Only in Oklahoma: 'Alfalfa Bill' boldly fought a war with Texas

Oklahoma Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray assumed personal command of state troops during a 1931 controversy known as the Red River bridge war.

A delay in opening free bridges across the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma touched off a controversy in 1931 that became known as the Red River bridge war.

Before the issue was settled, Oklahoma Gov. William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray had declared martial law, created a military zone extending into Texas, assumed personal command of his troops, defied a court order and dared a federal judge to cite him for contempt. The controversy developed after a court order delayed the opening of the free spans built by the two states to replace privately owned toll bridges. There wasn't much controversy over Murray's opening of the new free bridge on U.S. 81 between Terral, Okla., and Ringgold, Texas. And the new bridge on U.S. 77 between Marietta and Gainesville, Texas, remained closed because the approach on the Texas side hadn't been completed. The war, fought mainly in newspaper stories, involved the new bridge on U.S. 69 and 75 between Durant and Denison, Texas. That span was the object of the injunction against Texas Gov. Ross Sterling and his highway commission obtained by the Red River Bridge Co., which claimed the Texas Highway Commission had promised to buy the span for $60,000. In response to the injunction, Sterling ordered all three new bridges barricaded on the Texas side, pending settlement of the court action. Within minutes after Murray ordered the three bridges opened on July 16, an Oklahoma Highway Department crew had gone to the Texas side of the Terral bridge and removed an old truck that barricaded the highway, acting on the theory that Oklahoma owned half the span lengthwise across the stream. Before evening, the action had been duplicated at Denison. Asked about possible resistance at the Denison span, Murray said, "There is an old watchman there and I have instructed that he not be hurt. I directed highway officials to take his pocketknife and chewing tobacco away from him." Murray also wired the Texas governor to advise him of his removal of the barricades and plans to have his highway department tear up the approaches to the toll bridges. "I feel you have extended your authority beyond all reason," Sterling responded, and he directed Texas Rangers to erect new barricades at the Denison-Durant free bridge, where they stood guard armed with shotguns in front of a sign advising motorists that the bridge had been ordered closed by the U.S. District Court. But Murray claimed that Oklahoma had jurisdiction over the Texas banks of the river by virtue of old Spanish treaties, claiming the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld that authority. "So I wasn't exceeding my authority," Murray said in response to Sterling's criticism. Several days later, Murray activated some units of the National Guard, placed the approaches leading up to the toll bridge under martial law -- an order he extended into Texas the next day -- and set up a military camp near the bridge. An order obtained by owners of the toll bridge in federal court in Muskogee didn't faze the colorful Murray, who, wearing a large hog-shooter pistol on his belt, assumed personal command of his troops. When the judge threatened Murray with a contempt citation, Murray responded, "He can't cite me; let him try it." He also threatened to call out the entire Oklahoma National Guard if the federal court interfered. Guard Lt. Col. John MacDonald told an attorney he would accept service of a federal court order but he would pay no attention to it. "I am taking orders from only one man and he is the governor of Oklahoma," the colonel, also a state senator from Durant, told the lawyer. The governor said he would keep the free bridges open despite any order from any court or other authority except President Herbert Hoover. The controversy ended on Aug. 6 after the Texas Legislature, in special session, passed a law allowing the Red River Bridge Co. to sue the state and the federal court dissolved the injunction that touched off the "war." That free bridge served the public well until 1995, when it was dynamited and traffic was shifted to a new bridge -- also free.

Photographic research by Rachele Vaughan

Gene Curtis 581-8304

Gene Curtis is a former managing editor of the Tulsa World.