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Oklahoma Journeys

Turner Turnpike Officially Opens as Toll Road, May 17, 1953

2010-05-08

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This week on Oklahoma Journeys, a change in transportation takes a toll from the state. Today most of us, it seems, take our roads and highways for granted, but Oklahoma didn’t always have the large network of roads we have today. This week marks the anniversary of a big change in Oklahoma’s highway system, and that’s the topic of this week’s Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I’m Michael Dean.

Many of us don’t think much about how we get to where we’re going to where we want to go; we just hop in the car and take the quickest route to our destination. But such convenience wasn’t always available to most Oklahomans. Roads in the early days of statehood, especially in the western half of the state, were poor if they existed at all.

After World War II, Oklahomans began buying automobiles and traveling in record numbers. Unfortunately, even by 1955, only 20 percent of the state's highways were paved. Economic expansion was fueled by a boom in the petroleum industry and an increased federal defense presence. Oklahoma City and Tulsa businessmen encouraged state officials to think in terms of expanding the highway system, this time using the concept of toll roads as a means to overcome the need to spend state-appropriated money for construction and maintenance.

Tolls have been part of Oklahoma transportation history since the early nineteenth century. The Indian nations empowered their citizens to build turnpikes and toll bridges, and the tradition continued into the statehood era. The state allowed private companies to construct toll bridges across creeks and major waterways. This cost-effective method resulted in many bridges and facilitated travel. Nevertheless, citizens resented paying, and toll bridges became an issue in the 1928 election.

The toll idea became more reasonable during World War II. After the war, in April 1947, at the urging of Governor Roy Turner, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority came into being. The Authority was authorized to issue bonds, construct and operate and maintain the highway, and then return it to the Highway Commission when the cost was recouped.

Today, the Turnpike Authority operates ten turnpikes comprising 612 miles. But, it was in this week of 1953 that Oklahoma made a big leap in its transportation system with the official opening of the state’s first toll road, the Turner Turnpike connecting Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It took almost six years and 38 million dollars to complete and, according to newspaper reports, was eagerly anticipated. Opening day ceremonies took place on Saturday, May 16, 1953, beginning at 9:00am in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, with dignitaries and crowds meeting in the middle at Stroud for the big opening event. Then, at 3 o’clock that afternoon, the toll gates closed and operators began charging the $1.40 that it would cost to drive the final route.

The original toll gate from the Oklahoma City end of the turnpike is on display at the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state’s past. I’m Michael Dean.