No Booze, Oklahoma? No Railroad For You! Amtrak didn't really pull out of the state due to liquor.

Illustration by Slug Signorino

In the Donald E. Westlake novel Drowned Hopes , character Tom Jimson says Oklahoma remained dry following the repeal of Prohibition and was so feisty about it that officials arrested a bartender serving drinks on a through train. In revenge, the passenger railroads pulled their trains out of Oklahoma, with the result that old railroad towns became ghost towns—even Amtrak didn’t provide service in the state. Is there anything to this? —Anthony

Westlake exaggerates—always the way with novelists. But Oklahoma and its idiosyncratic liquor laws give the imaginatively inclined a lot to work with. There’s a kernel of truth to the tale.

Oklahoma, admitted to the union in 1907, long prided itself on being a bone-dry state. I came across a 1918 court case in which the Santa Fe railroad, fearing the wrath of state officials, refused to accept a shipment of communion wine to a Catholic priest in Guthrie, Okla. (The courts ultimately ruled such shipments were allowed.) As you say, Oklahoma was one of the few states that continued to outlaw liquor sales after the end of Prohibition—a booze ban wasn’t dropped from the state’s constitution until 1959.

As recounted in Drowned Hopes, the arrest of the railroad bartender happened in the 1950s; though I found no record of any such event during that decade, I did turn up one from the ’70s. On July 18, 1972, Amtrak’s Texas Chief train was boarded by state and local police when it pulled into Oklahoma City. Liquor was confiscated and the lounge car attendant was arrested, jailed overnight, and charged the next day under a law against operating an “open saloon,” i.e., selling alcohol for on-premises consumption.

The raid didn’t come completely out of the blue. Some time earlier a newspaper reporter, no doubt smelling a story, had informed the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Control Board that the newly formed Amtrak was selling liquor on its trains while they were en route through Oklahoma. When the board raised the subject with Amtrak, the railroad agency made it clear it had no intention of complying with the law.

Resolving to force the issue, Oklahoma officials apparently called up their counterparts in Kansas, a state with similarly tough liquor laws. On the same day as the Oklahoma City arrest, agents of the Kansas attorney general boarded a train in Newton, Kansas, and arrested the conductor, a lounge car attendant, and a dining car waiter for serving booze.

Amtrak sued both states in federal court. The Oklahoma judge ruled in favor of Amtrak, but the Kansas judge ruled against, on the grounds that the federal Prohibition repeal granted the states broad powers to regulate alcohol. The Kansas decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and the Oklahoma decision was overturned on appeal. Upshot: no booze on trains in Oklahoma or Kansas.

Did Amtrak yank its Oklahoma service out of spite? The facts: For economic reasons, passenger rail service contracted sharply in Oklahoma during the 1960s, just as it did in the rest of the country. When Amtrak took over in 1971, there was just one train left, the Santa Fe Texas Chief. Despite losing the liquor case in 1974, Amtrak continued operating this run, renamed the Lone Star, until 1979, when it and several other runs elsewhere were dropped following budget cuts. Some wrangling preceded this decision, but there’s no sign it turned on liquor sales, and in any case Amtrak continued to operate in Kansas, where presumably the same grudge would have applied.

In short, while there may be some deserted old railroad towns in Oklahoma, the notion that they got that way because of a liquor dispute is a flight of writerly fancy.

Lest you think this subject has no continuing relevance, the Amtrak liquor cases came up not too long ago in a dispute between the state of New Mexico and US Airways. In 2006, a drunken passenger got off a US Airways flight from Phoenix to Albuquerque and subsequently crashed while driving the wrong way on the highway, killing himself and five others.

The airline was cited by New Mexico authorities for serving alcohol without a state liquor license, a common requirement for transportation companies. After obtaining a temporary license, US Airways was cited again by New Mexico for serving another intoxicated customer. The airline sued, claiming it should be exempt from state and local liquor laws, but a federal court found for the state, citing among other things the Amtrak decisions regarding Kansas and Oklahoma. —Cecil Adams

Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

Our Readers Say

There were three Oklahoma passenger trains remaining in 1971, not just the Texas Chief; all Santa Fe trains. The San Francisco Chief operated between Chicago and California making Oklahoma stops in Alva, Waynoka, Woodward, and maybe a few other towns. The Kansas City - Tulsa Tulsan made stops in Dewey, Bartlesville, Collinsville, and of course Tulsa.

Amtrak discontinued many routes on May 1, 1971, its first day of operation. What is the real story? In 1967 the US Postal service discontinued most mail contracts with the railroads. Marginal routes became soaked in red ink as mail sorting in route ceased.

The railroads began screaming about the losses while the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) reluctantly allowed a trickle of discontinuances to be approved. The entire network would have collapsed by 1975 if Congress had not taken action. Further, this action was intended as an orderly shutdown of all the nation’s passenger rail routes. However; Watergate and the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo halted this retreat.

For decades leading to the creation of Amtrak, the cash cow for railroads had been freight. While other world nations continued to develop their passenger rail systems, resulting in the 200m.p.h. high speed networks in Japan and Europe, the US spent all of its limited resources on fuel inefficient interstate highway systems and aviation. Transportation freedom in the 1970’s was synonymous with the automobile and jet service. The passenger train was considered passé.

Nowhere was this more true than in Oklahoma. Amtrak apparently asked US Senator from Oklahoma Henry Bellmon if Oklahoma wanted to keep its remaining Amtrak route, then the Lone Star. The answer was something akin to “nostalgia” followed by a “no.” The Carter Administration was demanding Amtrak cuts. The popular Lone Star, on target for 240,000 passengers in 1979, died a quiet political death.

Oklahoma and Amtrak are not known for good decision making. It would be another 20 years before Amtrak returned to Oklahoma, and as a state supplemental route. Look at the national Amtrak map. A 24 hour backtrack is required through Fort Worth to reach Chicago from Oklahoma City.

The rails are still polished daily by trains between Oklahoma City and Kansas City. The segment between Newton, KS and Oklahoma City only carries freight. However; most of Amtrak system shares its routes with freight trains. Therefore; this should not be an impediment. The real impediment is the death grip the region has on highway transportation. Oklahoma will spend on average $1.5 billion for its transportation resources annually but only $2.85 million is dedicated to passenger rail. Oklahoma’s priorities are still skewed to 20th Century transportation policies.

I rather doubt that alcohol played much of a role in the 1979 discontinuance of the Lone Star. However; it is an interesting proposition.

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