Sunday, February 14, 2021

Home Sweet Oklahoma

AT&SF F's (refugees from Santa Fe's Texas Chief) pull a southbound manifest through Oklahoma City during the Nixon Administration.

This is the first in an irregular series of articles focusing on individual states in which your author has spent some time photographing trains.  Because I was born and raised in Oklahoma and have spent the majority of my life here, I thought I would start with my home state.

Those unfamiliar with Oklahoma are generally surprised by its geographic diversity -- from salt plains to sand dunes to mountains to swamps to prairies to forests to grasslands.  Average annual rainfall varies from about 15 inches in the High Plains of the northwest (barely above desert status) to over 60 inches in portions of the Ouachita Mountains of the southeast (which almost qualifies as a temperate rain forest).

Railroads in the state are found throughout this wide geographical diversity, as I hope the following images demonstrate.  Complete coverage is not attempted.  Rather, these photographs give a general flavor of what can be found within a hundred miles or so of my front porch.

Arbuckle Mountains

The Arbuckle Mountains are the tiny remnants of a once majestic mountain range that stretched across southern Oklahoma.  Today they have been worn down to nubs; only the summits of the tallest peaks remain.  The BNSF Red Rock Subdivision follows the Washita River through the mountains and presents some striking images, providing the photographer is willing to hike several miles and climb hills covered with cedar thickets and briars that will slice like cheese the arms and legs of the unwary traveler who ventures forth without adequate clothing.

One advantage of a trip to these mountains is the ability to stop at Arbuckle Mountains Fried Pies, where the delicacies are made fresh daily.  The U.S. 77 south exit off Interstate 35 will take you directly to the closest thing to paradise on this earth.  I do not know if fried pies have any nutritional value, but they certainly improve one's mood.

Southbound stacks beside the Washita River in Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains.

Southbound grain deep in Big Canyon, one of two gorges that the river has carved through the mountains.  In this canyon, water flows over limestone, which in the very late afternoon can change the river's apparent color from dark red to blue -- but only in the very late afternoon.  Otherwise, the water looks red.

Southbound manifest in Little Canyon, the smaller of the two gorges.

Northbound oil train in Big Canyon.

Southbound stacks in Little Canyon.

Southbound local entering Little Canyon.

Southbound "Heartland Flyer" in the Heart of the Arbuckles.

Southbound stacks beside the Washita River.  Yes, the water really is that red!

Entrance to Big Canyon.  In the background is an abandoned limestone quarry.

Southbound grain in Big Canyon in the days of the AT&SF.

Southbound Santa Fe in Little Canyon.

Southbound AT&SF manifest exiting Little Canyon.


I was born in Edmond, Oklahoma, on November 15, 1950.  In that long ago age, the population was about 2,500, and the four bed hospital where my mother delivered was located in the walk-up second floor above the community's only movie theater.

The town was about 20 miles north of downtown Oklahoma City, and about 15 of those miles were rural farmland.  Today, the population is about 95,000; there is no rural land left.

I have lived about 60 of my 70 years in metropolitan Oklahoma City, and about 50 of those 60 years in Edmond.  The following images were taken over about 45 years, often in the afternoon when I would wander out to the tracks for an hour or two.

We start with images of the Santa Fe and transition slowly to contemporary (February 2021) images of BNSF.  This is part of the Red Rock Subdivision, and like most portions of the legacy AT&SF, it retains much of its original identity, save for the loss of all passenger traffic.  Red and silver warbonnet F's once plied these rails.  If I close my eyes, I can sometimes still see them -- the fantasies of an old man.  Sometimes I think I can hear the northbound Texas Chief whistling through the darkness as it approaches town on a winter's evening.  I was a boy, and I could hear the train approaching, then departing, for miles in each direction.  Now trains don't whistle through town anymore, the result of citizen complaints and a city ordinance.  Who in the world doesn't like a lonesome train whistle?

A fascinating mix of F-units rolling south toward Edmond, Oklahoma, in an area that now belongs to Home Depot.  Many things in life repeat themselves, but you won't see this again.

Southbound trailers pulled by Santa Fe F's that once headed the Texas Chief.  The lumber yard to the right of the power is now a food court.  As mentioned, trains no longer whistle through town. 

Kodachrome units (on a Kodachrome transparency) rolling south past Grace Lawn Cemetery.  Today,  there are no burial plots left.  The cemetery is full, and the city is building a new one.

Southbound Geep on a cold January morning.

Southbound Texas Chief shortly after the creation of Amtrak.  Today, the land left of the tracks is a golf course, while on the other side, houses line the right-of-way.

Shortly after the creation of BNSF, a southbound merchandise freight rolls past the Edmond cemetery.

Northbound past the old lumber yard.  This is the only image your author possesses of a Warbonnet B-unit in Edmond.

