Building a Road over Troubled Waters
A lone bridge pillar is all that remains of the toll bridge that once connected Oklahoma and Texas along Route 69. The toll bridge, which
belonged to the Colbert Family of the Chickasaw Nation, replaced an earlier ferry. When the federal government opened a free bridge
across the Red River in 1931, Texas Rangers barricaded access to it because of its contractual obligations to the Colbert's toll bridge
enterprise. Oklahoma wanted none of that; the governor declared martial law, and state police removed the barricade. A short, intense
standoff ensued, but ultimately, the free bridge won and Texas paid out the remaining contract with the Colberts, who subsequently blew
up their toll bridge.
Drama on the Road I: The Red River Bridge War
A Texas Ranger stands his ground on the Texas side of the Red River, refusing to let cars pass on the free bridge. (Life Magazine)
The Oklahoma state police made sure that motorists could cross the Red River on the free bridge. (Oklahoma Historical Society).
The concrete pillar of the now-destroyed Colbert toll bridge is a silent sentinel to history.
Drama on the Road II: The Garland City Bridge Blow-Up
Garland City in Miller County, Arkansas was once known as the boot-legging capital of the Southwest. It was also a stop for the Cotton Belt
railroad and before the rails came through, the town boasted a steamboat landing and ferry crossing. In the modern era,  Garland City
petitioned for a road bridge to be built over the Red River on US 82, and the state began construction in 1927. On the morning of
September 3, 1930 the almost-completed Garland City bridge was wracked by a blast that propelled the span into the Red River. The Kansas
City Bridge Company rebuilt the span, and the State of Arkansas ended up charging two construction workers with the crime, but charges
were dismissed when alibis were presented. Locals spoke amongst themselves that it may have been the ferry operator who organized the
blast, as he had been vocally protesting the bridge's erection. Nonetheless, the truss bridge opened in 1931, but was demolished in the
1980s when US 82 was straightened and a much less prettier span replaced the bridge.
Opened in 1931, the Pennsylvania truss bridge spanned the Red River for over fifty years at Garland City. It is now gone, and US 82 bypasses the
old town (founded in 1833). (Library of Congress.)
The bridge for the Cotton Belt Route (now, Union Pacific) still sits at its original location in Garland City between the new road bridge (1/4 mile
upriver) and the old road bridge (1/4 downstream). Note the remains of erosion controls in the background.
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com
In the early 20th century, during the push for "Good Roads" by civic, business, and political leaders, the federal
government nationalized the inter-state highways by granting monies to state highway departments for their
upkeep and expansions. The major push-back against this progressive plan came from toll bridge owners, who
held a major financial stake in keeping the roads (or at least the river crossings) private. These disputes led to
explosions, state-sponsored ferry boats, and even a quasi-war!
Drama on the Road III: The Last Ferry on the Red River
Deep southwestern Arkansas is the heavily-forested, bayou-laden, and cotton-growing area of southern Miller and Lafayette counties,
where the Sulphur River drains into the Red River. The roads tend to be narrow and run north and south, not east to west. The area used
to be much more heavily traveled. After the Louisiana Purchase, the Sulphur River Indian Factory, which sat at the mouth of the Sulphur
River, monitored the Caddos as they gave up their lands to Americans. By the 1830s, several plantations had established landings on the
Red River. LaGrange, the first seat of Lafayette County, sat on the east bank of the river, not far from Walnut Hill Plantation, the home of
the first governor of Arkansas, James Sevier Conway (1836-1840). By the late 19th century, miners dug for coal just north of Doddrige in
the aptly-named town of Black Diamond. For some reason, the state was reluctant to build a bridge across the Red River here. Locals
traveling on AR 160 to and from Doddridge had to take the Spring Bank Ferry, which the Blanton family operated from 1836 until 1957. The
state took over thereafter, and spent over $500,000 a year in maintenance. The Red River's undercurrent threatened the ferry operation,
as did both high and low water. Whenever the ferry went out of commission, travelers had to make an almost 60 mile detour to Garland
City. Finally, in 1995, the state gave the go-ahead to build a bridge and retired the ferry. The boat - built in the 1960s and the last ferry to
cross the Red River - now sits inside a lovely park in Doddridge.
The beloved Spring Bank Ferry, which served southwestern Arkansas for 45 years, now sits in a park in Doddridge. Some unimaginative and
frankly, awful people have used it for target practice.
The site of the Spring Bank Ferry was just below the confluence of the Sulphur River into the Red River.