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Oklahoma Memories

William Murray and the Red River Bridge War

2010-07-12

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"The boundary line between Oklahoma and Texas is not at the center of the river, but it's on the south side of the high water mark. "

That was William H. Murray explaining the legal boundary between the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

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

It's called the Red River Bridge War, and it occurred in July 1931. William H. Murray, Alfalfa Bill 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 Texas constructed three public or "free" bridges, connecting Durant and Dennison, Terral and Ringgold, and Marietta and Gainesville. It was then that the Red River Bridge Company in Dennison 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.

"Sterling - the governor of Texas - wires me 'You've got your gall to hand the barrier off of there.' I wired back this, in substance - 'You don't seem to know your boundary. If you look at a map that you have, made between the Spanish and the French, your boundary is at high water mark on the south side of the river.'"

Murray, who came to the Chickasaw Nation as their attorney in the 1890s, knew the complete history of the boundary between the two states.

"A treaty was made by the United States with France after we bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. That should be the boundary. I knew that, but the federal judge didn't know it, and the people general in Texas didn't know it, and even the federal officers didn't know it here in the Indian country. Well, when I wired him, I said, 'You better have your attorney, tell him to look over those treatise, and find out what your boundary is. '"

Murray concluded his exchange of telegrams with Sterling with this threat.

"You sent your Rangers over here, and if you do it again, I'll prosecute them for invasion of the state."
Meanwhile, Texas blocked off the public or free bridges because of the injunction. Murray responded by calling 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 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 a special session, passed a law allowing the Red River Bridge Company to sue the state, and the federal court then dissolved the injunction that touched off the "war. "The free bridge served the public well until 1995 when it was dynamited, and traffic was then shifted to a new bridge -also free. Oklahoma won the war against Texas.

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