Southbound in another area now urbanized.

Southbound climbing Waterloo Hill.  Edmond was originally called Summit, because it lies at the top of this hill and is the highest point in Oklahoma County.

Lake Eufaula

The Army Corps of Engineers constructed Lake Eufaula in the late 1940's by damming the Canadian River slightly downstream from its confluences with the North Canadian and Deep Fork.  The reservoir, flooding the valleys of those three rivers, twists and turns like bread dough through the wooded hills of east central Oklahoma.

The original Katy mainline ran in and across the valley of the Canadian River and was significantly rerouted during the construction of the reservoir.  Every photograph in this section was taken on the rerouted trackage.  Much of the original line is now underwater, as is the original concrete of U.S. Highway 69.

The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad was the first to be constructed through present-day Oklahoma, crossing what were then the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, both of which had supported the Confederacy during the War Between the States.  Both tribes had been forcibly removed from their homes in the Southeast, and when the war was over, Secretary of State William Seward wanted to remove them again to the desert of the American West -- as punishment for their transgressions.  His plan was never implemented, in part because other tribes already occupied those areas, a fact to which he seemed to give little consideration.

Today, both the Cherokee and Choctaw have constructed impressive casinos on their lands, due to a United States Supreme Court decision that effectively prevents states from outlawing the practice.  Only the federal government, stated the Supreme Court, has such authority, and Congress has chosen not to exercise it, perhaps because our Senators and Representatives like the taxes that the tribes pay.  Your author is not certain, but he believes that politicians may be influenced by money.

A northbound MKT manifest is crossing Lake Eufala on a portion of the northern causeway constructed to reroute the line out of the river valley.

Southbound manifest on the southern (and longer) causeway.

Southbound on the southern causeway.

Northbound manifest (including trailers) in a broad pasture beside what was originally the Canadian River.

Southbound coal beside U.S. 69 and one arm of Lake Eufaula.  Number 8303 was originally a Southern Pacific SD-40 rebuilt by Morris-Knudsen in 1980.  How it ended up on a southbound MKT coal train is beyond your author's knowledge.

Here is a southbound Union Pacific manifest on the southern causeway.  Many of us were saddened when the UP purchased the Katy.  Although the line across Lake Eufaula today is a high-speed thruway to and from Texas, the local color has been lost.  MKT trains rocked from side-to-side like an old man coming down the stairs.  UP trains in the early 21st century are more like large, coordinated athletes who need a bath.  And UP trains don't stop on the mainline while the conductor walks across the street to grab lunch for the crew at a local drive-in.

Northbound ferrying yard power on the same causeway.

Southbound coal in the same location as the Morris-Knudsen unit above.  In the intervening 40 years, native timber has reclaimed much of the ground cleared when the tracks and highway were rerouted.

Pushers on same train.

Northbound grain with winter Sumac in foreground.  When your author printed this image, he noticed that it was backwards, so he reversed it, which also reversed the emblem in the lower left.  He could redo the whole thing but what the hell.


As a general rule, your author does not chase steam engines.  The crowds are unruly; most know nothing about railroads -- other than, "It's a steam engine!  Wow!"  And motorists chasing the train on the highway are downright unsafe, weaving back and forth from one lane to another, passing on hills, honking horns, waving, as though impervious to the over 5,000,000 traffic accidents that kill almost 40,000 per year.

Your author made an exception, however, when Union Pacific trotted out Big Boy X4014 and announced that it would run across former Missouri Pacific tracks through northeastern Oklahoma, from Arkansas to Salisaw to Claremore to Oolagah to Nowata to Kansas.  This would likely be the first time a Big Boy had set foot in my home state.  I assumed that others would also follow the train but was willing to brave the crowds, because at my age (70 when the train ran), I would likely not have another opportunity.  What ensued, however, was beyond my wildest imagining.

I was reasonably unfamiliar with the UP line in question, so I decided to scout it the day before, then spend the night in Muskogee.  Bear the Mighty Dog joined me, and we spent a pleasant afternoon looking for potential photo locations in the eastern Oklahoma woods.  My plan was to catch X4014 soon after it crossed the Arkansas border, then follow along the highway until it disappeared into Kansas.  In late fall, a train running northwest in the morning to due north in the afternoon would be running with the sun shining into the camera, so I carefully searched for angles in which the mighty engine would be side lit.  I knew that other railfans would be driving along the highways, but my chosen locations were isolated; I did not fear congestion.

The next morning dawned clear and cool.  Mighty Dog had slept in the Jeep (your author slept in the Holiday Inn), and I took him outside to urinate on the grass beside the motel parking lot, then fed him in the back seat, loaded my camera gear in the front passenger seat and drove eastbound into the rising sun, anticipating an interesting day.  

