Misguided state, local, and tribal leaders are pushing hard to lead Oklahoma and the nation into 21st-century transportation. Determined to realize progress, they’ve deployed programs to boost aerospace engineering, planned smart cities, and subsidized the manufacture of odd-looking electric cars. But one mayor has the vision, the courage and the wisdom to see past the pageantry.  He has not been bamboozled by the gimmicky future of transportation. Forget about drone taxis, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. That’s the stuff of cartoons and science fiction. Only the wise realize that the real future is in the past.

Mayor David Holt (R – Oklahoma City), is on the precipice of a true retro revival in Oklahoma City transportation. And I don’t mean a modest nod to the best decade of American muscle cars. Ford, Chevy, and Dodge are already doing that. No, that’s not the mayor’s style. He’s a visionary. We’re talking about a big, bold retro revival. We’re talking about reaching way, way back. Change that predates the previous century.   

During a recent meeting with President Joe Biden, Mayor Holt hinted at this vision. He explained that many of Oklahoma City’s prospective settlers arrived by passenger rail from Kansas – settlers hoping to stake a claim during the land run of 1889. That doesn’t happen today. He lamented, “We had better rail service in 1889 than we do in 2021.”

Mayor Holt is absolutely right. This must be remedied immediately. However, in a retro transportation revival, rail transit is just the tip of the iceberg. We can’t stop there. “Go big, or go home,” as they say. After all, the Nineteenth Century was one of the greatest, most innovative periods in the world of transportation technology – it was the Transportation Revolution for Pete’s sake! No. If we are to realize Oklahoma City’s romantic, nineteenth-century ideal this can’t be done half-heartedly. We must proceed full steam ahead! 

Oklahoma City’s retro revival can’t be limited to trains. For example, during the first few decades of the 1800s, Americans not only laid miles upon miles of track but there were horse-drawn omnibuses, steam-powered cable cars and electric streetcars. There were also steamboats – boats capable of easily traveling up and downstream rivers and through miles of canals. Thus, in the spirit of collaboration, I offer a few transit choices that would boost the mayor’s vision.

One of the most common modes of transportation in the 1800s was via horse. Lamentably, it is difficult to hail a horse and buggy in Oklahoma City these days. Not only was equine transit more accessible then than it is today, but it also happens to be powered by renewable energy sources. Consequently, improving horse transit would score some big points for the mayor. Not only would he score a win for restoring a Nineteenth Century transportation option currently unavailable to the vast majority of the city’s 21st-century residents, but he would score a big green win for the city’s environmentally friendly comprehensive plan. And a significant fringe benefit of this plan is that passengers on horseback wouldn’t mind the deplorable conditions of Oklahoma City’s roads.

Yes, horses would be a fantastic addition to the OKC retro transportation system. You will, of course, have to disregard the messy streets, methane emissions, and the fact that after a full day of riding, you’ll dismount, saddle sore, having covered a whopping 30 to 40 miles. And where in the world would one tie up a horse for a ten-hour workday?

Steam-powered riverboats are absolutely essential in a nineteenth-century transportation revival. Riverboats were all the rage in the early 1800s. With speeds averaging 20 miles per hour, who wouldn’t want to hop aboard a riverboat for a leisurely daily commute to work or campus? Fortunately for us, we’ve reduced car emissions with all those horses because Nineteenth Century coal engines were not what you’d call clean burning.

Adding a robust riverboat transit system shouldn’t be too big of a jump for such a visionary, backward-looking place like Oklahoma City which has already piloted river transit. In fact, the city is already spending $722,520 to subsidize 80 percent of Oklahoma River Cruises’ ferry service – the epitome of a raging success, right? I do have one suggestion, however. To get the full effect, the city needs to invest a little capital in retrofitting the ferries with magnificent paddle wheels.

Additionally, no first-rate aquatic transit system would be complete (or possible) without a lengthy network of canals. Perhaps it’s time to consider building Oklahoma’s own Erie Canal. How cool would it be to watch that big paddle wheel turn as you make your way along a picturesque canal? I’ve already got the likes of CCR, Pete Seeger, and the Doobie Brothers playing in my head. Bricktown’s canal could become Oklahoma’s Grand Central Station, the central hub of our nostalgic transportation system.

Oklahoma City is already out front of the new retro-transpo trend. Our wonderfully efficient, highly-utilized street car wasn’t a ridiculous boondoggle that tore up the streets and slowed traffic in the congested downtown area. It was the first step of a transit system sure to achieve the time-capsule charm of a period theme park. I am sure that as a result of this retro transportation revival property values will skyrocket along these transit routes and economic development will explode. Tourists from all over the world will come to see antiquated transit and experience the spirit of ’89 locked in time.

Oklahoma City, under the ambitious, bold, visionary leadership of Mayor Holt, can finish what has been well-begun – sending the city back in time. Back to a time when life was slower, or at least transportation was. Back to the nineteenth century. Ferries, horses, steamboats, streetcars, and trains are not only our past, but also our future. And, for the full nineteenth-century effect, perhaps we can all look forward to the removal of electric wires running about and lights polluting our view of the night sky.

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.