National Train Day just rolled around the corner and we wanted to celebrate by telling you all about our wonderful friends at the Oklahoma Railway Museum (ORM). Train Day isn’t just about enjoying history at work. It commemorates the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory to create the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869, effectively linking all of the United States together by railroad. Today, Train Day is celebrated on the Saturday closest to May 10th.
The ORM got its start in 1972 as the Oklahoma Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society by those wanting to preserve history and share their passion for trains with their fellow Oklahomans.
They started collecting equipment and artifacts and making connections with railroads. It’s not easy to store trains though, and the organization realized they needed to find a permanent location to house their historical hobby.
“Oklahoma wouldn’t be what it is without the railroads,” said Anne Murray Chilton, ORM administrator. “All of the small, little towns are where they are because of the railroads.”
Realizing this, the Chapter began hosting passenger train rides across Oklahoma’s historic tracks to raise seed money for a museum site in the early 90s. They were able to partner with the Central Oklahoma Parking and Transportation Authority (COPTA) in 1997 for the use of tracks that ran from NE 16th to NE 36th Street. COPTA required the organization to keep the right of way maintained and mowed in exchange for being able to use the tracks. Volunteers spent almost 900 hours that first year cleaning and clearing the right of way and restoring the overgrown tracks.
Then, in 1999, the Chapter purchased a piece of land along the tracks and renovations started. Fences, parking lots and restrooms were built and the plans were drawn up for the making of a museum. Members raised $50,000 and purchased additional track materials, a 1905 depot, and began to transport some of the equipment to the site. (In case you were wondering how to get trains from point A to point B without railroads, the answer may surprise you: the trains are lifted onto trucks by crane and driven to their destination!)
The Chapter officially changed their name to the Oklahoma Railway Museum, Ltd., and opened the museum in 2001. The next year, the ORM renewed their lease with COPTA for the tracks and expanded the live rail all the way to NE 50th street, giving them three miles of operational track.
The museum is also proud to offer Day Out With Thomas™ on select weekends in September and October. They host a Halloween Train with costumes and family-friendly activities on site, as well as a special appearance from our very own clown conductor, Smiley O’Riley! And what better way to celebrate the winter holidays than with a cozy Christmas Train ride with Santa and Mrs. Claus, singing carols and telling stories. If you can’t make it to see Smiley at Halloween, don’t worry – he’ll be there at Christmas with Dental Depot goodies, too!
The ORM also offers the Gary Githens Railroading Merit Badge for scouts and youth groups to earn through special workshops offered onsite. The ORM makes for an excellent field trip and the learning continues back in the classroom with a special traveling artifact trunk loaned out to teachers that includes real memorabilia and lesson plans!
The museum has grown from only 150 visitors annually to over 25,000 and features fun for all ages. The grounds are open Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., year-round. From April to August, guests can take a 40-minute train ride the 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month and enjoy the railroad equipment – including motor cars, locomotives and passenger cars – as well as the museum cars, model trains and colorful depots.
Plans are underway for a massive expansion to accommodate the museum’s growing collection and increased popularity. With more than 50 pieces of equipment, there just isn’t any more room for full-sized pieces. The ORM’s current focus is on salvaging interiors and artifacts and the restoration of pieces already on site. However, Phase I of the expansion is underway with a goal of $500,000 and it’s estimated that the completion of the expansion will cost 20 million dollars over the next 20 years.
This expansion encompasses a new ticket office, business office, meeting room, restrooms and a gift shop. Additionally, the parking lot is being moved to the north end of the lot and expanded.
Recently, a 1908 Frisco Depot from Le Flore, Okla. was brought onto the grounds for extensive renovation and will be worked into the new grounds layout as part of the two-story museum, modeled after a freight house.
A 100-foot turntable, a device that turns trains 180 degrees to go back the way they came, has been donated as well. A roundhouse will be built in coming years to provide much-needed shelter for the equipment. The roundhouse will also feature several climate-controlled bays to serve as museum space for housing delicate archives and artifacts.
As exciting as all of these growth opportunities are, the ORM is run almost entirely by volunteers and donations.
Volunteers range from railroad retirees to college professors and accounts to people who just really love trains. The ORM always needs volunteers to help with everything from giving tours and running social media, to equipment maintenance and landscaping. Anyone can help too, whether individuals, families or groups.
“It’s a lot of fun, we’ve got a really great group of volunteers,” Anne said. “People come to have a train ride and then they stay to work on the trains.”
For more information on ORM events, tickets, volunteer opportunities or to make a donation, visit https://www.oklahomarailwaymuseum.org/