Tulsa History: Why Downtown’s Streets Are Skewed

Editor at Large

EARLIEST KNOWN PHOTO OF TULSA: Taken in 1882, this is believed to be the earliest image of Tulsa, looking north from about Main and Second streets. The two-story structure in the background on the right is the town’s first hotel, The Tulsa House.

Courtesy of Tulsa Historic Society & Museum

Ever notice how all those downtown streets encapsulated in the inner dispersal loop are slanted precisely 34-degrees off true north? Why are they skewed compared to the rest of Greater Tulsa? To understand, one needs to go back to when Green Country was an uninterrupted expanse of plush prairie grasses and hardwood forest.

After the Civil War, much of the tall grass prairie was known as Indian Territory, and what was destined to become northern Texas, Oklahoma and much of Kansas was opened to railroad right of way by the federal government. Rail lines running south from the transcontinental lines of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Union Pacific were needed to transport cattle to growing urban markets like Kansas City and Chicago. Demand for rail lines continued growing as the post civil war cattle industry spread across Green Country.

Slow, cumbersome cattle drives northward to market centers became a thing of the past, replaced by the more rapid transporting capabilities of the mighty Iron Horse. Railroads were like blood vessels to the Tall Grass Prairie, bringing in the lifeblood of new settlers and exporting their agrarian products into the heart of growing urban markets.

In 1871, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (A&P) conducted a survey plotting a course through what was to become Tulsa in hopes of bringing rail service into burgeoning cattle country. But due to financial challenges, the actual construction of the rail line was halted approximately 60 miles northeast in the town of Vinita.

Finally in 1882, the A&P reorganized into a new entity: the St Louis-San Francisco Railway, forever to be known as the Frisco Railroad. Solicitation for contractors to build the new rail line began, and a contract was awarded to Harry Constantine Hall, an experienced railway contractor who helped build the famous transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, completed in 1869.

Most Tulsans probably won’t recognize the name Harry C. Hall or that of his younger brother, James Monroe Hall, who soon joined Harry to help carry out the work of completing the Frisco rail line south from Vinita to the Arkansas River. Yet, these two historic figures through force of will, ingenuity and good old frontier gumption were instrumental in determining the location and birth of the City of Tulsa.

The Hall Brothers were like other early settlers who came to Indian Territory in search of a foothold in the vast expanse of territory. They were multi-skilled, resourceful, energetic and in search of opportunity. But they differed from many of the less refined characters drawn to Indian Territory in that they were personable, mild-mannered, reasonably well-educated, ambitious family men, with what turned out to be keen judgment and foresight.

After receiving the Frisco railroad contract, Harry recruited his brother, known to all as J.M., to help him corral the often-rowdy construction crew. In the spring of 1882, the building of the Frisco Railroad out of Vinita began in earnest. Although J.M. was mild mannered and slight of built, his personable approach and friendly countenance somehow succeeded in keeping the raucous work crew focused on the task at hand.

Construction progressed quickly, soon crossing the Verdigris River and continuing south. During the last leg, the brothers searched ahead along the grading stakes of the survey line for the optimum location for a depot. Establishing a depot in the heart of cattle country was the primary purpose of the rail line. The brothers understood the location of the depot would become the commercial center of the region. It would be the destination of cattle drives from the many area ranches. Wherever a depot was built, commerce and eventually a community would likely follow. The two entrepreneurs planned to return to their first love: that of successful merchants by building a trading post near the depot. They believed becoming merchants would offer more financial stability and enhance the prospects of family life. Both men had left their families behind in pursuit of the opportunity afforded them by the railroad contract.

A burgeoning population of cowboys, farmers, ranchers, railroad workers, and most importantly, Native American tribes made up the increasingly diverse population of Indian Territory. The region needed a trading post, and as railroad contractors, the Hall brothers had positioned themselves to know exactly where the trains would eventually stop and therefore where best to locate their planned enterprise.

It’s easy to imagine why they chose a location in the fertile Arkansas River basin on Creek Nation land for the depot. Not only were nearby large cattle ranches poised with market bound herds of longhorn cattle, but the sandy loom soil awash with Blue Stem and Buffalo Grass was perfect for farming, and close by was abundant hardwood forest for lumber. Also, less than a third of a mile to the north was the convergence of the Creek, Cherokee and Osage nations. A little farther west were the Pawnee and Sac & Fox Nations.

Harry Hall’s insistence that the depot be located on Creek Nation land meant less hassle when it came to restrictions that other tribes imposed on non-Indian residents. The Creeks were ahead of other tribes in the region when it came to assimilation with the influx of white settlers. Therefore, the chosen location offered more potential for a white settlement to succeed.

By coincidence, the location the two brothers chose for the depot was within a short buggy ride of the Council Oak Tree where 46 years earlier the Loachapoka Tallasi people of the Muscogee Indians (called Creeks by white settlers) had settled after their long, torturous journey on the infamous Trail Of Tears.

The establishment of the Frisco Railroad Depot began the history that shaped a little prairie settlement once known as Tulsey Town into “America’s Most Beautiful City,” “The Magic Empire” or “The Oil Capital of the World.” Take your pick.

But wait. What about those skewed streets?

J.M. knew that to have a town, one must first have streets. When the railroad grading crew showed up to prepare the grounds for the depot construction, he directed two streets be graded south of the depot location. One grade was a two-block-long, eighty-foot-wide swath to serve as Main Street. It ran perpendicular to the newly completed rail line while the other street, the one dubbed First Street, ran parallel to the tracks. First Street connected to Main Street to form a T intersection. The Frisco rail line was not true north thus neither was Tulsa’s first two streets. The direction of streets to follow was set and that is how early downtown Tulsa got skewed.

Even if the early grid of Tulsa streets was not laid out true north, everything else was right on track thanks in large part to the Hall brothers’ insistent focus on creating a civilized, family-friendly community centered around education, opportunity, commerce and faith as the governing forces serving as counterpoints to the all too often turbulence of frontier life.

Soon to follow were the Hall & Co. Store, the Presbyterian Mission School, a two-story hotel named Tulsa House, the Archer Store, and the Perryman Store. As anticipated by the brothers, these enterprises sprung up in the next five years close to the Frisco Depot. It was the beginning of Tulsa.

Harry Hall’s death in 1895 robbed him of witnessing his vision of a fledgling prairie community growing into a thriving city. On the other hand, J.M. lived for eighty-four years and saw it all come true.

Today, Greater Tulsa benefits from the legacy of accomplishments of the Hall Brothers, from their tireless efforts to build a city on the prairie, and from their entrepreneurial spirit and their uncanny vision.

Special thanks to Tulsa Historic Society and the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa for the photos accompanying this article.

Updated 11-08-2017

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