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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Intersection of Third Street and Main Street in Tulsa
(18827.116, Albertype Collection, OHS).


Oklahoma's second-largest city, Tulsa is located in the state's northeastern quadrant, adjacent to the Arkansas River. Tulsa serves as the Tulsa County seat. The city's development since the 1950s has been related to its location to Interstates 44 and 244 as well as to State Highways 11, 51, 64, 75, 169, and 412. A number of toll roads, including the Creek, Will Rogers, Cimarron, and Turner turnpikes, connect Tulsa to other regional cities.

Tulsa's origins begin in the late 1820s with the removal of the Creek from their ancestral homes in Georgia and Alabama. After arriving here in 1833 the Lower Creek settled in present Tulsa, negotiating a treaty with the Cherokee and positioning the boundaries between the two nations. The border, as it was laid out, ran along the twenty-first century's Edison Street. The Creek held council meetings at the Council Oak tree, which is located on Eighteenth Street between Cheyenne and Boulder avenues. There the Creek band known as the Lochapoka deposited ashes brought from their last fires in Alabama. Soon many Creek turned to cattle raising, and by 1879 George Perryman established a ranch that covered most of present southern Tulsa. The ranch house, located near present Thirty-eighth and Trenton streets, later served as Tulsa's first post office, with Josiah Chouteau Perryman the first appointed postmaster.

The 1882 arrival of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad established the city. The rail line, extended from Vinita, served local ranching interests. That same year Harry C. Hall opened the first store in order to serve the railroad workers. Almost immediately Tulsa began to grow. The first buildings included a depot, a section house, stores, residences, a hotel, a barbershop, and a police station. A coal mine operated nearby. In 1884 Tulsa's first school opened. At its incorporation on January 18, 1898, Tulsa had churches, hotels, an ice plant, a Masonic lodge, and its first bank. By 1890 the town sheltered approximately one thousand people. In 1900 the federal census reported 1,390 residents, and at 1907 statehood Tulsa had a population of 7,298. By 1910 the number had more than doubled and stood at 18,182.

By 1893 the growing city needed a source of water other than the Arkansas River. However, the only acceptable supply, in addition to wells, was bottled water shipped in from Sand Springs. Further, a large fire destroyed half of the central business district. This and the city's continued expansion led to the 1905 establishment of Tulsa's fire department. Tulsa conducted a number of water studies, to no avail, and by 1920 the city's population had grown to 72,075. In September 1920 the Spavinaw water project began as one of the era's largest public-works endeavors.

The 1901 discovery of oil at Red Fork ushered in an era of good fortune for Tulsa. Shortly after that, in 1905 wildcatters discovered another major oil field at Glenpool. Although Tulsa itself had no major oil fields, city leaders decided to encourage oilmen to stay and to transact business in town. In May 1912 the Hotel Tulsa opened as one of the finest in the Midwest. After that, oilmen flocked to Tulsa, and the city soon proclaimed itself "the Oil Capital of the World."

Other amenities, including higher education, quickly developed. Civic leaders also initiated negotiations with Henry Kendall College in Muskogee, moving it to Tulsa. Since locating there and changing its name to the University of Tulsa, it has become an integral part of the city. Other institutions of higher education that continued into the twenty-first century included Tulsa Community College, Oral Roberts University, and Oklahoma State University–Tulsa. In 1906 the first hospital opened.

In 1905 eighteen entrepreneurs came together to form the Tulsa Street Railway Company, creating the city's first interurban line. However, construction did not begin until early 1907. By 1912 the city was served by four systems, allowing not only travel within the community, but also to surrounding towns. These were the Tulsa Street Railway Company, the Oklahoma Union Traction Company, the Sand Springs Railway Company, and the Sapulpa and Interurban Railway. The Sapulpa and Interurban Railway connected Tulsa to the oil fields, including the Sapulpa and Kiefer areas.

Petroleum processing also became important to the economy. In 1919 Tulsa had two refineries, the Texaco and the Cosden. At the time, the Cosden Refinery was the largest independent oil refinery in the world. Owned by Joshua S. Cosden, it began operations in 1913. In 1938 workers initiated a long and, to Tulsa, divisive strike against this institution, which by that time was called the Mid-Continent Refinery. The conflict lasted well into the 1940s. This facility, located in West Tulsa, operated nonstop into the twenty-first century as the D-X Refinery.

As oil continued to be a dominant factor, by 1930 Tulsa's population skyrocketed to 141,258. From the beginning of the oil boom to the late 1920s most of the great names in petroleum resided in the city. These included such notables as Joshua Cosden, Waite Phillips, Jean Paul Getty, Harry Sinclair, William "Bill" Skelly, Thomas Gilcrease, and many others. Gilcrease, who married Norma Smallwood (Miss America of 1926), and Waite Phillips bequeathed Tulsa two of the region's finest museums. The first was the Gilcrease Museum, built to house the extensive Thomas Gilcrease art collection. In 1955 Tulsa inherited it, and it is recognized worldwide for its Western art. The other was Philbrook, the private home of Waite Phillips. In 1938 Phillips donated his home and art collection to Tulsa.

One of the sadder days in Tulsa's history occurred in the summer 1921. During eighteen hours between May 31 and June 1 a major outbreak of racial violence exploded, destroying thirty-five to forty square blocks of Tulsa's thriving African American community. The tragic event left many dead or wounded and thousands more homeless. In 1997 the Oklahoma Legislature enacted House Bill 2468, creating the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to reinvestigate and report on the bloodshed and destruction. This culminated in the Tulsa Race Riot: A Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which was issued on February 28, 2001.

By 1920 Tulsa stood on the cutting edge of the oil industry, which was always looking for new revenue sources. Aviation became one of the ventures that went hand in hand with the oil industry. As far back as 1911 Tulsa had a small airfield near a place then called Alsuma. In 1919 Tulsans had accomplished the nation's first interstate shipment of goods by air, from Tulsa to Kansas City. In 1923 Tulsa held its first International Oil Exposition to bring oilmen together and to display the current technology. With the exception of 1926, the event occurred every year until the onset of the Great Depression. The expo remained the state's major petroleum industry gathering, with eighteen shows taking place between its inception in 1923 and its close in 1979.

Other aviation enterprises have also bolstered the local economy. On January 27, 1928, Spartan Aircraft Company opened. On July 3, 1928, city leaders inaugurated the Tulsa Municipal Airport, and the first shipment of mail to Ponca City was made. In 1929 Tulsa had four airports, including the McIntyre, H. F. Wilcox, Garland, and North American Airlines fields, as well as two airplane manufacturers. These included Collier Aircraft, which was located at the Wilcox airport. Spartan conducted its activities across the street from the new municipal airport. In 1936 American Airlines expanded service into Tulsa, locating a permanent facility there on December 30, 1945. At that time American Airlines took possession of the former Douglas Aircraft's modification plant, reopening it on June 1, 1946. This became one of the nation's largest maintenance bases, but it had already begun operations in January 1941 when Douglas was awarded a contract to build for World War II production. The American Airlines plant continued into the twenty-first century, but instead of producing airplanes, it built school buses. The Saber reservation facility is also located on the grounds of American Airlines. Combined, they represent the largest employer in the city.

All of this activity caused Tulsa to experience an amazing leap in population. According to the 1940 census the community had grown to 142,157. After World War II Tulsa again saw an increase in population. The 1950 and 1960 censuses reported 182,740 and 258,271 citizens, respectively. Transportation development provided an additional boost. In 1970 the Port of Catoosa, which was part of the more than four-hundred-mile-long McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS), was under construction. The first barge reached the Tulsa port on January 21, 1971. Since the system opened, its shipping tonnage has increased from 86,754 tons in 1971 to more than 2,220,871 tons in 2004. The port is the nation's innermost waterway. Other large companies include Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Nordam, Bank of Oklahoma (the largest federally chartered bank in the state), Onex Corporation's facility, renamed Spirit AeroSystems Inc. (previously Boeing Aircraft Corporation), Thrifty Car Rental, Dollar Car Rental, and State Farm Insurance. Many other large-scale enterprises have a presence in the city.

The 1970 census counted 330,350 inhabitants of Tulsa proper. Numbers continued to climb to 360,919 in 1980 and 367,302 in 1990, and 393,049 in 2000. In 2010 Tulsa's population of 391,906 were 62.6 percent white, 15.9 percent African American, 5.3 percent American Indian, and 2.3 percent Asian. Hispanic ethnicity was identified as 14.1 percent.

Throughout its history Tulsa has attracted innovative industries. These have included the May Brothers Department Stores and the Tulsa Rig and Reel Manufacturing Company, both established in 1908. In 1937 the Bama Companies opened a business that later became the enterprise's corporate headquarters. After World War II the Zebco company began producing fishing equipment, and Lowrance Electronics, developer of the sonar-based depth finders used in fishing and boating, had its start in 1965. Through the years Tulsans have been served numerous media outlets. There have been two major newspapers, the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa World. KVOO radio moved from Bristow to Tulsa in 1927. The city and the surrounding area have also benefited from KOTV and KOED television, which began broadcasting in 1949 and 1959, respectively.

In addition to the Gilcrease Museum and the Philbrook Museum of Art, other museums and organizations preserve the region's history and art. These include the Tulsa County Historical Society Museum, which is housed in the Travis Mansion, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, and the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art. More than fifty Tulsa homes and historic districts are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. These include the Boston Avenue Methodist Church (NR 78002270), the Ambassador Hotel (NR 99001085), Brady Heights Historic District (NR 80003302), Cain's Dancing Academy (NR 03000874), the Creek Council Tree Site (NR 76001576), Gillette Historic District (NR 82003702), the Robert M. McFarlin House (NR 79002031), the Waite Phillips Mansion (NR 78002274), the William G. Skelly House (NR 78002275), and Swan Lake Historic District (NR 98000140).

The 1970 census counted 330,350 inhabitants. Numbers continued to climb to 360,919 in 1980 and 367,302 in 1990, and 393,049 in 2000. In 2010 Tulsa's population of 391,906 were 70 percent white, 15.3 percent African American, 7.1 percent Hispanic, 4.5 percent American Indian, and 1.7 percent Asian.

Carl E. Gregory


Angie Debo, Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943).

Clarence B. Douglas, The History of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 3 vols. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1921).

Danney Goble, Tulsa! Biography of the American City (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Books, 1997).

James M. Hall, The Beginning of Tulsa (Tulsa, Okla.: N.p., 1933).

Keith Tolman et al., The Oklahoma Aviation Story (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2004).

The Tulsa Historic Preservation Plan (Tulsa, Okla.: Tulsa Preservation Commission, 1992).

"Tulsa," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Carl E. Gregory, “Tulsa,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=TU003.

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