The first indication that my expectations were wildly amiss occurred as we approached Fort Gibson, a small settlement on the banks of the Neosho River, constructed in the early 19th century by the federal government (near the boundary of the Cherokee and Creek Nations) to assist in the forced relocation of those tribes from their homes in the Southeast.  The photo location we had found the previous day was occupied by at least 100 people, whose vehicles lined the public streets like shrapnel.  I have no idea what the local residents thought.  It looked as though a mob of refugees was fleeing an advancing army (the Wehrmacht, perhaps, or the Union, more appropriately, since the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, and many Creek were Confederate sympathizers). 

"Well," I said to myself and Mighty Dog, who seemed totally unperturbed by the crowd, "we hadn't planned this as our first shot, anyway.  By the time we get back here, most of these people will have lost interest.  Hell, the train isn't scheduled through here for another hour!"

So we drove south until we intersected Oklahoma State Highway 10, a rural road that typically sees little traffic and winds through the hills beside the Arkansas River.  About twenty yards west of the road ran the railroad tracks, and the apron of grass between road and tracks was filled with vehicles and people, some sitting in lawn chairs, others standing and drinking beer.  Your author has never seen anything like it.  This is what I imagine crowds look like when the Pope visits. 

I passed a location where I had planned a photograph.  There was nowhere to park.  I drove on about 15 miles to another planned location.  Again, nowhere to stop. 

At Greenleaf Creek, a side road led east along the edge of the water, then crossed the tracks.  Vehicles were parked along this road, but I spied an open space and decided to grab it.  I passed several videographers with cameras on tripods, plus a few more middle-aged men drinking beer, and pulled my Jeep into the only available parking spot for miles -- perhaps the only spot available all the way to Arkansas.

The size of the crowd overwhelmed me.  Whole families were parked along the road -- mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, dogs, cats.  It was like a carnival.

I climbed out of the Jeep and nodded at the gentleman standing beside a Ford F-150 parked next to me.  He was tall, with brown hair and a reddish-brown face that looked as though it had been out in the weather too long.

"Come all the way from California," he said, smiling, as though a prize might be awarded for the longest distance traveled.

"Oklahoma City," I replied.  "Crowds always like this?"

"Yessir.  All the way."

That was when we first heard the whistle.  I know little about steam engines but have been told that each engine has its own distinctive sound.  That may or may not be true, but I can tell you that X4014's whistle was the most mournful I have ever heard, the agonized cry of a lumbering beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem.

At that sound, all chattering, all beer drinking, all partying, everything -- everything stopped as the people listened, as though a signal had been given, and I suppose it had.  The country was silent, save for traffic on the highway, and then we heard the whistle again, and then the unmistakable sound of reciprocating steam cylinders.  I have not heard that sound many times in my life, but I have heard it enough to realize that there is nothing else like it.

We listened to the approaching train for at least five minutes.  Then across the water beside which we stood, a headlight appeared and behind it the magnificent engine.  A steam engine moves like a living creature.  It has joints and bones and tendons and ligaments, and you can see them moving, straining, struggling like an animal.  And then you begin to feel the ground shake from the reciprocating steam cylinders, and the rhythmic chant of the exhaust, the hiss of discharging steam.  It is an amazing site, one that never grows old, and I realized in that moment why the old-timers put away their cameras when diesel-electrics displaced the steamers.  

"Damn!" someone shouted.

"Look, son!" a father said.  "Look!"

X4014 was unbelievably large.  The diesel-electric behind the tenders was huge, as big as they come in the 21st century, yet it looked like Big Boy's little brother, tagging along behind in hopes of having some fun.

Along the highway, vehicles were following in a procession that must have stretched for miles.  This sounds as though I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.  There might have been more people watching and following the locomotive than live in eastern Oklahoma.  

"California!" the man beside me shouted above the engine's roar.


"California!  Followed all the way from California!" 

Union Pacific X4014 (Big Boy) beside Greenleaf Creek in eastern Oklahoma.  

After taking the above image, I jumped into the Jeep and raced the other parked vehicles back to the highway, which (as noted) was bumper-to-bumper.  I brazenly turned into the line of traffic.  People honked and shook their fists, but one kind soul slowed down and let me in.  Thus, did I join the ranks of crazies on the road.

I planned to return again to my photo location in Fort Gibson, where X4014 would pause for about 15 minutes, but as I approached the small town, traffic stopped on the highway, the same  congestion one sees at an Oklahoma University football game, where more than 85,000 people flood into a location about the size of a shopping mall.  In 2019, the Census Bureau estimated Fort Gibson's population at about 4,000.  In the fall of 2020, my best guess is that twice that many people had crowded into town to greet Big Boy.

