Texas and Oklahoma have had a rivalry for many years. Generations of bad jokes and good-natured ribbing has sprung up because of it, and it has filled many afternoons of college football. But in one bizarre incident in the summer of 1931, this rivalry almost exploded into violence. And it was all about a toll bridge over the Red River.
The Red River Toll Bridge Company had operated a toll bridge over the Red River for several years on the combined U. S. Highways 69 and 75, just a few miles northwest of Denison. It was a narrow, two-lane blacktop, but it was one of the new U. S. Highways bringing paved roads to a nation buying new cars by the millions. Both Texas and Oklahoma owned the bridge and took modest cuts of the tolls to pay it off. By 1931, both states had built a new, stronger bridge nearby – toll-free.
The new bridge was slated to open that summer when the toll bridge company filed a lawsuit against the Texas Highway commission. A year before, Texas had agreed to buy the toll bridge since the company, which was based in Texas, would be going out of business with the opening of the free bridge. Texas offered $60,000 for the bridge, but because of sharp funding drops with the Great Depression, the state had only paid a fraction of the cost. A federal judge agreed that Texas was in breach of contract and ordered the opening of the new bridge stopped until the state paid its bill.
At this point, the issue escalated into a contest of personalities and political egos between the two state governors, Ross Sterling and William H. Murray. Sterling was born on his parents’ farm near Houston in 1875. He had little education but had a talent for business. He had built a number of successful enterprises from the time he was 21 and would form the Humble Oil Company with his brother, sister, and a number of investors in 1911. Humble Oil eventually became what is now Exxon-Mobil, one of the largest companies in the world. Sterling had used his business reputation and state commission work to propel him into the governor’s mansion in the 1930 election.
Murray, also called “Alfalfa Bill,” was born in what is now Collinsville in Grayson County in 1869. He ran away from his father’s farm in Montague County at age 12. He picked up work on farms in the area and still continued his schooling when work permitted. He earned a teaching certificate and started teaching school in Parker County at age 20. Within a few years, he had run a small newspaper in Corsicana and later became a self-taught attorney in Fort Worth. He moved to the Indian Territory in 1899 where he was later a delegate to the Oklahoma statehood convention and became the first Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives after statehood in 1907. He served two terms in Congress and himself was elected governor in 1930.
The two men were self-made in many respects but also had long careers of refusing to take no for an answer. The two would escalate the bridge dispute to reckless levels within days. After the July 10 court ruling, Sterling ordered barricades to be placed on the Texas side of the new bridge until the case ended. Oklahoma, however, was not a party to the lawsuit and refused to allow Texas to block access to the bridge. Within days, Murray declared martial law and ordered the Oklahoma National Guard to tear down the Texas barricade. Sterling responded in kind by ordering the Texas Rangers in to protect highway workers putting the barricade back up.
Murray then ordered the National Guard to tear up the highway leading to the toll bridge from the Oklahoma side, cutting off access to both crossings. With both sides heavily armed and refusing to give in, newspapers began referring to the standoff as the “Toll Bridge War” as Murray paraded in front of reporters at the river with his own gun.
Angry Grayson County residents prompted Sterling to call a special legislative session July 23 to provide a way for Texas to get out of the case, pay off the bridge debt, and end the standoff. Texas gave the company the legal permission to sue the state, and a settlement was reached. Oklahoma attorneys then threw in another assault on Texas by pointing out in federal court that the legal boundary of Oklahoma, dating to the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803 included both sides of the Red River. Texas had put itself in a lawsuit over a bridge that was entirely within the State of Oklahoma.
By early August, the entire episode and all court battles were over. The new bridge opened without incident. Once the dust cleared, both sides tried to move on to other issues as the Great Depression grew worse in both states.
Murray continued to be a larger-than-life figure in Oklahoma politics, with Murray State College later being named for him as well as Alfalfa County and Murray County; and he even mounted a campaign for president in 1932. Several schools were later named after Sterling in the Houston area. But neither Sterling nor Murray ever held elected office again. The bridge that ignited the dispute was demolished in 1995.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected]