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History of Norman

Norman’s rich and colorful history continues to shape the city as its citizens write new chapters in the history books.

In 1870, the U.S. Land Office commissioned Abner E. Norman to survey the Unassigned Lands in Oklahoma Territory, in anticipation of the future settlement of the area. His surveying crew burned the words “Norman’s Camp” into an elm tree by the watering hole near their camp (which is now the intersection of Classen and Lindsey) to mock their young supervisor.

In 1884, president Chester A. Arthur authorized the Santa Fe Railroad Company to build a railroad through Oklahoma Territory to connect Wichita to Fort Worth. It just so happens that the railroad tracks were laid two blocks from the engraved elm tree and the station that was later built along the track was given the name “Norman”.

On April 22, 1889, the Oklahoma Land Run brought settlers streaming across the Kansas and Texas borders to claim their piece of land. In a single day, over 150 people piled off of the Santa Fe Railroad at the Norman station and spent their first night in makeshift camps on their newly established town site. The next morning a downtown was already under construction.

Almost immediately after Norman was established, two prominent businessmen, Delbert Larsh and Thomas Waggoner, began lobbying the territorial government to locate the first university in Norman. On December 19, 1890, Larsh and Waggoner were successful with the passage of Council Bill 114, establishing the University of Oklahoma in Norman. The first fifty-seven students arrived in September of 1892 and attended classes on the second floor of a rented building in downtown. The first building on campus was completed a year later, but was destroyed by a fire in 1903. From these humble beginnings, the University now enrolls more than 30,000 students, has more than 2,400 full-time faculty, offers 152 baccalaureate programs, 160 master’s programs and 75 doctorate programs from 18 colleges.

The city of Norman was formally incorporated on May 13, 1891, sixteen years before Oklahoma Statehood. By 1902 the downtown district already had two banks, two hotels, and a flour mill. By 1913 there were over 3,700 residents living in Norman, when the Oklahoma Railway Company decided to extend its interurban street car from Oklahoma City to Norman, spurring additional population growth. The rail lines eventually transitioned to freight during the 1940s as the United States Highway system developed. The city population reached 11,429 in 1940.

In 1941, the University of Oklahoma and Norman city officials established Max Westheimer Field, a university airstrip, and the next year offered to lease it to the US Navy as a training facility. During World War II, the airfield grew into the Naval Flight Training Center, commonly referred to as “North Base”. A second training center, the Naval Air Technical Training Center, known as “South Base”, was established south of OU’s campus along Highway 9, near the present-day location of the Lloyd Noble Center. Over nine thousand Navy combat pilots were trained along with thousands of other Navy officers. In the years following World War II the airstrip was transferred back to the university’s control. Researchers from the University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used the equipment at Westheimer to develop the first Doppler weather radar. This research led to the development of NEXRAD, the nationwide radar network used to predict weather and created the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Today, Max Westhiemer Airport is home of the University of Oklahoma College of Aviation, which is only one of only 28 colleges in the world accredited by the Aviation Accreditation Board. The breakthroughs in radar technology sparked the development of the National Weather Center, a unique partnership of National and International agencies that issues all of the severe weather warnings in the United States and predicts and tracks weather around the world.

With the completion of Interstate 35 in June 1959, Norman’s population began to increase rapidly as Oklahoma City became more accessible; in 1960 Norman’s population was 33,412 but by the end of the decade had grown to 52,117.  The city’s growth has continued, reaching 95,694 in 2000.

History is still alive in Norman. Seventeen landmarks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which includes the Cleveland County Courthouse, the DeBarr Historic District, the Oscar Jacobson House, the Santa Fe Depot, and the Moore-Lindsay House. University of Oklahoma’s Bizzell Library is a National Historic Landmark, one of only twenty in the state. Click to find more information on historical attractions.

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