Because I had scouted the territory the previous day, I knew of a back road that would take me around town.  Fortunately, no one else was on the narrow dirt road, and I trundled north toward the even smaller burg of Okay, Oklahoma -- population a little over 500.  This town is known primarily for the railroad bridge across the Verdigris River that once carried traffic of both the MKT and the MoPac.  When the UP purchased both lines, the MoPac line to Texas was abandoned, and the only trains left across the bridge ran on the old Katy route to Dennison.

When I have driven through Okay, it has always looked deserted, like one of the tiny settlements you see in the Wyoming desert at over 7,000 feet.  But this day was different.  This day a small crowd (large by standards of the town) was gathered in the city park to watch the huge steam locomotive roar past.  Some children were close to the tracks, too close I thought, but no one seemed to care, and one of my rules of conduct is to avoid bothering other people, so I said nothing.  One young woman, with hair down to her waist, was standing in front of me with a camera.  The train approached, easily and gracefully like a leopard.  People waved, and I took the photograph immediately below.

X4014 rolling north through Okay, Oklahoma.

Then on to Wagoner.  Traffic had thinned, and because X4014 was limited to 49 MPH, I beat it to town easily.  Unfortunately, I found no good photo locations, which is probably why the crowd was much smaller here, so I drove northwest several miles, following the tracks on various dirt roads.  (The main highway continued north out of town, about five miles away.). I had not scouted this territory and feared that I might get lost, but Mighty Dog was serene.  He looked at me as if to say, "Don't worry, Big Boy.  We'll be okay."  I could not tell if he was talking to me or the train.

Eventually, after wandering a bit in the fields of northeastern Oklahoma, I found a cleared one that presented the following image -- far from the madding crowd. 

Big Boy rolling easily north of Wagoner, Oklahoma.

On this relatively flat ground, Big Boy was almost coasting.  I wished that he were climbing the grade at Curtis Hill or Rich Mountain, but that was not to be.  That is the question, isn't it?

I drove east back to the main highway (U.S. 69), four-lanes north of Wagoner, and was stunned when I saw the glut of traffic, which made the roads to the south look like bucolic country thoroughfares.  The road was jammed bumper-to-bumper with vehicles that stretched from the southern horizon to the northern.  And the traffic was barely moving -- five MPH tops.  No one was going anywhere fast, so I had no trouble merging in front of a bright red Chevy Silverado, whose driver shrugged, as though as mystified as your author.  Where did this much traffic come from?  

Then I realized:  We were approaching Tulsa.

The tracks did not actually enter Oklahoma's second largest city, instead running through Claremore, a few miles to the northeast.  But crowds from the city that had once called itself the "Oil Capital of the World" had obviously spilled on the highway like one of the magnificent bison herds that had once covered the High Plains far to the west.  This herd, however, was not magnificent.  It was corpulent and slow, and it quickly became obvious that I would not reach Claremore in time to see the train.  (The "app" on my iPhone told me that X4049 was now ahead and pulling away rapidly.) It appeared that I had shot my wad, a reference to 19th century canon practice that has somehow survived into the 21st century American idiom, so I shrugged back at the driver in the red Silverado, turned off the highway and took several back roads to U.S. 412 west, which would lead to I-44, which would take me home, country road.

As I approached Tulsa, my iPhone app indicated that X4014 had now stopped in Claremore.  As I drove west, I continued checking the phone to see when the train would depart.  But it did not.  Ten minutes turned to fifteen, to twenty, to thirty, and still my phone indicated that the big beast remained in Claremore.

There was still plenty of sunlight.  I had left the crowd far behind.  I calculated that if I took U.S. 169 north of Tulsa, which was a four-lane road to Oologah, I might be able to catch the train again.  Of course, my phone might be mistaken.   The train might already be headed to Kansas.  However, since this would likely be my last chance to see the big train, I decided to drive north.  Fools rush in, after all.

After I had turned onto 169 and driven about five miles, I began to see people again lining the road.  The farther north I drove, the thicker the crowd.  I felt as though I were driving deeper and deeper into a mud pit, with no way out.

Soon the tracks were paralleling the highway, and there were thousands of people -- people everywhere, as though they had been dropped from the sky, all smiling and talking and generally having a good time, but traffic was at least moving.  I had not before seen crowds of this magnitude and likely never will again.  In front of my Jeep, high in the sky, I saw two helicopters heading south.  

There was nowhere to pull off the road, so I continued driving north.  Mighty Dog was asleep.  I often admire his ability to ignore life's vicissitudes.  Then, as earlier in the day, I spied an open spot along the right-of-way and pulled off into the grass.  Because of the waiting crowd, I assumed that X4014 had not yet rolled through.  This suspicion was confirmed when I climbed out of the Jeep and heard that unmistakable whistle to the south, punctuated by the rhythmic cadence of the steam cylinders and the exhaust.  Despite driving miles out of the way, I had arrived just in time to take another image, which is shown immediately below.

