Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Frisco of My Youth: Both Gone

When I was a small boy growing up in Chickasha, Oklahoma, my parents’ house was across the street from the railroad.  In those days, children and dogs ran freely, and I spent much time along the tracks, throwing rocks at anthills.  That is where I first saw one colony attack another, a violent battle for domination that decimated both groups.  Ants, I realized, are like people.
A Frisco semaphore signal guards the line from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.
An Oklahoma City to Tulsa mixed freight, led by U30B 843, waits for a clear board at Chandler, Oklahoma -- March 1975.

That is also where I saw my first Frisco trains running up and down the line between Oklahoma City and Lawton.  This was the mid-1950’s.  The Frisco had already converted to all diesel motive power of black and yellow.  I have no photographs from that era, only fond memories. 

For years, the Frisco was my favorite railroad.  I was thrilled when the company changed its paint scheme to red and white (the colors of the Oklahoma University football team); then I was crushed when I was later told that the colors were actually orange and white.  (Orange is the color of OU’s archrival Oklahoma State.)  Even later I discovered that Frisco workers used Chevrolet Engine Block Red on repaired engines, and that images of Frisco motive power can look either red or orange or red-orange, depending on the age of the slide and the type of film used.  I am red-green colorblind, and all the photographs in this post look red to my eyes, but I won’t be offended if you see orange.

Frisco 446 West waits for a fresh crew on a siding northeast of Tulsa -- June 1974.

Train No. 3210 is arriving in Oklahoma City at sundown -- July 1973.  The train has just come underneath the AT&SF mainline and is crossing the North Canadian River, little more than a trickle in the summer heat and drought. 

The Frisco was like an English composition teacher, taken for granted and unloved, unnoticed by most, but performing an important service that only now, with the passage of many years, takes on proper perspective.  Since I once taught composition, I know how the Frisco felt and hereafter present images of the Frisco in Oklahoma from the 1970’s through the early 1980’s – after the Frisco was absorbed by Burlington Northern.  Some of these photographs post-date the acquisition, but all involve trains led by Frisco power.  A previous post covers the Avard Subdivision in northern Oklahoma, including the years under Frisco control, so this post will concentrate on the Frisco line from Tulsa through Oklahoma City and Lawton, plus the route south of Sapulpa across Lake Texhoma to Texas.   
Frisco 458 West (a GP 38-2) is on final approach to Oklahoma City -- July 1976.

Below:  Frisco 664 West leads Train 537 toward Oklahoma City.

A Brief History

In the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine nineteenth-century railroad construction, which was something like the “dot-com” boom of the late twentieth century, in which large sums of money were borrowed to create institutions with no visible means of support that might never show a profit.  The idea was to borrow money, build something and then sell it, and then sell it again and again until the money ran out.

Thus, in 1871 a Frisco predecessor, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, entered the northeastern Cherokee Nation, which would later become part of Oklahoma.  The company was building a line southwest from Pacific, Missouri, near St. Louis, with a goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean, following what would later become the famed Route 66.  Between 1881 and 1886, the A&P extended its tracks from Vinita (where it crossed the first railroad to enter the Cherokee Nation, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas, precipitating a small range war) southwest to Tulsa and Sapulpa.  The railroad enjoyed no significant revenue until it linked in 1898 with the St. Louis & Oklahoma City Railroad, which built a 103-mile line northeast from the latter town to Sapulpa.  
An eastbound merchandise freight crosses the Verdigris River near the Port of Catoosa in March 1980.  

A westbound freight is crossing the same bridge on the same day.

Below:  A pair of SD-45s, led by Frisco 545 East, approach the Verdigris River bridge.

In June 1982, after the BN acquisition, re-numbered 2115 crosses under Oklahoma State Highway 66 -- originally the famous U.S. 66 -- just west of Sapulpa, Oklahoma.
I followed this train all the way to Oklahoma City.  Here it is passing through Stroud, Oklahoma.
Same train in Chandler, Oklahoma.
Same train approaching Jones, Oklahoma.
A short time later, additional firms laid rail west of Tulsa and southwest of Oklahoma City.  Between 1902 and 1904, the Arkansas Valley & Western Railway constructed a route from West Tulsa to Avard, in the middle of nowhere, where it joined the AT&SF.  Elsewhere, the Oklahoma City & Western Railroad joined forces with the Oklahoma City & Tulsa Railroad to build a 174-mile line from Oklahoma City to Quanah, Texas, also a competitor for the middle of nowhere designation.

