- The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle by Rusty Williams
The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry goes back many years and has manifested itself in many ways besides football. In The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle, author Rusty Williams chronicles an episode revealing not only the depth of the rivalry but also the states' economic interdependence despite their social and political differences. The episode centers on the 1931 opening of a new bridge over the Red River connecting the cities of Denison, Texas, and Durant, Oklahoma. The new "free" bridge along what is now U.S. 75 replaced a toll bridge owned by the Red River Bridge Company. The ensuing legal battle between the bridge company and the states, as well as a federal injunction closing the free bridge, resulted in a two-week armed standoff that became known as the "Bridge War." Williams notes that although the Bridge War has "passed almost entirely from memory" (3), it was then widely reported in newspapers across the country, including the New York Times and Washington Post. Williams's work places new light on this almost forgotten episode.
In the early twentieth century, infrastructure projects like roads and bridges were considered crucial to economic development. Because of the increasing importance of such projects as well as overall public good, a growing portion of the population favored tax-payer rather than private funding. Moreover, many people realized that tolls increased the cost of doing business while decreasing profit. The latter point was especially true in mid-1931, at the height of the Great Depression, when the Bridge War occurred. To some casual observers, the episode was nothing more than a "comic opera" or "clash" between two uniquely ambitious governors, but to the thousands of Oklahomans and Texans who depended on crossing the river as quickly and cheaply as possible, the dispute was an outrage (3). They had been waiting for the free bridge for months if not years.
As the opening approached on July 1, cities on either side of the bridge planned celebrations. Farmers, businessmen, and travelers all waited with anticipation. At the same time, claiming exclusive rights to crossing the river, the Red River Bridge Company filed suit in federal court in Texas asking for a restraining order preventing the opening until the company received compensation. The resulting injunction prevented Texas from opening the bridge until the case was settled. Thus, Texas Governor Ross Sterling ordered blockades placed on the approach to the south side of the bridge. Much frustration ensued—especially on the Oklahoma side of the river. Two weeks later, Oklahoma Governor William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray ordered highway department men to tear down the barricades, thereby temporarily opening the bridge. Sterling responded by sending [End Page 349] a contingent of Texas Rangers to re-erect the barricades and guard the bridge. When Murray sent Oklahoma national guardsmen to the bridge, onlookers witnessed the curious sight of armed men facing off across the bridge.
The bridge soon became the center of national attention in what can only be described as a media circus complete with clamoring onlookers. It took several months for the legal case to play out. In the meantime, anger and frustration reigned among public officials and citizens over the bridge's continued closure. The Red River Bridge War reminds readers of the political, economic, and social importance of infrastructure in our daily lives. In the twenty-first century, when many infrastructure projects involve so-called "public-private partnerships," Williams also reminds us of the true human costs of tolled infrastructure.