The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle

The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle

The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle

The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle


At the beginning of America's Great Depression, Texas and Oklahoma armed up and went to war over a 75-cent toll bridge that connected their states across the Red River. It was a two-week affair marked by the presence of National Guardsmen with field artillery, Texas Rangers with itchy trigger fingers, angry mobs, Model T blockade runners, and even a costumed Native American peace delegation. Traffic backed up for miles, cutting off travel between the states.

This conflict entertained newspaper readers nationwide during the summer of 1931, but the Red River Bridge War was a deadly serious affair for many rural Americans at a time when free bridges and passable roads could mean the difference between survival and starvation. The confrontation had national consequences, too: it marked an end to public acceptance of the privately owned ferries, toll bridges, and turnpikes that threatened to strangle American transportation in the automobile age.

The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle documents the day-to-day skirmishes of this unlikely conflict between two sovereign states, each struggling to help citizens get goods to market at a time of reduced tax revenue and little federal assistance. It also serves as a cautionary tale, providing historical context to the current trend of re-privatizing our nation's highway infrastructure.


Fifty-three-year-old Charley T. Davis was the first to lose his job as a result of the Red River Bridge War.

The work wasn’t much, but Davis certainly needed the paycheck. Northern Texas and southern Oklahoma were feeling the pinch of financial depression. Times were hard, money was tight, families were frightened, and jobs were scarce. Davis was the sole support of his wife and two unmarried daughters. He had been a traveling salesman, a barber, and a grocer, but now he spent ten hours a day sitting in a tiny watchman’s hut, earning $2.30 a day in state pay for guarding a highway bridge that had yet to open for traffic. It was 1931, and he was glad to have the work.

Davis guarded the Texas entrance to a brand-new concrete-and-steel bridge constructed over the Red River to connect the towns of Denison, Texas, and Durant, Oklahoma. It was a final link in a chain of state highways and bridges stretching from the ports at Galveston, Texas, to the Canadian border. Completed just three weeks earlier, the new bridge was intended to replace a rickety old private toll bridge whose owners squeezed every farmer, dairyman, factory worker, and tourist for seventy-five cents to travel the thousand feet across the river that separated Oklahoma and Texas. Committees from the two nearest cities planned an all-day celebration to mark the opening of the free bridge on July 1, 1931.

The toll bridge owners, however, had other plans. They petitioned a federal court to grant them a restraining order against Texas, contending that they had exclusive rights to a bridge at that crossing and Texas was refusing to compensate them for those rights. When a judge granted an injunction prohibiting Texas from opening the new bridge, Gov. Ross S. Sterling of Texas, a tight-vested law-and-order man, ordered that the new bridge remain closed until the legal mess could be sorted out.

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