X4014 near Oolagah, Oklahoma.

Then it was on the road again with the stampede.  I felt as though I were part of a living being, a cell in a molecule in a ligament attached to a small bone, moving inexorably without conscious thought, without intent, just moving steadily forward because there was nothing else to do.  Indeed, when I spied another photo location, the creature on the highway did not want me to exit.  I was part of the living mass, and I could no more depart than a fingernail can decide to drop off a hand because it does not want to get cold.

Yet in this instance the fingernail departed.  I pulled off the side of the road, jumped out of the Jeep and grabbed the image below.

Within 20 miles of the Kansas line.

The sun was dropping rapidly.  I was well north of Tulsa now, and the crowd was thinning, though there was still a sizable contingent of crazies (including your author) driving toward Kansas.  The last town before the border was Lenapah, occupied mostly by Native Americans and their descendants, about a mile off the main highway, which had been rerouted years ago in the name of progress -- which means that people can now drive up and down the road without having to look at rural poverty in places like Oklahoma.  This phenomenon is not limited to my home state.  It likely was not even invented here.  It is one way we convince ourselves that we live in the greatest country in the history of civilization.

All you need to know about Lenapah is that almost every street in town is made of dirt.  The estimated 2019 population was 290.  I discovered a vacant lot around which about ten vehicles had parked.  I joined the throng, climbed out into the last rays of daylight and listened to the chug-chug-chug of the approaching train.

Several local residents were sitting on their porches, waiting for X4014.  A fellow just down the road was explaining to a companion how he set his camera for low lighting conditions.  I was standing at the intersection of Railroad and Chester Streets.  The train was close, starting to roar.  

At that moment, a black Chevy pick-up drove onto the vacant lot and parked directly in front of all the photographers.  The crowd began to shout as though the vehicle had been convicted of child molestation.  The fellow explaining low light conditions ran up the truck and yelled at the driver to "move your goddam ass!"

I'm not even sure the driver was following the train, so startled did he seem.  For all I know, he may have owned the lot and was parking in it.  He looked quickly at the line of photographers.  He put the truck in reverse.  As he began to back up, the train appeared.  I took the shot below, then walked across the dirt of Chester Street to say good-by to one of the most amazing spectacles (in so many different ways) that I have ever witnessed.

Big Boy in Lenapah

So long, Big Boy!

The American Freedom Train

We now turn back the clock to March 1976, America's bicentennial, when each of the country's many railroads painted one engine in patriotic red, white and blue.  In the early years of that decade, Ross Rowland Jr., a commodities broker, decided to celebrate the 200th birthday of the American Revolution with a traveling rail exhibition of unique and representative artifacts.  The train would be pulled by a restored steam engine, reminding everyone of America's industrial heritage.  

Former Southern Pacific 4-8-4 4449, retired October 2, 1957, was removed from Oaks Park in Portland, Oregon, for restoration.  The engine had originally pulled Southern Pacific's Coast Daylight from Portland to Los Angeles.  Local railfan Jack Holst had for years kept the locomotive's critical parts oiled in hopes it might one day steam again. He died in 1972, before the great engine ran, and a brass plaque was placed inside the locomotive's cab in his memory.

Your humble author was a graduate student at that time and learned from a friend that the train would be running from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City on a Saturday.  Somehow your author convinced his girl friend (now his wife of 42 years) to tag along.  In those days he owned a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, and early in the morning the pair of adventurers climbed aboard and headed south to the Red River.

I had not seen a steam locomotive in action, did not know what to expect and so was startled by the spectacle -- the feeling and sound and sight of a large passenger engine at full throttle.  I had never felt the shock waves from reciprocating steam cylinders.  I had never heard the rancorous hiss of discharging steam.  I had never seen enormous drive wheels (as tall as a man) slipping on steel rails to gain traction.

A small crowd followed the engine north (nothing like the mob gathered about X4014 those many years later).  My soon-to-be wife and I took photographs all the way to the state capital.  Actually, I took the photographs.  I think my wife was fascinated that anyone would spend an entire day chasing a steam engine and just wanted to see for herself that it was real.  (I'm not exactly sure what the antecedent of the pronoun is in the preceding sentence, so choose your own.)

It was real.  Here are the photographs to prove it.

Here is X4449 stopped for the evening in Oklahoma City.  The remaining images run from south to north.

The American Freedom Train has just crossed the Red River into Oklahoma.

Steaming north toward Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Wayne, Oklahoma

Along U.S. 77.

Purcell, Oklahoma -- in those days a division point.

Norman, Oklahoma, beside the Oklahoma University golf course.


Following are photographs of railroad bridges in Oklahoma.  For expediency's sake, I have shortened the group to a few of my favorites.  Otherwise, the detail would bore even me.

