1931 Free Bridge Controversy
A Texas Ranger stands guard at the Denison-Durant free bridge with a sign which explains the reason for the bridge's closing. Reportedly, this image was featured in Time Magazine, showing that the controversy received popular attention.
The Denison-Durant free bridge as seen from Oklahoma without national guardsmen, Texas Rangers, or barricades. Though the free bridge no longer stands today, part of the bridge has been placed in a park in Colbert, Oklahoma.
Backstory and Context
The 1931 Free Bridge Controversy, often referred to as the “Bridge
War,” was a bloodless clash between Texas governor Ross Sterling, backed by
Texas Highway Department employees and the Texas Rangers sent to protect them,
and Oklahoma governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. The
matter in dispute: the Denison-Durant free bridge (structure number 0702 0000
WX), a joint project of Oklahoma and Texas, which was ordered closed by a
federal injunction issued by Judge T.M. Kennerly on July 10th, 1931. The injunction came as the bridge was to be opened for the first time
The story of the controversy begins decades before the free bridge was built, when, in 1853, Benjamin Colbert established Colbert’s Ferry as the primary method of crossing the Red River. In 1874, Colbert, upgrading his ferry enterprise, received a “federal charter to build…[a] toll bridge."11 Before the century’s end, the Red River Bridge Company had purchased the Colbert toll charter. However, considerations of economic needs (particularly with the onset of the Great Depression) and increased traffic between Oklahoma and Texas encouraged popular demand for a free bridge. In 1927, a bill called the Texas Free Bridge Law, written by Senator Jake Loy, had passed through the Texas Legislature; this bill specifically permitted the Texas Highway commission to purchase existing bridges, or build new ones, across the Red River state boundary. However, the Texas commission could only do so if the neighboring state paid half the costs. Oklahoma, willing to cooperate, entered into an agreement with Texas in 1929 to “build free bridges paralleling toll bridges.”6 Additionally, per the Mayfield Bill, the Red River was determined a “navigable waterway,” meaning the project could be overseen by the US Department of War.1On July 3rd, 1931, just as this Denison-Durant bridge was to open, the Red River Bridge Company petitioned federal judge T. M. Kennerly at Houston for an injunction enjoining Texas from opening the bridge. The Company claimed that the Texas Highway Commission had agreed to buy the toll bridge for $60,000, to compensate the company for their losses over a fourteen month period from reduced tolls ordered by the Department of War, and that the Commission had promised to further pay $10,000 to the bridge company for every month that the free bridge was open prior to the end of this fourteen month period. The Bridge company complained that it had not been duly compensated; Judge Kennerly obliged and issued the injunction on July 10th. In response, Governor Sterling ordered barricades placed on the Texas side of the bridge. However, on July 16th, Governor Murray ordered Oklahoma highway crew to cross the bridge and remove the barricades. News spread, and for 12 hours cars crossed the bridge, eventually at a rate of over 700 per hour. Upholding the injunction, Sterling ordered Texas Rangers to rebuild the barricades at the bridge and to protect highway employees there. On July 17th, Governor Sterling sent a telegram to Governor Murray, complaining that, “I feel you have extended your jurisdiction beyond all reason.”14 Meanwhile, Governor Murray had Oklahoma highway employees tearing up the approaches to the toll bridge and directing traffic away; reportedly, Murray said he would send the National Guard if these employees were interfered with.
Governor Murray gave a few reasons for disobeying the injunction. First, he claimed, his “‘half’ of the bridge ran lengthwise… across the Red River” (such that, when the barricades were removed on the 16th, only the Oklahoma “half” [lane] leading into Texas was cleared).5 Second, he noted that Oklahoma was not part of the supposed contract with the Bridge Company. Third, he referenced the Louisiana Purchase treaty of 1803 to claim that the southern bank of the Red River was, too, part of Oklahoma territory. Moreover, Governor Murray called the federal injunction a “nullity,” because “the eleventh amendment… precludes the dragging of a sovereign state into a federal suit of a private citizen.”6 Governor Murray’s disobedience culminated when on July 24th he declared martial law over the northern banks of both the free and toll bridges.
On July 25th, armed with an old “‘horse pistol,’” Governor Murray arrived in a limousine to the site of martial law to join the National Guardsmen who were barricading the toll bridge.10 The Red River Bridge Company, not satisfied with the injunction placed on Texas, petitioned for one against Oklahoma, and on July 24th Judge Colin C. Neblett at the federal court in Muskogee issued an injunction disallowing the barricade at the toll bridge. Even as progress in Texas allowed the Texas barricades of the free-bridge removed, Governor Murray disobeyed the court order and, citing the duty to maintain the sovereignty of Oklahoma, decided that the toll bridge would remain blocked, and that he would “plaster the whole country with signs showing motorists how to get to the free bridge.”10
As the clash dragged on, Governor Murray first made the suggestion—which Governor Sterling called “‘tom foolery’”—of having the women of both states go the bridge to host a “quilting and gossiping bee.”9 What really resolved the controversy, however, was a bill written by Senator Jake Loy which allowed the Red River Bridge to sue Texas for its dues. The bill passed affirmatively through the House with a vote of 119 to 3, and the senate heard only one “nay.” Thus, on the 25th of July, the federal injunction was removed, and the Texas barricades came down, the Rangers leaving along with it. The injunction was officially closed on August 6th, 1931, when the Oklahoma Guardsmen finally departed, and the free-bridge “was officially opened on Labor Day, 1931.”7 Though the tension of the 1931 Bridge War never exploded into something more, the bridge did ultimately meet an explosive end when dynamited on December 6th, 1995, to be replaced by a new bridge.
1 Rusty Williams, The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2016), 41-43
2 “The Strains of Depression and War,” Spans of Time, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, ( http://www.okladot.state.ok.us/hqdiv/p-r-div/spansoftime/strains.htm, accessed November 27, 2018)
3 Mark Stanley. "The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle by Rusty Williams (review)." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 121, no. 3 (2018): 349-350.
4 “Oklahoma Historic Highway Bridge Inventory,” Spans of Time, Oklahoma Department of Transportation, (http://www.okladot.state.ok.us/hqdiv/p-r-div/spansoftime/tablist.htm, accessed November 26, 2018)
5 Lonn Taylor, “RED RIVER BRIDGE CONTROVERSY,” Texas State Historical Association, June 15, 2010 (https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mgr02, accessed November 27, 2018)
6 James White, “TEXAS RANGERS PUT BARRICADES BACK IN PLACE,” Brownwood Bulletin (Brownwood, Tex.), Vol. 31, No. 235, Ed. 1, July 17, 1931, pgs. 1-2 (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth987345/, accessed November 27, 2018).
7 Carolyn West, “[Texas Historical Commission Marker: 1931 Free Bridge Controversy],” photograph, 2011-12/2012-03, (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth256763/, accessed November 27, 2018).
8 Larry O'Dell, "Colbert's Ferry," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society, (https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CO018, accessed November 27, 2018).
9 James White, “LEGISLATURE WOULD ALLOW BRIDGE SUIT,” Brownwood Bulletin (Brownwood, Tex.), Vol. 31, No. 240, Ed. 1 Thursday, July 23, 1931, pg. 5 (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth987307/, accessed November 27, 2018)
10 "ALFALFA BILL ARMS, GOES TO BRIDGE WAR." New York Times (1923-Current File), Jul 26, 1931, pg. 3, (http://webster.austincollege.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/99125509?accountid=7012, accessed November 25, 2018)