An Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad switch engine crossed the North Canadian River Wednesday after many gathered to officially dedicate the reopening of a railroad bridge that washed out in that area 20 years ago.
The milestone of the bridge is significant progress in the first phase of a railroad revitalization project to ultimately connect the Shawnee area’s rail line to the McAlester area, opening up endless possibilities for economic development and growth.
“I did not build it — we built it — the people of Oklahoma,” said David Donoley, president of A-OK Railroad. “This is putting jobs – getting people hired out and giving them a place to work and earn a living out here.”
Donoley said the work on the bridge was a partnership of many as a mountain of materials as piles of junk, from dirt and concrete, to steel from a Hollywood movie set, all became part of what was used to shore up the river area and get the rail bridge open once again.
“So this bridge built out of junk is what we’re really all about,” Donoley said, adding “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
The railway bridge, which was the link needed for work on re-establishing the line to Eastern Oklahoma “was a big hurdle, and it’s tied,” Donoley said.
Several officials were on hand for the event as a ribbon-cutting commenced for the rededication of a bridge that once provided a vital connection for the east-west means of rail transport across the state.
U.S. Congressman James Lankford said when the railway bridge washed out 20 years ago, so did many businesses, which left buildings empty from here to McAlester.
The rededication of the bridge is a symbol of possibility and progress, Lankford said, opening the door for manufacturing and transport up and down the line, involving everything from bricks to crude oil and sand.
“This is a great example of finding ways to get government out of the way so private business and tribes can take this on in local districts,” Lankford said.
Bill Ford, president of Shawnee Milling Company, said that company, started in 1906, wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the rail.
“What we’re doing, I think, is planting seeds for the tomorrow…like planting an oak tree…I think all of us today can look back years from now and know that what we did was monumental for moving this state forward for this part of Oklahoma,” Ford said. “We’ve made a statement and by the time it gets to McAlester, we’ll make a big statement.”
Page 2 of 3 - The engineering of the bridge project included restoration of the rail line that crosses the North Canadian River at Shawnee, which required replacing the main line railroad embankment adjacent to the river, along with the river bridge approach, for the historic rail bridge.
Some of the steel used in the efforts came from the set of the recent Lone Ranger movie, Donoley said, with that steel being moved from the set in Colorado to Oklahoma. Much of the concrete used to fill in holes was rubble hauled in from old parking lot projects for the city of Shawnee, which provided those materials.
A key factor in the rail bridge effort was CPN’s Iron Horse Industrial Park, which is getting closer to becoming a reality with the restoration of the railroad bridge.
“The vision for the Iron Horse Industrial Park is to provide a prime industrial location for both tribally-owned businesses and private companies,” said CPN Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett. “This will further diversify the tribal economy by providing assembly and manufacturing jobs. We are pleased to celebrate this important milestone with A-OK Railroad and look forward to the next phase of this project.”
Barrett said water and sewer line work is beginning soon for the industrial park and work on the continued rail track for the park will begin in the next 90 days.
“I’m really looking forward to this connection with eastern Oklahoma,” Barrett said, as a future rail link to eastern Oklahoma's limestone mountains and all the energy resources in that area opens up many possibilities.
“It should change cost of concrete and it should change the cost of construction and start of a real life boom where we can use that energy and use those resources that are over there now,” Barrett said.
CPN was awarded an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant in 2011 to build infrastructure to support development of the industrial park, which was a crucial part of the rail bridge effort.
“It’s a real privilege to see this progress,” Lankford said. “This bridge means jobs here and all the way down this line. For the people involved in this, we owe a debt of gratitude from the State of Oklahoma. This bridge was dependent on Iron Horse and Iron Horse was dependent on this bridge. That relationship means a lot to many Oklahomans and this a great example of how tribes and the private sector can work together.”
The development of the industrial park was critical to the re-opening of the line, which is part of work toward providing an east-west connection of four major north-south rail corridors to enhance regional commerce. The CPN Iron Horse Industrial park is scheduled to open in 2014.
Page 3 of 3 - As part of a bigger picture, getting rail service to the Seminole area is now “two miles closer than what it was this time last year,” Donoley told the crowd, adding they’ll do one mile of track at a time if need be as part of the ongoing efforts.
A ceremonial ribbon cutting was held on the tracks, and at one point, Barrett, along with Donoley and Lankford, climbed aboard the A-OK switch engine train and rode across the bridge and back.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to several people for their help with this project,” Donoley said. “It’s all about partnerships. A lot of people made this bridge possible and it belongs to a lot of people, but this industrial park is what it’s all about. It will mean economic development and jobs for this area.”
The cost of the rail project was about $2 million.