Next, with the aid of St. Louis financiers, the St. Louis, Oklahoma & Southern Railway constructed a 198-mile railroad from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, to Denison, Texas, in 1901.  The company became part of the Frisco system that same year.
Train 537 is approaching Welston, Oklahoma, on its way from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.
Frisco 956 West (an SD40-2) roars through Bushyhead -- northeast of Tulsa.

From 1901 until 1971, the year I began photographing the Frisco, the railroad expanded, becoming an X-shaped system.  One leg ran from St. Louis southwest through Springfield, Missouri, Tulsa and Oklahoma City to Quanah, Texas.  In 1931, Frisco subsidiary Quanah, Acme & Pacific reached Floydada, Texas, connecting with an AT&SF branch that joined the Santa Fe’s transcontinental main line to California.  The other side of the “X” went from Kansas City southeast to Springfield, Memphis, Birmingham and Pensacola.  Additional north-south routes connected St. Louis with Memphis, as well as Kansas City to Tulsa and Dallas/Fort Worth.  Because of its critical crossroads position, Springfield was the site of a huge yard and diesel house constructed in 1951.  Tulsa’s Cherokee yard opened in 1960.

The Frisco (technically the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad) then operated as a substantial regional carrier until Congress abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission in the deregulation era started by the Carter Administration.  After that, the Frisco became a takeover target and was eventually snared by the Burlington Northern in 1980.  In the mid-1990’s, the Burlington Northern joined with the AT&SF to form the BNSF.
At Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Frisco 415 South (headed to Texas) meets Frisco 835 (headed to Tulsa from Texas) -- February 1977.  Tulsa to Sapulpa was CTC and the only section of Frisco double-track in Oklahoma.
Same 415 South approaches Beggs, Oklahoma, on the Texas line.

Frisco 437 West (Train 537) approaches Jones, Oklahoma, on its way to Oklahoma City.
Westbound QLA races through the Cross Timbers as it approaches Oklahoma City -- July 1971.

Tulsa to Oklahoma City and Beyond

In 1971 and 1972, the Tulsa-Oklahoma City line saw about eight trains per day, including the westbound QLA and QSF (Memphis-California transcontinental run-throughs handed to the Santa Fe) and trains 537 and 539.  Eastbounds included trains 30 and CTB (another transcontinental run-through), an “extra” that left Oklahoma City in the late afternoon, and 3312, a local that originated there.

There were fewer trains west of Oklahoma City.  Four freights ran with regularity -- QLA, QSF, CTB and eastbound 3210.  It was not unusual for 3210, a long-distance local, to take a siding to meet at least one of the transcons somewhere between Oklahoma City and Chickasha – where the railroad employed an operator to handle train orders, which he gave to each passing train crew by “hooping” them up on poles.

The Tulsa-Oklahoma City line passed through an area of Oklahoma called the “Cross Timbers” – oak-forested, red-clay and sandstone hill country running north to south from roughly the Kansas border to Forth Worth.  The saying was that you “can’t plant cotton with a shotgun” in that country, and to this day the area is highlighted by long stretches of oak trees populated by deer, coyotes, armadillos and wild turkeys.  I live in this forest and fairly frequently see bobcats in my back yard.  Cougars have been spotted in the woods near Chandler.
Frisco 707 West is passing a semaphore signal just west of Stroud, Oklahoma.

Frisco engines are resting in Tulsa's Cherokee Yard -- September 1971.
A Frisco mixed freight approaches Tulsa's Cherokee Yard -- August 1974.
The same train enters Cherokee Yard.

Frisco 415 West, this time on a Tulsa to Oklahoma City train, approaches Spencer, Oklahoma.

Below:  The same train is passing several uninterested cows.

Below:  The same train rolls through Luther, Oklahoma.

Frisco Train 537 approaches twin semaphore signals east of Chandler, Oklahoma.

In 1973, the Frisco upgraded the Tulsa-Avard line, and all transcons shifted to this route and away from Oklahoma City, allowing traffic to connect more quickly with the faster AT&SF main line to California.  By September of 1973, no more Frisco transcons ran via Floydada.

