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Oklahoma Memories

First Streetcar in Oklahoma, February 1, 1903


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Music and the clanging of a trolley car...singers singing "The Trolley Song."

That sound, though not the song, was heard on Sunday afternoon February 1, 1903, in downtown Oklahoma City. From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Among the 89-ers who made the land run into what became central Oklahoma were Anton Classen and John Shartel. Classen first settled in Edmond where he was the first postmaster, edited the Edmond Sun newspaper, and donated the land where the Central State Normal School was eventually built. Shartel settled in Guthrie and almost immediately became involved in a land claim dispute. By the mid-1890s both men moved to Oklahoma City. Both were lawyers. Classen became the receiver at the federal land office, and Shartel founded a law firm employing three other attorneys. Classen left the federal land office and opened his own company, the Classen Company. That company purchased land and built housing additions, mostly for middle class working families.

The period from 1900 to 1920 saw Oklahoma City grow by leaps and bounds. The population of Oklahoma City was just over 11,700 in 1890 and by 1910 it was officially over 85,200. Prior to that time transportation in the state was limited to either horsepower or walking. Those modes were fine in most situations but as cities expanded other options were needed. Congestion and impracticality prevented many urban dwellers from owning horses, and the large number of horses required for transporting goods around cities created a substantial amount of waste material, but the need for transportation still existed. The answer came in the form of electric streetcars.

As early as the mid-1890s Shartel asked the city council to consider some form of street cars. The requests were turned down. But as the city continued to grow, by 1901, the council changed its mind. In 1902, the Metropolitan Railway Company was granted a franchise to build a trolley system in Oklahoma City, and Classen and Shartel were now in business. After months of careful preparation it was on Sunday February 1, 1903, that the first electric streetcar in Oklahoma, described as a "giant" by the local press, slowly and silently rolled out of the Metropolitan Railway Company's car shed on 13th Street in downtown Oklahoma City. Getting electricity from an old outdated city power plant, the new electric giant made its maiden voyage down 13th to Broadway and into the heart of downtown. The crowd that witnessed the event numbered into the thousands with one report estimating that more than ten thousand onlookers mobbing the downtown tracks.

On the corner of Broadway and Grand, a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman stood next to one of the original boomers who had served with David Payne. The reporter observed the old man's reaction when he spotted his first electric flyer. The reporter wrote the man threw his hands in the air in amazement, then leaned forward with his eyes fixed on the object until it disappeared over the next hill, then he shouted (and now read by Jason Harris), "Well by thunder, they've sure got them cars totted by lightnin'." Visibly shaken, the boomer made his way to the nearest saloon, the reporter wrote, and ordered a four-finger quantum of fire water to calm his nerves.

The leading real estate developers stimulated and controlled the expansion of Oklahoma City with their promotion of the electric street and inner urban rail system. Thus the advent of affordable mass transportation made it possible for Oklahoma City to grow as it did. Classen and Shartel were both dead by the mid 1920s, but the company continued on. It never made much money, and most of its life it was in receivership. Rationing during World War II gave the company a brief reprieve, but as the war ended, on October 25, 1945, the announcement of the sale of the company was made. Oklahoma Transportation Company, the statewide bus company, paid two and half million dollars for the Oklahoma Railway Company and announced the street cars and tracks would be dismantled as soon as possible.

You can learn more about Oklahoma's urban history by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.