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.
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