Relocation of the transcons to a faster route was part of a broad change of Frisco strategy away from slow and unreliable merchandise freights to fast freights running on tight schedules, rather than waiting for tonnage to fill out a train.  SLSF traffic increased not only because of the faster schedules but also because the large railroads, such as UP, Seaboard and Santa Fe, shifted more bridge traffic onto Frisco routes.
Train 539 races between Sapulpa and Bristow, Oklahoma -- January 1975.
In February 1981, after the BN acquisition, Frisco 754 (not yet re-lettered or re-numbered) approaches Luther, Oklahoma, on the Tulsa-Oklahoma City line.
In February 1975, the same Frisco 754 is leading southbound trailers on the Texas line.
The Tulsa-Oklahoma City line was guarded by colorful yellow semaphore blades, as well as train indicator boxes, steel cylinders with a miniature semaphore blade behind their glass covers.  The position of the little blade indicated if the track were clear or if a train were within about ten miles or less.  

Today, WATCO’s Stillwater Central Railroad operates the Tulsa – Quanah, Texas line, but traffic density is far less than in Frisco days.  Only three trains per week run between Oklahoma City and Quanah.  In the early 21st century, BNSF ran some of its Tulsa-Oklahoma City trains via the old Frisco route, but poor Stillwater Central track and a general traffic decline due to the 2008-2009 recession caused the reroutes to end.

Frisco 902 leads Train 539 on the Tulsa-Oklahoma City line.  To the right of the lead unit is a train indicator.
Train 537 rolls through Spencer, Oklahoma, in February 1971.  Notice the open auto-racks, as well as the two black and yellow units.  At that time, General Motors shipped autos by rail from the manufacturing plant in the St. Louis area to an unloading facility in Oklahoma City.  On any given day it was common to see hundreds of vehicles waiting in the storage facility beside the Frisco yard across the river from downtown.
Train QLA (transcon to Los Angeles) is crossing the North Canadian River in Oklahoma City.  Although the bridge still exists, it is no longer in use.  When Interstate 40 was rerouted through Oklahoma City, the old Frisco line to the southwest was also rerouted, making this bridge unnecessary.  Also, the North Canadian River has been dammed about five miles downstream and is now called the Oklahoma River.  Today (January 2018) the channel in this image is filled with water.
Frisco 720 West leads a mixed freight southwest of Oklahoma City near Cement, Oklahoma, trailing a cloud of brake shoe smoke across the hills.

The Kiamichi Mountain Route

The most intriguing Frisco line in Oklahoma ran through the Kiamichi Mountains in the southeast, in what was once the Choctaw Nation.  The line met an AT&SF branch in Paris, Texas, which connected to Dallas.  When the Frisco’s Tulsa-Dallas line was subsequently constructed with fewer gradients, the route through the mountains became redundant, saw little use and was abandoned shortly after the takeover by Burlington Northern.  A portion of the line is still operated today as the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad.  The Kansas City Southern operates the only segment still active in Oklahoma, a short branch from Poteau, Oklahoma to Fort Smith, Arkansas – a line notable for containing the only railroad tunnel in Oklahoma. 

A portion of the line through the mountains paralleled the Kiamichi River and a state highway that was part gravel and part clay.  I remember driving along the road, searching vainly for a train, when a downpour struck.  My vehicle, owned by my employer at the time, sank almost instantly into several inches of red paste.  I spent the better part of the afternoon digging out and still did not see a train.  I found out later that the line had, by that time, been embargoed!

Sapulpa to Texas

The other main Frisco line in Oklahoma cut off from the Tulsa-Oklahoma City route at Sapulpa, went south to Francis and Madill (original crew change points), crossed Lake Texhoma on a huge bridge, then continued south across the Red River to Denton and Irving, Texas, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Below:  Three smoking Frisco units lead a southbound manifest near Roff, Oklahoma, on the Texas line.

Lake Texhoma Reservoir was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944, is located at the confluence of the Red and Washita Rivers and is the largest of the many man-made reservoirs in Oklahoma.  Prior to construction of the lake, the Frisco line to Texas headed southwest out of Kingston, Oklahoma, through the small settlement of Woodville, then crossed the Washita River shortly before joining the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad for the bridge across the Red River.
A local freight from Lakeside Junction begins its compass west journey (railroad north) at Frisco's Lake Texhoma bridge -- February 1975.
Frisco Trailers on the Texas Line south of Sapulpa.
The same train rolls beside a rock quarry south of Ada, Oklahoma.
A northbound mixed freight leaves the siding at Weleetka, Oklahoma -- May 1980.
Frisco 956 North is Approaching Holdenville, Oklahoma, on the Texas line.
Here is another northbound on the Texas line.
Had the line maintained its original location, it would have crossed the widest portion of the new lake, necessitating a bridge almost four miles long.  The Corps of Engineers chose instead to relocate the tracks almost due west out of Kingston through New Woodville (created after the original Woodville was flooded to make the lake) to a location where the waters’ width was about one mile.  A new bridge was constructed – about two-thirds of a mile over open water, about one-third on an earthen embankment.

