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Oklahoma Journeys

William Murray and the Red River Bridge War

2010-07-10

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One of our state's most colorful governors was William H. Murray, or Alfalfa Bill, and it was in this month of 1931 that Governor Murray declared war on Texas and won. It's the Red River Bridge War, and that's our story this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

It is called the Red River Bridge War, and it occurred in July 1931. Alfalfa Bill Murray, William H. Murray, was the governor of Oklahoma, and Ross Sterling was governor of Texas. Until the late 1920s the only way to cross the Red River was by ferry. Then several companies in Texas constructed toll bridges to span the river then three public or "free" bridges were constructed, connecting Durant and Dennison, Terral and Ringgold, and Marietta and Gainesville. It was then that the Red River Bridge Company in Dennison, Texas, sued the state of Texas, asking for $150,000 dollars in damages because of the free bridge. A federal judge in Houston ordered the public bridges closed, and that was when the two governors entered the fray.

Governor Murray ordered the barricades erected by the Texas Highway Department torn down. Governor Sterling responded with a telegram saying that Murray had a lot of gall tearing down those barricades. Murray fired a telegram back to Sterling telling him to ask his attorney general to check the boundary, that the boundary was the high water mark on the south bank of the Red River, and that the bridges were in Oklahoma not in Texas. Murray, who came to the Chickasaw Nation as their attorney in the 1890s, knew the complete history of the boundary and that it was in the 1803 treaty between France and the United States that specified the border as the south high water mark of the Red River. Murray concluded his exchange of telegrams with Sterling with this threat - that if the Texas Rangers set foot in Oklahoma again, he would prosecute them for invasion of our state.

Murray then called out the Durant unit of the National Guard. He traveled to Durant and personally led the soldiers across the bridge, brandishing a rather large six shooter in his right hand. They tore down the toll booth on the south end of the bridge and then burned the lumber. The two Texas Rangers who had been in the booth got in their car and left the scene. The controversy ended on August 6 after the Texas Legislature, in special session, passed a law allowing the Red River Bridge Company to sue the state, and the federal court dissolved the injunction that touched off the "war" to begin with. That free bridge served the public well until 1995 when it was dynamited, and traffic was shifted to a new bridge -also free. Oklahoma won the war against Texas.

There is an interview with William H. Murray in the oral history collection of the archives of the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.