OKLAHOMA CITY – Transportation development in Oklahoma goes back to early pioneers who began doing business in Indian Territory long before the land runs started in 1889 or statehood in 1907.
The steamboat Heroine was contracted by the U.S. Army to deliver supplies in 1837 to Fort Towson. Starting in 1867, cattle herds were driven across Indian Territory from Texas to stockyards on the Kansas-Pacific Railroad in Abilene, Kan. That became the Chisholm Trail, which is now presented in a new exhibit at the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher.
Route 66 was established by the U.S. Highway System on Nov. 11, 1926, to run from Chicago through Oklahoma and other states to Santa Monica, Calif. It is presented in exhibit galleries from the 1920s to the 1970s at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton. In 1927 George Failing rebuilt an oil rig so it could be mounted on a farm truck and transferred to new locations. The Portable Failing Rig is celebrated at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid.
These stories, told at OHS museums, demonstrate how transportation has played a major role in Oklahoma’s economic development.
“Transporting people and goods from Point A to Point B is critical for economic development,” said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of OHS. “Transportation routes have evolved over time from waterways and cattle trails to railroads and interstate highways. By connecting the dots of supply and demand, entrepreneurs could expand their markets and earn greater profits.”
The Heroine was rediscovered in 1999 when OHS became aware of the wreck of a side-paddle wheel steamboat in the Red River. In 1837 the Heroine was contracted by the U.S. Army to deliver supplies to Fort Towson in Indian Territory. Although the Heroine did carry some passengers, its primary purpose was to deliver supplies.
The story of the Heroine’s journey to move goods to Indian Territory, and its sinking, are told at Fort Towson Historic Site and the Oklahoma History Center.
The main stem of the Chisholm Trail ran along what is now U.S. Hwy. 81. From 1867 to 1877, more than three million head of cattle passed through Oklahoma to Abilene, where Joseph McCoy built stockyards on the railroad. The cattle were worth only $4 per head in Texas, but could be worth $40 per head in the East, where beef was in high demand.
A major new exhibit at the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher entitled “Bridging the Chisholm Trail through Indian Territory” celebrates the 150th anniversary of the trail. The exhibit emphasizes the history of the Chisholm Trail as it relates to Indian Territory and present-day north-central Oklahoma.
Route 66, which also is known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America and the Mother Road, became the first national highway to cross the Midwest from east to west, covering 2,448 miles.
“Free enterprise has always depended on adding value to a product or serving and delivering that product or service to a customer,” said Blackburn. “A key factor in determining feasibility and profitability has always been transportation.
“In 1923, as one way to reduce the cost of shipping goods and services, the Oklahoma Legislature reorganized the Oklahoma Highway Commission with greater authority and funded the effort with the first one penny fuel tax. That revenue was used to match federal grants to build state highways such as Route 66, which was started in 1925. Since then, the fuel tax has been raised several times to increase the state’s ability to match federal funds for roads and bridges.”
The 1920s exhibit gallery at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton displays how the United States needed better roads to move crops to market and resources to factories, said Pat Smith, director of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. The 1930s gallery reports how Route 66 provided a major path for people who migrated during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, said Smith.
The effect of expanded roads and bridges on the economy was reflected in Failing’s Portable Rig, said Aaron Preston, archivist at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center.
“After Failing demonstrated the speed of the rig, he began to get contracts for drilling business,” said Preston. “Soon, major oil companies began to buy drilling rigs from him. In order not to compete, Failing liquidated his contract drilling business and became solely a drilling rig manufacturer.”
During World War II, the army used his rigs for drilling water wells to supply troops. Failing Rigs, mounted on trucks, trailers or skids, are used by most U.S. oil companies and by many abroad for exploration, said Preston.
“Throughout our history, the need for efficient means to move goods from areas of great supply to areas of high demand has led to innovation in transportation,” said Blackburn. “Public/private partnerships to create faster means of transportation have in turn generated more profits for Oklahoma entrepreneurs and a better quality of life for the people of our state.”
Max Nichols worked as a sports writer, editor, columnist and public relations director for more than forty-eight years with the Associated Press in New York, the Minneapolis Star in Minnesota, and The Daily Oklahoman, The Journal Record in Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma Historical Society. Now retired, Max has continued his monthly columns for the Historical Society and The Journal Record from New York City.