Because annual rainfall varies so widely from northwest to southeast, some rivers are mostly parking lots of sand (except after downpours) while others are full from bank to bank.  Some of the drier rivers can be deceptively dangerous, for much of their water runs below the surface.  One can easily be swallowed whole in wet sand, never to be heard from again.  The wetter rivers can be equally perilous; their hazards lie in the fierce currents that can pull you easily and rapidly beneath the water's surface.

The longest bridge in the state was built by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad across Lake Texhoma.  Over a mile long, this structure can be photographed only after a strenuous hike on either side of the lake.  Years ago, your author walked to the edge of the water with his small miniature dachshund Snookie, who proceeded to catch the scent of something and spend the next several hours, in the middle of July, digging wildly in the soft sand.  The little dog looked as though he were digging for his life, as though looking for passage to somewhere safe from life's evils.  When it was time to leave, he was so tired that he just lay on the sand with his feet in the air.  Your author was forced to carry him two miles back to the van.  Snookie survived, but your author never returned with him to Lake Texhoma.

AT&SF bridge across the Washita River south of Dougherty, Oklahoma.

BNSF bridge across the Canadian River north of Purcell, Oklahoma.

BNSF bridge across the Cimarron River southwest of Waynoka, Oklahoma.

AT&SF bridge across the Cimarron River north of Guthrie, Oklahoma

Kansas City Southern bridge across the Arkansas River south of Sallisaw, Oklahoma.

Kiamichi Railroad on BNSF bridge across Lake Texhoma.

Missouri, Kansas and Texas bridge (abandoned) across Cimarron River north of Cushing, Oklahoma.

Stillwater Central bridge across Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City.

Chisholm Trail

People who know nothing at all about Oklahoma (most of humanity) have nonetheless heard of the Chisholm Trail -- the route on which mostly Longhorn cattle were driven north from Texas to railheads in Kansas.  The general picture of cattle drives includes beautiful blue skies, hot meals by a campfire and rugged cowhands singing western standards to a guitar and harmonica.

The truth lies somewhere else.  Here are excerpts from the diary of Jack Bailey, a Texas cowboy taking cattle north in 1868 across what later became western Oklahoma.



We had the hardest time last night imaginable. I got up at 10 oclock. Never got off of my horse no more until day light.  As I predicted we had 2 of the worst kind of Stampedes. The first time they made a break about 9 oclock. Run about 1⁄2 hour. Got them to running around in a circle. Dont Sanders on herd with his guard + they managed to stop them. They rested then until about 2 hours before day, then jewhilikens how they run. It was raining, came a loud keen clap of thunder. They turned all loose.




Had the devil last night in the shape of a storm which lays over anything of the kind I ever witnessed. The wind came in whirls down this hollow, tremendous rain. Keen loud claps of thunder and the most vivid, forked, scariest pretiest + fastest lightning I ever saw. It came up while the first relief was out which was mine. We turned the cattle towards a point of timber and went to camp, in a hurry too. Just did get in, in time. It came with a vengeance. Clouds came every way. Met over us, and such a clash. I thought once or twice we were done for. Some of the boys badly scared. Our tent blew down. The old lady holered for help to hold her tent down. We let ours rip and every fellow for himself. Some went to wagons. Some to other tent. Everything soaking wet. 


"Jack Bailey: A Texas Drover's Diary, 1868," Symphony in the Flint Hills Field Journal, 

Cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail lasted only about 20 years.  By the late 19th century, a railroad line (which became part of the Rock Island system), had been constructed along the same route, eliminating the need for taking cattle overland.  The Rock Island operated the tracks until its bankruptcy liquidation in 1980.  For a short time, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway ran trains on the line through a subsidiary called the Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.  Very soon, Union Pacific bought the route, upgraded the tracks and currently (February 2021) runs 6-12 trains each day between Texas and Kansas City.

Following are images of both Rock Island and Union Pacific trains along the old Chisholm Trail.

Northbound Rock Island manifest at Okarche, Oklahoma.

Southbound at Union City, Oklahoma.

Northbound CRI&P climbing Concho Hill, Oklahoma.

Northbound approaching Okarche, Oklahoma.

Northbound Union Pacific approaching Minco Hill, Oklahoma.

Northbound north of El Reno, Oklahoma.

Southbound UP grain train beside ripe winter wheat -- about 15 miles north of El Reno, Oklahoma.

Curtis Hill

Curtis Hill is the grade that westbound trains climbed on the AT&SF Belen Cut-off, and now climb on the BNSF Transcon, as they navigate across the Cimarron River in northwestern Oklahoma -- an area filled with gypsum-covered mesas that have resisted the erosion that over thousands of years lowered the surrounding red clay several hundred feet.  The soil is lighter than blood, darker than sunset, about the same color as properly smoked pork ribs, striped by thin layers of volcanic ash that blew in from thousands of miles away, then were covered by more clay, then another thin layer, then more clay, then gypsum.  The cream-colored stripes on the mesas look like swirls of paint left by a vandal who, in spite of himself, produced something attractive.

