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Bridges over Troubled Waters


The controversy of the "Red River Bridge War" became an international news story. In this Life Magazine photograph, a Texas Ranger at the free bridge approach stands in front of a sign indicating Texas' governor's Serling reason for impeding traffic on the free bridge (Life Magazine).

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In the early 20th century, during the push for "Good Roads" by civic, business, and political leaders, the federal government nationalized the inter-state highways by granting monies to state highway departments for their upkeep and expansions. The major push-back against this progressive plan came from toll bridge owners, who held a major financial stake in keeping the roads (or at least the river crossings) private. These disputes led to explosions, state-sponsored ferry boats, and even a quasi-war!

Drama on the Road I: The Red River Bridge War
A lone bridge pillar is all that remains of the toll bridge that once connected Oklahoma and Texas along the King of Trails/Jefferson Highway. The toll bridge, which belonged to the Red River Bridge Company, replaced the Colbert Ferry and a toll bridge that was once erected in 1875 by teh Colbert family who claimed the crossing on the north shore of the Red River. When the federal government opened a free bridge across the Red River in 1931 to replace the toll bridge (and in the process, accusing the company that it was gouging the state in its toll rates), Texas Rangers barricaded access to it. This was because of an injunction, filed on behalf of the Red River Bridge Comany that wanted Texas to honor its contractual obligations to its enterprise. Oklahoma wanted none of that but wanted a free road. Its governor, Bill "Alfalfa" Murray, staged a public relations coup and had the National Guard tear up the road to the toll bridge. When Texas Rangers tried to intervene, he declared martial law. A short standoff ensued that was more political theater than actual acrimony, as Texas could ultimately not impede interstate commerce. Thus, the free bridge "won" but Texas paid out the remaining contract with the Red River Bridge Company, who subsequently blew up their toll bridge.


Drama on the Road II: The Garland City Bridge Blow-Up
Garland City in Miller County, Arkansas was once known as the boot-legging capital of the Southwest. It was also a stop for the Cotton Belt railroad and before the rails came through, the town boasted a steamboat landing and ferry crossing. In the modern era,  Garland City petitioned for a road bridge to be built over the Red River on US 82, and the state began construction in 1927. On the morning of September 3, 1930 the almost-completed Garland City bridge was wracked by a blast that propelled the span into the Red River. The Kansas
City Bridge Company rebuilt the span, and the State of Arkansas ended up charging two construction workers with the crime, but charges were dismissed when alibis were presented. Locals spoke amongst themselves that it may have been the ferry operator who organized the blast, as he had been vocally protesting the bridge's erection. Nonetheless, the truss bridge opened in 1931, but was demolished in the 1980s when US 82 was straightened and a much less prettier span replaced the bridge.

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Drama on the Road III: The Last Ferry on the Red River
Deep southwestern Arkansas is the heavily-forested, bayou-laden, and cotton-growing area of southern Miller and Lafayette counties,where the Sulphur River drains into the Red River. The roads tend to be narrow and run north and south, not east to west. The area used to be much more heavily traveled. After the Louisiana Purchase, the Sulphur River Indian Factory, which sat at the mouth of the Sulphur River, monitored the Caddos as they gave up their lands to Americans. By the 1830s, several plantations had established landings on the Red River. LaGrange, the first seat of Lafayette County, sat on the east bank of the river, not far from Walnut Hill Plantation, the home of the first governor of Arkansas, James Sevier Conway (1836-1840).

By the late 19th century, miners dug for coal just north of Doddrige in the aptly-named town of Black Diamond. For some reason, the state was reluctant to build a bridge across the Red River here. Locals traveling on AR 160 to and from Doddridge had to take the Spring Bank Ferry, which the Blanton family operated from 1836 until 1957. The state took over thereafter, and spent over $500,000 a year in maintenance. The Red River's undercurrent threatened the ferry operation, as did both high and low water. Whenever the ferry went out of commission, travelers had to make an almost 60 mile detour to Garland City. Finally, in 1995, the state gave the go-ahead to build a bridge and retired the ferry. The boat - built in the 1960s and the last ferry to cross the Red River - now sits inside a lovely park in Doddridge.

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