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The Red River Bridge War

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

A Depression-Era Tale of Self-Promotion and Politics. And a bridge!

Man in white inspects guns held by soldiers with another soldier watching at the entrance to a bridge across the Red River at Colbert, Oklahoma.
Governor Bill "Alfalfa" Murray visits with National Guard soldiers on the toll bridge at Colbert, Oklahoma. Note the "JH" painted on the bridge's truss!

A photo from the Red River Bridge War

In 1931, a war of words, backed by state militias, took place between the governors of Oklahoma and Texas over the opening of a free bridge between Colbert (Bryan County, Oklahoma) and Denison (Grayson County, Texas).

Motorists and politicians alike were eager to see modern highway bridges erected all across the Red River Valley in this period, as investigations found that the toll bridge companies that owned river crossings had been increasing rates and, perhaps, "fudging numbers" to obtain reimbursements by the state (Rep. Loy from Grayson County never actually said that, but heavily implied it).

With the cross-country roads nationalizing as federal highways, easy and free access across rivers just made sense, but the Red River was a special case. The Red River Bridge Company, which owned the toll bridge at Colbert, insisted that its contract with Texas be paid out before traffic was halted and diverted to the new, free bridge. A judge placed an injunction against the free bridge opening until the dispute was sorted out.

Oklahoma's governor "Alfalfa" Bill Murray opposed this action. The free bridge was a political boon to his populist platform and he used the injunction as a way to prove his politics. Murray sent Oklahoma National Guard troops to prevent motorists from accessing the toll bridge, insisting that the free bridge should, from now on, be the only route.

To enforce the court's order, Texas governor Ross Sterling stationed Texas Rangers on the other southern side of the free bridge to bar motorists from crossing the Red River. Thus, in the Summer of 1931, traffic was halted between Oklahoma and Texas as the courts, the toll bridge operators, and public opinion tried to sort out whose claims took precedence.

The stand-off did not last long but made for good headlines. Murray enjoyed the attention and visited the Oklahoma National Guard troops at the toll bridge, and made sure reporters were around to take photos, like this one at the Colbert toll bridge, published in the Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) in 1931.

There is A LOT more to this bridge story, but I posted this photograph not to talk about nuances of legalities in shore rights and infrastructure (at least, not yet!). I like this photograph in particular because the bridge truss just behind Murray's head shows the "Jefferson Highway" designation (JH), one of the original cross-country, named highways in the United States - it began around 1911. It marketed itself as the highway from "Palm to Pine," as it originated in New Orleans and led travelers all the way to Canada!

Depending on the sign, the "6" below the "JH" is either for the "Denison- Whitesboro - Fort Worth - Gulf Highway" OR for the "King of Trails" Highway that took travelers from Kansas to Houston.

Now, think of this photo in color. Jefferson Highway markers were painted in white with blue bands at the top and bottom. King of Trails markers were painted black and yellow, and "Denison-Whitesboro -Fort Worth - Gulf Highway" signs were usually painted in white/red white/red.

Today, the Jefferson Highway is US 69 through Oklahoma and through parts of Texas (the Jefferson Highway gets lost through many different numbers in Texas). The King of Trails Highway's original route shares the road with US 75 and US 77. The "Dension, et al" Highway is part FM 120 (it no longer reaches from Denison to Gordonville due to Lake Texoma) and part US 377. It never did extend to the Gulf of Mexico, dang it.

If there's an old road, I'll talk about it, regardless of all the other shenanigans that are going on.

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