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Author Topic: Tulsa World article about the planning and construction of Skelly Drive (I-44)  (Read 962 times)


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Here is an article in the April 20, 1992 issue of the Tulsa World about Skelly Drive (today's I-44/OK 66 through Tulsa). This article sheds a lot of light on the history of why the highway was built where and how it was built and answers several questions I had about the highway.

- The original plans were to build an expressway system in Tulsa that would begin construction in 1948 but the city voted for a bypass instead. Roy Lundy was elected mayor that year and ran on an anti-expressway platform. Tulsa was much smaller in 1948 than it is now and 51st Street was at the south edge of town so these proposed unbuilt expressways would have run closer to downtown. Skelly Drive was truly a bypass when it was built because virtually all development was north of it.

- It was originally planned to be a 2 lane highway but Tulsa officials were shocked to see a Bureau of Roads artist's conception of the Arkansas River bridge as a 4 lane bridge and the entire highway was built as a 4 lane expressway with some interchanges. It was later upgraded to a full freeway and  the part between US 75 and Admiral Place has since been completely rebuilt and partially relocated to be a six lane freeway with full shoulders on both sides.

- The first segment of Skelly Drive opened in June, 1953. It ran from the end of the Turner Turnpike to Utica Avenue. The entire expressway was completed in 1957.

- The original I-44 Arkansas River bridge (also called the 51st Street bridge) was the first 4 lane highway bridge in Oklahoma.

- The original alignment, approved in February, 1950, was to follow 51st Street east to Memorial Drive, where it would turn north and follow Memorial north to Admiral Place where it would turn east and meet its eventual alignment. The Bureau of Roads changed the route to today's diagonal alignment in August, 1951. It was changed to this alignment because it didn't require the demolition of any houses and because it was 3 miles shorter.

- The curve that used to exist just east of Lewis was there so the highway would avoid 3 houses on S. Birmingham Place (now S. Columbia Avenue). When the freeway was rebuilt a few years ago this curve was eliminated when the freeway was slightly relocated.


51st Street bypass was prelude to expressways
Tulsa World
Apr 20, 1992

Five years after Tulsa voted for a bypass instead of a city expressway system to relieve its traffic problems, the first leg of the Skelly Drive portion of I-44 finally opened in 1953. I had worked hard for the expressway system the city could have started building in 1948 had it not elected Roy Lundy mayor on an anti-expressway platform.

The story I wrote on June 1, 1953, announcing this milestone for the bypass project still smacks of sour grapes when re-read today. It began, "Like the fabled tortoise, Tulsa's 51st Street bypass project moves forward slowly, but nevertheless forward. "The first section of the city's first "super-duper"
 (that was what Lundy called expressways) highway - a three-mile stretch west of the Arkansas River - will be opened to traffic within a few days, according to Joe Terry, state Highway Department division engineer. "Tulsa's first expressway began at the tollgate on the just-opened Turner Turnpike and extended to a new four-lane bridge over the Arkansas River. It was the first four-lane highway bridge in the state.

Terry said construction of the bridge and three miles of expressway had cost more than $2.9 million. To buy the right-of-way, the city spent $441,172 of a $500,000 bond issue it voted on July 4, 1950, and the county spent 302,706 of a $900,000 issue approved the same day. The state Highway Department had set up $500,000 to finance the next construction job, but insisted all 10.624 miles of right-of-way east of the river be acquired before the work started.

It is difficult today to realize that only a small part of the project was within the city limits. The city's purchase included the ground for the interchange at 51st Street and Peoria Avenue and the land required along 51st Street east to Utica Avenue. The county had purchased the right-of-way west of the river and was in the process of buying right-of-way for the bypass east of Utica.

Buying to the east had been delayed for a year by a lawsuit brought by property owners seeking to force the bypass to follow the route first planned for it, along 51st Street to Memorial Drive and along Memorial north to the traffic circle on Admiral Place. The 51st-Memorial route had been approved by the federal Bureau of Roads in February 1950. But in August 1951 the bureau approved a switch to the present diagonal route. It leaves 51st at Utica Avenue, runs a little north of 51st for two miles, then angles northeast to intersect Admiral Place 2 1/4 miles east of the traffic circle.

Eugene N. Wood, one of the engineers employed to make plans for the bypass, said the diagonal route was recommended because it missed all residences and would save three miles. The Tribune published a map which showed how the route had been bent to narrowly miss three houses on Birmingham Place. Residences were few and far between.

It all seems unreal, so much has changed along the bypass since it was completed in 1957. But for me nothing is as unreal about the story of the bypass as the beginning. When we were campaigning for the expressways that federal highway engineers proposed to solve Tulsa's traffic problems, our opponents argued a bypass would be a cheaper solution.

Both sides thought of a bypass as a two-lane highway. It is hard to describe the shock when the Bureau of Roads released an artist's conception of a four-lane bridge across the Arkansas it planned as the first unit of the bypass. After it was published, J.A. Elliott, the federal highway engineer for our region and the leading advocate of expressways, asked me to oppose it. I told him, "If you were the editor of a newspaper in a city and someone offered to build a four-lane bridge for you, would you oppose it?" He replied, "I don't believe I would."
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Nice find.


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Thanx for the article, bugo...I went on I-44 (Skelly Drive) on my family visits to Tulsa in Aug 2000 and again, May 2006. I went on 11th street or Admiral Place too (historic US route 66). And I went on the turnpike-also I-44 from OK City to Tulsa in 2000...I'm not familiar with toll roads as a Californian, except we have them in Orange county and one in San Diego.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2017, 10:57:01 PM by Desert Man »
Get your kicks...on Route 99! Like to turn 66 upside down. The other historic Main street of America.


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Always nice to read old articles on highway construction. I knew this project wasn't easy, but then again, has there ever been such a thing?
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