In 1976, a westbound AT&SF manifest grinds upgrade beside one of the gypsum-topped mesas striped with thin layers of ash.  At this time, the line across Curtis Hill was single-track, with extra long passing sidings -- at Heman, Belva and Quinlan -- that could hold two trains.  In those days, this was known as the Belen Cut-off, because Santa Fe was also running westbounds to California across central Kansas, then southwest through Colorado to Raton Pass.  In the mid-1990's, the Santa Fe double-tracked the line across Curtis Hill and later sold to Amtrak the line across Raton Pass.  Today (February 2021) all BNSF westbound traffic crosses Curtis Hill.

At the end of the last Ice Age, when the melting began, water from the Colorado glaciers ran southeast through the High Plains like a hundred mile long Bison herd, pushing with it sand and gravel that the glaciers had gouged then held firm in their palm during the long cold.  That sand was deposited along the banks of enormous rivers, and over thousands of years, once the rains started again, sturdy plants covered the sand, masking almost all traces of the cataclysm.  But in places, today, the sand still holds sway, resisting all botanical efforts at conquest.  One of those lies along the Cimarron River at Curtis Hill, where the daily parade of the railroad looks up at sand dunes 60 to 100 feet tall.

Westbound trailers beside the Cimarron River sand dunes in 1990.  The train, including the Frisco and Burlington Northern power, has come off the old Frisco line from Tulsa to Avard, Oklahoma, now the Avard Subdivision of the BNSF.

Westbound BNSF trailers in 2012.

Sand dunes along the Transcon.

Near the top of the grade, the tracks pass the hamlet of Quinlan, then dive through three deep cuts, the last of which is crossed by a bridge carrying the old U.S. highway, rerouted to the south many years ago.  In the ATSF days of single track, this bridge was narrow and dangerous.  When BNSF double-tracked the line, it replaced the bridge with a wider span upon the shoulder of which one can now stand to photograph the railroad.  This is a favorite railfan spot; many have carved their names and semi-clever sayings into the side railing.  One of my favorites is:  "Think you are old and you will be old.  Think you are young and you will be delusional." 

Westbound Santa Fe trailers climb the hill beneath the Quinlan Bridge.  The photographer was standing in the middle of the traffic lane to take this image.  In the distance, you can see the Quinlan passing siding curving to the right.  This was the original mainline, turned into a siding when AT&SF realigned the route in the mid-1940's.  The siding was removed when the line was double-tracked.

Same location 40 years later.  Notice the increased vegetation.

From some of the hilltops, you can see the horizon 30 to 40 miles away, shimmering through the summer haze or winter cold like a reflection in an almost motionless pool.  The constants in this country, besides summer and winter, are the red soil and the wind, which often combine to form dust clouds that look like approaching thunderstorms.  Through all this, wind and dust and heat and cold, westbounds struggle up the steady one percent grade from Heman to Curtis (the summit), while eastbounds race downhill, some Z-trains as fast as 70 mph.  If your author lived here, he would build a house on one of the hills overlooking the tracks, though he would probably retreat to one of the valleys when the wind howled out of the northwest in January.

Westbound AT&SF mixed freight climbing toward the summit at Curtis.

Eastbound BNSF stacks rolling down Curtis Hill.

Image taken from where your author would build his house.

When your author would leave the hilltop and head for the valley.

These are just a few of the hundreds (thousands?) of images your author has obtained of Curtis Hill over the past 50 years.  This is country with few people and many trains, with hot summers and cold winters, with bright sunshine and fierce thunderstorms -- the beginning of the West  and the end of the East, a land of infinite contrast.  

Westbound Santa Fe trailers at Quinlan.

Eastbound AT&SF at sundown.


Page, Oklahoma, is a few ramshackle houses and a passing siding on the Kansas City Southern, buried deep in the pine and hardwood forest between Winding Stair and Black Fork Mountains.  Your author is an attorney and several years ago took the deposition of a woman who claimed to have been born there.  Upon further questioning, she named several individuals she had grown up with, all of whom had since passed.  She paused, touched her nose with the tip of a finger  and said, "My goodness.  I never realized I knew so many dead people!"

I first visited this hamlet in the early 1970's, when the KCS was a derailment or two away from bankruptcy.  The mainline was in laughably poor condition; the siding looked as though it could not support a train.  The forest was encroaching the right-of-way and might, in another year or two, swallow the tracks entirely.

