The Redbud City: Railroads and war affect city population

Clyde Wooldridge
Contributing writer
OBU cadets passed in review on the Oval during the 1943-44 school term.


More than 100 Shawnee railroad men and their families, many of whom owned their homes in the city and resided in the city for many years, faced almost certain prospects of having to move to El Reno or Haileyville, it was learned on Tuesday, July 6, 1943. The men were crew members of Rock Island freight trains who worked between Shawnee and El Reno, and Shawnee and Haileyville.

The Rock Island, an official of the four operating Brotherhoods of Trainmen, said Tuesday that it decided to eliminate its terminal point in Shawnee in order that freight train crews might work the full distance between El Reno and Haileyville, instead of only approximately half of it. Present laws governing railway employment limited train crews to only 100 miles as a full shift, but the “run” to El Reno was only 65 miles, and the one to Haileyville was 95. By combining the two runs, one crew would handle its train all the way from El Reno to Haileyville.

The railroad’s operating expense thereby would be considerably less, even though the crews would receive overtime pay. They planned to hire two full crews to make the trip. Also prompting the railroad’s step, the officials said, was a desire to conserve manpower. W.H. Willis, chief operating officer of the Rock Island, issued an order, effective July 16, for abandonment of the terminal in Shawnee.

However, national chairmen of the Trainmen’s Brotherhood met with Willis in Chicago, trying to persuade him to rescind the order. The trainmen protested the change, explaining that they would be unable to secure living quarters in either Haileyville or El Reno, and added that they would be caused other undue hardships. Crew members of passenger trains were not affected by the order.

The Shawnee-to-Haileyville run of 95 miles was established in 1903. The Shawnee-to-El Reno trip of 65 miles, went into effect in 1908.


During the first six months of 1943, Shawnee’s population jumped from about 22,000 to 25,000, according to local officials in early July. That left the city with a housing problem, to put it mildly. Because it was in the Oklahoma City defense area, Shawnee was forced to make preparation to accommodate several hundred more families.

In trying to avoid temporary building projects, which would mean a big loss to the city when the present emergency passed, civic leaders were trying to put the “kitchen privilege” plan into effect in the city. The plan was used in practically all crowded areas of the U.S.

Under the “kitchen privilege” plan, owners of private houses would rent out sleeping rooms, agreeing to give the renters certain privileges in the kitchen. This plan would apply only where adults were concerned, as children could hardly be taken care of under such an arrangement.

The turnover of families in Shawnee was between 25 and 30 a week. The Chamber of Commerce, a clearing office for housing, got as many as 35 to 45 calls a day from people looking for living quarters. The emergency was obviously temporary, as around 85 percent of the newcomers desired furnished quarters for light housekeeping.

Among the city’s new residents were workers in the Oklahoma City defense plants, constructors at the new Naval base, wives of the OBU cadets, and the usual number of railroad and oil men. Naval officers and wives of Naval cadets would soon give the population figures another boost.

Local officials hoped that the landlords in Shawnee would continue to keep their rents in line with what the newcomers were able to pay. This would keep the government from placing a ceiling on rents in the city.

Since the “kitchen privilege” seemed to be the most logical solution to Shawnee’s housing problem, civic leaders urged anyone who was willing to rent one or two rooms with kitchen privileges to list them with the Chamber of Commerce.


J.A. Coleman, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Rock Island Trainmen, revealed Monday, July 12, 1943, that the company decided to withhold its proposal to abolish the Shawnee terminal for freight train crewmen until another conference was held with the four operating brotherhoods. The chairman’s announcement, following word the previous week that the company would shift the terminal to El Reno, came after the brotherhoods were informed by W.H. Willis, chief operating officer of the Rock Island at Chicago, that the company had changed its decision.

“In my opinion,” said Coleman, “the question of moving the terminal is dead for the duration, perhaps for longer than that. If another conference is held, which I doubt, and no settlement is reached, the brotherhoods will appeal to the national mediation board in Washington.”

Coleman said he came to the city “to oppose trainmen who thought they’d have to give up their homes and move,” showed a letter from Willis announcing the change in plans. He said he and the Shawnee trainmen interpreted the letter as a “victory against un-American principles” and there were vehement indications that crews might balk if the moving order was issued.

It was also revealed that brotherhood heads solicited relief from the office of defense transportation. “I’m sure,” Coleman declared, “that the ODT’s part in the matter influenced the company’s decision.”

These stories appear in Volume Two (1930-49) of the history of the City of Shawnee. The first five volumes, from 1830 to 2009, are now available for purchase at the Pottawatomie County Historical Society. They are now open, and you may visit them, or you may order them online at their website, or by calling (405) 275-8412. Each volume is $35, but a purchase of two or more volumes can be obtained at $30 each. We are offering a special deal. If you purchase any other volume, you may obtain Volume One (1830-1929) for just $20. Volume Six, (2010-2021) is at the printer and its publication is eminent.