Another Frisco branch line running east from Madill to Durant, then further east into the logging country of southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas, also was re-routed.  The tracks east of Madill were abandoned, and a new junction, called Lakeside, was created about one mile east of the location of the new bridge.  Tracks from Lakeside were then constructed northeast where they tied into the original branch line at the small settlement of Mead.

The Frisco’s Lake Texhoma Bridge was the longest in Oklahoma (still is), approachable only on foot through rugged, forested hills.  The best shots are from the southeast in winter when the sun is low in the southern sky.  Southbound trains (compass east) present the best images and can be heard for miles before appearing on the bridge.  The first time I made the hike in 1975, I took with me two ham sandwiches, a bag of chips and a canteen of water.  I was met at the lakeside by a sad black dog, who looked as though he did not belong to anyone and had not eaten in days.  His coat was covered with small, open sores; his eyes had a blue cast, as though he might have cataracts.  I felt so sorry for him that I gave him one of my sandwiches and a few chips.  He stayed with me the rest of the day as I photographed trains, then followed me back to my vehicle.  I’ve never seen a more forlorn look on a living creature’s face than when I drove away without him.
A northbound (compass west) manifest has begun crossing the Lake Texhoma bridge.  From this location, I fed the stray dog one of my sandwiches.
The same train is now across open water.  The stray dog is still chewing.
A southbound manifest (compass east) is leaving the earthen portion of the bridge and crossing the open waters of Lake Texhoma.
The same train approaches land as two fishermen watch from the water below.
After the BN acquisition, re-numbered 3058 North (compass west) has reached dry land.

I returned to Lake Texhoma in September, 1981, after the Burlington Northern takeover, to photograph a northbound train (compass west) from the west side of the water (the image immediately above).  The main thing I remember about that trip was listening to the Oklahoma-Southern California football game on a transistor radio.  Southern California scored on its last two possessions to win 28-24.

The next time I returned was 1999. By then, the Frisco was only a distant memory.  BNSF operated the main line from Tulsa to Texas.  Trains from Lakeside Junction east were now operated by the Kiamichi Railroad, and I was fortunate enough to catch a Kiamichi train coming across the earthen embankment portion of the bridge.  My dog Snookie (a miniature dachshund) traveled with me that day, in the hottest part of July, and spent most of the afternoon digging madly along the lake, searching for something that I could neither see nor smell.  By the time I decided to hike back to my van, Snookie was exhausted.  He looked up at me as if to say, “If I’m going back, you’ll have to carry me.”  So I did.

Bridge Across the Red River

Frisco’s route to Texas was also notable for the bridge across the Red River, owned by the Katy Railroad.  MoPac also used the bridge through its former Kansas, Oklahoma & Gulf subsidiary, which enjoyed 22.46 miles of trackage rights over the Katy from Durant, Oklahoma, to Dennison, Texas.  This consolidation was a result of KO&G’s abandonment of its Carpenter’s Bluff Bridge, which carried railroad, highway and foot traffic eight miles to the east.  As of today (January 2018) the bridge is still used for highway traffic, though Texas is building a new structure which will likely be operational before the end of the year.  Because of trees, the Katy bridge was difficult to photograph, but traffic across could get quite heavy, especially when trains from all three lines arrived at the same time.
Frisco 911 North rolls across the Red River bridge.  
In 1972, a northbound Frisco manifest is crossing the Red River.  U.S. Highway 69 runs beneath the tracks.  The MKT bridge is to the left of the highway bridge, and you can see the Frisco tracks diverging from the MKT tracks.  The steel girder highway bridge on the right was replaced years ago by a more modern open span.  In the background is Texas.

Last Thought

Now I’m an old man.  The Frisco and my youth are gone.  I still walk along railroad tracks and throw rocks at anthills.  I still feed stray dogs.  At least a few things haven’t changed.

After the BN acquisition, re-numbered 5795 South hauls a loaded grain train into the sunset on its way to Texas.
The sun sets on the Saint Louis and San Francisco.

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  1. I enjoyed your stories and photos . Thanks for sharing them.

  2. I enjoyed your stories and photos . Thanks for sharing them.

  3. I enjoyed your stories and photos . Thanks for sharing them.

  4. Can photo 50 Locomotive 5795 be purchased in full MB file?