchhiking became a popular mode of transportation. Truckers often would pick up soldiers walking along Route 66.”
To access the Route 66 Mobile Tour, visitors can call (405) 415-0626, listen to instructions and enter the stop numbers (1 through 72) using a telephone keypad, Heisch said. Visitors can then hear or read the text captions for the name, location and brief narrative for each stop.
Waynoka was hub
Waynoka had its beginnings during the 1890s, when the Santa Fe Railroad built a rail line across the Cherokee Outlet in northwest Oklahoma, said Sandie Olson, director of the Waynoka Harvey House and Santa Fe Depot. In 1910, a county-seat style depot and the Harvey House were built. Fred Harvey worked a deal to provide food service for passengers. The servers were called Harvey Girls.
Passengers could travel from Waynoka to California or to Chicago.
“In 1929, Charles Lindbergh built a transcontinental airport in Waynoka — the first in Oklahoma,” Olson said. “Lindbergh, who had made his solo trans-Atlantic flight only a year before, and other enthusiasts planned to take passengers from coast to coast in 48 hours, flying by day and riding trains at night.”
Transcontinental Air Transport’s new airport opened in July of that year, Olson said. Waynoka was selected as a transfer point because of the food service at the Harvey House and frequent passenger trains arriving from East and West.
‘From here to there’
Waterways were used for centuries by American Indians in small boats. Use of these waterways led to American Indian cultural centers, agriculture, trade and later European and American explorers, said Dan Provo of the History Center staff. Steamboats were introduced to the Arkansas and Red Rivers prior to 1820.
“Steamboats contributed to the development of large plantations along the Red River,” Provo said. “The steamboat Heroine carried Kentucky volunteers to fight in the Texas Revolution. It also carried more than 900 bales of cotton at one time and several hundred sheep at one time. OHS has played a major role in the research on the discovery and recovery of the Heroine on the Red River.”
All these historical efforts, Blackburn said, emphasize the need to preserve “getting from here to there” in Oklahoma.