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News » The Straight Dope

Booze Train

Why did old railroad towns became ghost towns?


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. Is there anything to this? —Anthony Creech

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 till 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, Kan., 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? For an answer we contacted Doug Loudenback, an amateur Oklahoma historian, who in turn consulted Dean Schirf, former vice president of government relations for the Oklahoma City chamber of commerce.

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.

Rail passenger service in Oklahoma resumed in 1999, when Amtrak began operating its Heartland Flyer train between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Strong feelings evidently having subsided, you can get a drink while aboard, although I notice some Oklahoma counties remain dry. Does this complicate matters? Tell you what, Anthony: let’s take a ride on the Flyer, order a couple of cold ones, and find out.

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