Memorial Drive is the street where Tulsans go … to go.
Head north, and the street runs smack into the Tulsa International Airport, which has been dealing with arrivals to and departures from the city since 1929.
Turn south, and it’s not long before one encounters a milelong block dense with car dealerships, from small mom-and-pop used car lots to glitzy, glass-and-chrome emporiums offering bright, shiny, two- and four-wheeled fantasy machines, both foreign and domestic.
And a good number of such machines tend to congregate along Memorial Drive in the wee hours of the weekend, as stretches of this thoroughfare have become the current location of “the restless ribbon” where the mobile youth of the city show off their rides.
There’s even a train track that bisects the road close to 41st Street, allowing Memorial Drive to hit the trifecta of transportation — planes, trains and automobiles.
There is a downside to all this mania for movement. Memorial Drive has routinely been called the city’s most dangerous street, in the number of accidents that occur at its various intersections. Memorial Drive was described in a 1928 Tulsa World article as “the most torturous section line road in the county,” and the intersection of Memorial Drive and 51st Street routinely tops the list of “most dangerous intersections.”
This makes it one of life’s little ironies that at this “most dangerous intersection” is the one place along Memorial Drive where Tulsans go to stay.
Memorial Park Cemetery, 5115 S. Memorial Drive, was founded in 1927 with the goal of being “America’s Most Beautiful Cemetery.” And it serves as the final resting place for thousands of Tulsans, from everyday men and women to famous figures such as basketball star Wayman Tisdale, musicians Leon Russell, Roy Clark and Bob Wills; ballet greats Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin; televangelist Oral Roberts and comedian Sam Kinison.
The park was the vision of C. W. Beck, who had the original chapel (now the park’s main offices) built to resemble the Alamo, in honor of his wife, who was a native of San Antonio, said Ronnie Felts, director of Family Services at Memorial Park.
The park now encompasses some 250 acres, which contain a 5-acre man-made Lake of Enchantment, elaborate landscaping and points of interest, such as the Wishing Chair, the Veterans Memorial obelisk and the Tower of Memories, with its Deagan chimes that intone melodies such as “God Bless America.”
When Memorial Park first opened, it was located, according to contemporary news reports, some 5 miles southeast of the city proper. However, it was considered enough of a landmark that, as a June 19, 1927, Tulsa World article stated, “The county commissioners have taken steps to make the road leading north from Memorial park to Mohawk park, a distance of 8 miles, a boulevard to be known as Memorial parkway.”
At the time, this stretch of road was known as the Broken Arrow Highway, and the steps the county commissioners took to rename it apparently took a number of years to complete.
Advertisements for Memorial Park as late as the early 1930s listed its address as “Broken Arrow Highway at Alsuma Road” — so named for the short-lived township that was near what is now 51st Street and Mingo Road.
Perhaps that is because Memorial Drive wasn’t the first street in Tulsa to be named “Memorial Drive.”
In 1924, Riverside Drive was renamed as Memorial Drive at the request of the local American Legion, as the city did not have any sort of permanent monument to the 125 servicemen from Tulsa who died during World War I. In anticipation of this name change, Legion members took to planting trees along the route, but the trees didn’t survive. And, apparently, neither did the “Memorial Drive” name for Riverside.
Beginning in 1964, development along Memorial Drive, and the traffic it produced, led the city to consider widening the street. Originally, the improvements would have turned Memorial Drive into the city’s first six-lane boulevard, but in the end, the street was only widened into four lanes, with construction happening a few miles at a time through the 1960s to the 2000s, from 11th Street through Bixby and south to 161st Street.
Memorial Drive remains one of the city’s most traveled streets, with tens of thousands of vehicles roaring and rumbling along.
Yet, step inside Memorial Park, and all the noise of the nearby traffic — the carbon-fueled hubbub of modern life — seems almost to disappear.
That may be why, Felts said, it’s not unusual to see people jogging along the cemetery roads or taking some time to sit on a bench in a quiet spot.
“A place like this kind of puts you in touch with greater things,” he said. “You realize you’re on sacred ground, and that can prompt a sense of reflection, a kind of natural calm. The outside noise is still there, but you don’t notice it so much.”