Forgotten Landmarks-Red River Free Bridge and Red River Toll Bridge, Colbert, Oklahoma

Site of Red River Bridge War (2.4 miles south of Colbert on Franklin Street/Road at U.S. 69/U.S. 75 Bridge over the Red River)

The free bridge which previously crossed over the Red River at this point (demolished in 1995) was the cause of the so-called Red River Bridge War in 1931. For many years previously, the Texas Toll Bridge Company had operated a toll bridge at this crossing, but in 1929 Texas and Oklahoma, with the consent of Congress, began the construction of a free bridge.

The toll bridge company claimed that the commission had agreed in July of 1930 to purchase the toll bridge for $60,000 and to pay the company for its unexpired contract an additional $10,000 for each month of a specified fourteen-month period in which the free bridge might be opened, and that the commission had not fulfilled this obligation. A temporary injunction was issued on July 10th, 1931, and Texas governor Ross S. Sterling ordered barricades erected across the Texas approaches to the new bridge. However, on July 16th Governor William (Alfalfa Bill) Murray of Oklahoma opened the bridge by executive order, claiming that Oklahoma’s “half” of the bridge ran lengthwise north and south across the Red River, that Oklahoma held title to both sides of the river from the Louisiana Purchase treaty of 1803, and that the state of Oklahoma was not named in the injunction. Oklahoma highway crews crossed the bridge and demolished the barricades. Governor Sterling responded by ordering a detachment of three Texas Rangers, accompanied by Adjutant General William Warren Sterling, to rebuild the barricades and protect Texas Highway Department employees charged with enforcing the injunction. The rangers arrived on the night of July 16th. On July 17th, Murray ordered Oklahoma highway crews to tear up the northern approaches to the still-operating toll bridge, and traffic over the river came to a halt. On July 20th and 21st, mass meetings demanding the opening of the free bridge were held in Sherman and Denison, and resolutions to this effect were forwarded to Austin. On July 23rd, the Texas legislature, which was meeting in a special session, passed a bill granting the Texas Toll Bridge Company permission to sue the state in order to recover the sum claimed in the injunction. The bridge company then joined the state in requesting the court to dissolve the injunction, which it did on July 25th. On that day, the free bridge was opened to traffic and the rangers were withdrawn.

Meanwhile, a federal district court in Muskogee, Oklahoma, acting on a petition from the toll-bridge company, had on July 24th enjoined Governor Murray from blocking the northern approaches to the toll bridge. Murray, acting several hours before the injunction was actually issued, declared martial law in a narrow strip of territory along the northern approaches to both bridges and then argued that this act placed him, as commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, above the federal court’s jurisdiction. An Oklahoma guard unit was ordered to the bridge, and Murray, armed with an antique revolver, made a personal appearance in the “war zone,” as the newspapers labeled it. No attempt was made to enforce the Oklahoma injunction, but on July 24th, with the free bridge open, Murray directed the guardsmen to permit anyone who so desired to cross the toll bridge. On July 27th, Murray announced that he had learned of an attempt to close the free bridge permanently, and he extended the martial-law zone to the Oklahoma boundary marker on the south bank of the Red River. Oklahoma guardsmen were stationed at both ends of the free bridge, and Texas papers spoke of an “invasion.” Finally, on August 6th, 1931, the Texas injunction was permanently dissolved, the Oklahoma guardsmen were withdrawn to enforce martial law in the Oklahoma oilfields, and the bridge controversy was laid to rest.[i]

Oklahoma1928

1928 Oklahoma Highway Map

BryanCo1941

1941 Bryan County Transportation Map

Remains of Red River Toll Bridge ( 1.4 miles south of Colbert on Franklin Street/Road, 1.5 miles south on River Road at Toll Bridge Road)

Two of the bridge piers of the Red River Toll Bridge remain in the Red River southwest of this junction, approximately 1100 yards southeast of the current highway bridge.

TollBridgeSatellite

[i] Taylor, Lonn W.; Red River Bridge Controversy; Texas State Historical Association; https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mgr02

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