City of Streetcars - 405 Magazine

City of Streetcars

OKC’s early public transportation system connected the whole metro.

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

OKC’s early public transportation system connected the whole metro.

In 1903, horses and carriages far outnumbered the few, if any, automobiles in Oklahoma City. Roads typically were dirt or gravel, sometimes muddy and often bumpy from wagon wheel ruts and heavy traffic.

The fast-growing city already had a population of about 14,000 living in a 4-square-mile area. A better mode of transportation was needed, and it arrived on Feb. 1 that year when the Metropolitan Railway Co. streetcar began operations. For a month, residents enjoyed free rides up and down Broadway while operators confirmed the electrified car was safe and secure.

The company, reorganized as Oklahoma Railway Co. in 1907, became a reality when local real estate tycoon Anton Classen, who owned property just outside the city and envisioned growth there, and businessman John Shartel worked together to benefit both them and the city.

At the request of a ladies’ church group, Classen wrote a letter detailing his early work on the new streetcar system for Oklahoma City’s Century Chest. The letter, dated April 22, 1913, was revealed in 2013. Classen wrote that on that date, the Oklahoma Railway Co. was operating 103 miles of streetcar and interurban railway with 100 passenger cars.

Growth was immediate due in part to the agreement that the railway company would expand to Classen’s undeveloped subdivisions and his construction company would build the tracks. Landowners and streetcar routes influenced the way Oklahoma City would grow with residential and commercial development popping up along railway corridors.

Initially, the streetcar line followed Broadway north from Main Street to 13th Street and stopped in front of Charles Colcord’s mansion. Riders soon could travel to Stockyards City, Delmar Gardens, Wheeler Park and the city’s first zoo, as well as Classen’s University Addition (now part of the Gatewood neighborhood), Highland Park and other historical neighborhoods.

During 1911 to 1916, interurban lines were extended to El Reno, Norman and Guthrie. In the late ’20s, the state capitol line also went northeast to Springlake Amusement Park.

Early on, Classen and Shartel recognized the need for recreation in the growing city and an easy way to get to it. In 1908, the company built a power plant in Classen’s Belle Isle addition to power the streetcars. It was located where Walmart Supercenter is today, just east of Penn Square Mall.

The power plant operated 24 hours a day, and that meant excess electricity. The Oklahoma Railway Co.’s solution was to develop Belle Isle Lake and Park with fishing, canoes and swimming. It was at the end of the interurban line, allowing cars to run late into the evening. An amusement park also opened there in 1922 but closed in 1928 when Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. bought the property.

For decades, residents relied on streetcars and interurbans to get around the city and to other nearby towns, but ridership decreased as automobiles became more prevalent and public bus service was introduced. Oklahoma City’s original streetcar service ended in 1947.

It had a good run. So good, one might say, that Oklahoma City reintroduced modern streetcar service downtown on Dec. 14, 2018.