MUSKOGEE has a rich and colorful transportation history. Railroads, airplanes, boats, and automobiles have all left their stamp on the heritage of the city. But there is one mode of transportation from the past that remains largely forgotten today. Seventy years ago, the clatter of street cars along shiny tracks throughout the city was a familiar sight to Muskogee residents. Now there are few reminders of their existence and the important role they played in the development of this community.
The history of street cars in Muskogee began on May 14, 1904. On this date, a franchise was granted to the Muskogee Electric Traction Company. Captain Ira L. Reeves was named president of the company with N. A. Gibson serving as secretary. The company was principally financed by investors Louis K. Hyde (Hyde Park namesake), R.D. Benson, and W.S. Benson. These men had the vision to create a street car line to provide public transportation throughout the booming city of Muskogee.
After months of planning and construction, the street cars began operation on March 15, 1905. It was Indian Territory's third system to begin operations after the Oklahoma City and McAlester lines. The opening day was marked with almost every type of official enthusiasm that the budding metropolis of Indian Territory could devise.
The Muskogee Daily Phoenix heralded the day as a “new era for the city.” It further commented that “Muskogee had now passed from the ranks of an overgrown walking town to the ranks of a metropolitan rapid transit city.” The entire town was excited over the prospect of street car service.
Dignitaries and prominent men and women of the day crowded on to two of the operating cars at approximately 4 o'clock on that afternoon. The first car started out from Third and Court street with Mayor Morton Rutherford as the official motorman. Charles N. Haskell, later to be the first Governor of Oklahoma, acted as conductor for the inaugural trip. Other dignitaries on the first car included Mr. and Mrs. Tams Bixby, Mr. and Mrs. Ira Reeves, Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Turner, A.W. Robb, and the first mayor of Muskogee Pat Byrne.
The first excitement along the route came when Mayor Rutherford had to avert an accident and tragedy when the car almost hit a team of mules near Court Street. Rutherford brought the car and passengers to a jolting halt only a few feet in front of the animals. The car soon continued on its way with the passengers on board waving their handkerchiefs as the car moved down Third Street to the Midland Valley tracks near Elgin. At that point the car turned back around and proceeded back to its starting location.
Before the inaugural trip began, Haskell gave a speech praising Ira Reeves who he declared “deserved all of the credit.” He then said, “We will now inaugurate this grand public improvement and at the same time inaugurate another good thing for Muskogee.” He then went out amongst the assembled group and collected fares for the trip. In all $52.25 was collected and promptly turned over to the YMCA. Regular service for the cars began at 6 o'clock that evening.
Slowly and steadily, the system began to grow and became a main source of transportation in the city. By 1909, the Muskogee Electric Traction Company had sixteen motor cars plus four freight, mail and express cars that operated over fourteen miles of track. The company's major traffic producer, the 10 mile interurban line to Fort Gibson, was constructed in 1911. A further 20 mile extension to Tahlequah was planned but never realized. Other important destinations were the early day baseball park (Benson Park) on South 21st Street and Hyde Park, Muskogee's entertainment center of the time. The company reached its peak operation in 1916 with 31 miles of track including the line to Fort Gibson and Bacone College.
Passengers were not the only occupants of the cars. Freight activity was also an important source of income for the company. One example of this activity was the moving of sand and gravel by the Yahola Sand and Gravel Company (later Arkhola) from their facilities near Goose Neck Bend to the York Street Station along a special line during the late teens. Other freight was also regularly carried throughout the city on special cars.
On May 31, 1919, a bitter labor strike caused operations to come to a sudden stand still. The strike soon began to take its toll on the entire city. Construction work was seriously affected as supplies of sand and gravel dwindled without the use of the trolleys. Merchants were also seriously affected and were vocal in their displeasure of the strike. Within a week, the company began to use nonunion workers to operate some of the lines. On June 10 the strike suddenly turned violent and five of these interim conductors and motormen were beaten by strike sympathizers. The men were taken from their cars at the ends of their runs and pummeled with iron pipes, bricks, and pocket knives. Several of the men were badly injured and left in a “semiconscious state.”
Immediately following this event, Mayor John L. Wisener, telegraphed Governor Trapp to request that the state militia be called out to restore order in Muskogee. The Governor refused to intervene in the dispute. He said at the time, “The street car strike in Muskogee is a matter that should be handled by local officers. I believe it will all be cleared up without putting the city under martial law.” After months of bitter negotiations and continuing turmoil, the strike was finally ended on August 23, 1919. The entire city breathed a sigh of relief and soon returned to using the street cars in their daily activities.
By 1922, the transportation needs of the city had changed with the continued proliferation of the automobile. The company began to economize and purchased 12 single-truck “Birney Safety Cars” which required only one man operation. Schedules were also cut back and fees were increased. Principal service during this time included West Broadway, Fondulac, Hyde Park, East Okmulgee Avenue, The Fair Grounds, Midland Valley Shops, Monticello Addition, Elgin Avenue, and Reeves Addition lines.
The final blow to the street cars was the start of the depression which caused a further decline in passenger and freight activity. With only short notice, the passenger street car operation was abandoned on March 9, 1933. On this day old number “107” returned from the Fort Gibson-Hyde Park run and entered the barns for the last time. A.V. Alexander, manager of operations at the time, later remembered that “there wasn't a paying passenger of any kind on the car.” The doors were soon closed and the current to the car was permanently cut off.
The next morning, seven motor buses replaced the street cars on almost the exact same routes. The Muskogee Electric Traction Company continued to serve the public under the same name as a bus company until 1958.
After the street car service was shut down many of the cars were sold for such uses as granaries, school houses, cabins, and diners. Eventually the tracks were removed or paved over, wires were torn down, and the Muskogee street cars soon became a fading memory of the past.
by Roger L. Bell
For addition information, see the following books at the Muskogee Public Library:
Railroads in Oklahoma by Donovan Hofsomer, Oklahoma Historical Society Press, 1977.
Muskogee: From Statehood to Pearl Harbor by C.W. ‘Dub’ West, Muscogee Publishing Company, 1976
Turning Back the Clock by C.W. ‘Dub’ West, Muscogee Publishing Comany, 1985