Railroads and Ponca City

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An article appeared in the Ponca City News on Augusut 12, 2015 about the old Rock Island Railroad depot in Ponca City that has brought back many fond memories and inspired me to do some research and write an article on the role that railroads have played in the history and development of Ponca City. According to the article by Louise Abercrombie, the old Rock Island Railroad depot at 702 South 3rd Street, closed for many years, is undergoing renovation by Joan and John Shotton and will soon reopen as an art gallery that will include paintings, furniture, pottery, and hand made jerewlry.[1]

You see, my family is a railroad family, and our history in Ponca City goes back to the 1940s when my father, Dale Pickens, came to Ponca City as a telegrapher for the Rock Island Railroad after his service in the Merchant Marines in World War Two. Interestingly enough, my mother Deloris Pickens, still alive and active at 88 years of age, was also a railroad employee but at the Santa Fe Railroad at their passenger depot on Oklahoma Street next to the old Robin Hood Flour Elevator. That's how my mother and father met. My father would bring Rock Island waybills to the Santa Fe station whenever a railroad car was being transferred from the Rock Island line over to Santa Fe. Back in the 1940s, jobs on the railroad were the best jobs in the country and much sought after. The pay was excellent, the benefits were good (Mother and Father both had a free pass to ride the railroads free anywhere in the country.) and the workers had a strong union that protected the workers' rights.

Things were a lot different in Ponca City in those days. Railroad were the primary means of transportation. There was no I-35. The only way to travel long distances out of Ponca City was by passenger train. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was a passenger train stopping in Ponca City every hour around the clock. If you want to go to Oklahoma City to do some shopping, you just went down to the Santa Fe depot, bought a ticket at the ticket counter, sat down in the waiting room, and hopped onto the next train b going south. An hour or so later you were in Oklahoma City, could do your shopping, and be back in Ponca city later on in the afternoon.

We tend to think that things just get better with "progress" and that the past could only be worse than our present modern day age. But my mother tells me how local businessman could come down to the Santa Fe Depot at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, get on a train bound North, and after a restful night's sleep in a sleeper berth, wake up in Chicago. You could spend all day in Chicago doing your business or shopping, get on another train headed south and wake up the next morning back in Ponca City. It seems to me the old ways were a lot more convenient than what we put up with now, driving to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, or Wichita, waiting in line to go through security, getting stuffed into an airplane, and having to rent a car on your arrival.

The railroads played a huge role in my life as well. I put myself through college working on the railroads during the summer. By the late 1960s when I went to work for the Rock Island railroad, a lot of the old timers had retired and there was a shortage of station agents for the smaller railroad depots around the country. In 1967 for 12 weeks I drove down to Rock Island Regional Headquarters at El Reno, Oklahoma every Saturday and spent eight hours learning how to write waybills, fill our the famous "602" report, and put together a train. But the hardest thing I had to do was write Train Orders. Back in the days before the widespread use of long-distance telephone and train track automation, it was hard to keep track of trains. If one train was delayed or broke down, a method had to be devised to coordinate all the other trains up and down the line to keep them from running into each other

The solution was "Train Orders."