It was late of an evening in July.  The humidity was so thick that I could feel it on my hands and face.  I had driven southeast from central Oklahoma, parked my junk car beside the tracks and climbed out into the fading light to see what this part of Oklahoma might offer.

I immediately heard across the tracks a rustling of leaves and underbrush from somewhere in the pines, the sort of sound a clumsy dog makes, but this was too much racket for a dog, even a huge one.  As I watched, astonished, a wild hog ambled out of the trees into the clearing beside the tracks, looking at me with as much puzzlement as I was looking at him.  The animal easily weighed three hundred pounds and probably could have knocked my small car on its side.  But the hog did not appear aggressive.  He just stood there, looking at me, then turned and wandered back into the trees.  

Thus, my introduction to the Kansas City Southern and southeastern Oklahoma.

In an article like this, your author cannot begin to do justice to a part of the world that was once the Choctaw Nation and thus not subject to either state or federal jurisdiction. Those running from the law found shelter in the Ouachita Mountains.  Even today, over 100 years since statehood, these ridges and valleys are home to some wild wild people -- to say nothing of the hogs and black bears that roam freely among the trees.

Along the main highway about a half mile from the tracks stands a small white clapboard church, large enough to hold about 30 people on a good day.  Years ago, I pulled off the highway and walked to the front door, which to my surprise was unlocked.  On each side of the center aisle stood five rows of wooden pews, each wide enough to seat three or four people (if they were skinny).  At the head of the aisle was a small wooden lecturn with a worn Bible.  I was expecting someone to appear in the door and accuse me of theft, or at least of trespassing, but there was no one.  Not a soul.  I was alone with my thoughts, which soon turned to trains when I heard a KCS freight whistle at the nearby grade crossing.  I raced outside to begin the chase up the 1.5 percent grade to the summit of Rich Mountain just across the border in Arkansas.

In my time, I have photographed three different paint schemes in this wilderness:

1.  White Knights;

2.  Gray Ghosts;

3.  Retro Belles.

The following images show examples of each.

White Knights:

Northbound (compass west) empty coal at Page, Oklahoma.  Winding Stair Mountain rises in the background.

Northbound manifest at Page.

Southbound (compass east) KCS trailers just east of Page, Oklahoma, approaching the Arkansas border, with Black Fork Mountain in the background.

A southbound coal train at Page in the days when the tracks were falling apart.  Coal traffic in the late 1970's rescued the line from catastrophe.

Gray Ghosts

Three gray pushers on a loaded coal train at Page, Oklahoma.

Southbound grain at Page.

Northbound entering Page Siding.

Retro Belles

Northbound light engines at Page.

Southbound grain has left Page Siding, with Black Fork Mountain in background.

Northbound empty coal runs around grainer at Page, Oklahoma.

Northbound manifest beside Big Creek.

Southbound DPU on grain train, overlooked by Winding Stair Mountain.

Closing Thought

I generally do not read the newspaper, watch television or surf the internet, because they create an illusion in which I do not care to participate.  But I do talk to other people, and from time to time I hear a story that sticks in my mind.

Someone told me yesterday that he had seen on the television news that a newlywed couple, honeymooning in Florida, were found dead in their camper with a coral snake still wrapped in the blankets with them.  This raised in my mind two questions:

1.  Why does the television news report this?

2.  Why do things like this happen?

I received in the mail today a letter from a prominent nation-wide mortgage company, announcing that I had been pre-approved for a loan of $358,000!  I know enough about mortgage lending to understand that this company, if it were to make the loan to me, would not hold the paper and wait for me to pay back the mortgage.  Instead, it would sell the instrument "upstream" to another company that pays, say, 95 cents on the dollar.  That company, in turn, sells to another company that may pay 90 cents on the dollar.  And so on until, finally, the mortgage is "packaged" with other mortgages and sold as a security or bond to a pension fund or some other large investor.

When enough mortgages start going bad, and they eventually do if companies are loaning $358,000 through the mail, the pension funds take the loss.  Ultimately, then, the loss finds it way to retirees who cannot afford it.

This is what happened in the mortgage crisis of 2008.  Huge money can be made by the original lender and middle men, while poor suckers like me take the loss.  It may be happening again.  Soon.  Or not.  No one can predict these things.  The system is far too complicated.  But it does raise a question:

1.  Why do people keep doing this?

You may notice that each of these questions begins with "why."  You may also recall that children love to play with their parents a game in which they ask "why" over and over again.

"Why does the sun shine?"

"Because when hydrogen atoms fuse, they form helium and release energy.  The sun is filled with hydrogen."


"Hydrogen is the most comment element in the universe."


"Well, it goes back to the Big Bang."


This line of questioning goes on endlessly until the parent grows exasperated and says, "Just because!"

That ultimately is the answer to everything, including the three questions above.  

To see my other posts, go to

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to

No comments:

Post a Comment