The Highway Department in
Depression and War
"A Bunch of Wolves"
Running from Laredo in the south to the Red River in the north, Texas Highway 2 was the precursor to the mighty Interstate 35. These 1933 photos taken in Comal County give something of the flavor of the earlier road. This photograph was taken near New Braunfels.
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Comal County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
In 1932, with the state in the throes of severe suffering from the Great Depression, highway issues took center stage in an all-out war for the governorship. To no one’s surprise, Sterling was challenged for reelection by the Fergusons. This time, Farmer Jim barely bothered to disguise the fact that he, not “mama,” was the true candidate. He mocked Sterling for the Red River Bridge War in the pages of his “Ferguson Forum”:
O I came to the river and I couldn’t get across
Because of a row between Bill and Ross.
There stood two bridges, but yet I had to swim.
O why in heck didn’t we elect Jim?
The Red River Bridge War
Governor Ross Sterling denounced Oklahoma's governor for "tomfoolery" after the latter proposed that a female army from Texas occupy the bridge with a quilting bee.
Planners and engineers at the Texas Highway Department had forged interstate ties with their counterparts in Oklahoma to create and build eight bridges along the Red River border between the two states. These bridges would replace privately operated toll bridges and ferries, whose owners were compensated for their loss of their businesses.
The lone holdout was the Colbert family, who had operated a toll bridge since 1875 at the crossing between Denison, Texas, and Durant, Oklahoma. When the family’s Red River Bridge Company refused to accept the settlement offered them by Texas and Oklahoma, both states filed injunctions against the company to prevent it from collecting tolls in hopes of driving it into receivership. The Colberts struck back, filing for an injunction in federal court to block the opening of the new free bridge.
The governor of Oklahoma, a colorful character named “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, disdained further courtroom procedures and took direct action. Murray sent the Oklahoma National Guard to the border to forcibly blockade Colbert’s bridge and open the new bridge to traffic. The troops then crossed the border into Texas and destroyed the road that led to Colbert’s old bridge.
The so-called “invasion” by Oklahoma enraged Texans with semi-comic results. Governor Sterling ordered Texas Rangers to the border and blockaded the new bridge from any incoming traffic from Oklahoma, drawing laughs from around the nation. The dispute was soon resolved but with one lasting consequence. When Interstate 35 was constructed decades later, it was routed through Gainesville rather than Denison.
In an extremely tight election, the Fergusons prevailed—and Gilchrist and the rest of the Highway Department could only assume that once again the department and its federal cash would be tempting targets for the couple. To prevent the Fergusons from siphoning off the money for other purposes as they had in the 1920s, the Sterling-appointed highway commissioners moved quickly to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money to road projects before Mrs. Ferguson could take office.
The attitude of the commissioners was summed up in a letter that Commissioner D.K. “Dock” Martin wrote to his brother, in which he called the Fergusons “a bunch of wolves.” But while the money might have been out of reach, the department and its precious jobs weren’t. The war resumed quickly when Mrs. Ferguson attempted to name Frank L. Denison, a long-time supporter, to the commission. The Texas Senate refused to confirm the appointment, but Denison simply showed up and started attending meetings anyway until legally blocked from doing so by attorney general James Allred.
Meanwhile, federal jobs programs under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had increased the flow of highway dollars into Texas. During the 1930s, Texas would receive nearly $1.5 billion in work relief money. About 40 percent of those dollars were spent on road projects—about $100,000 a day from 1935-1939 (about $1.5 million in today’s money). Such a pot of money did not go unnoticed by the Fergusons, who tried unsuccessfully several times to have the money put under the control of their supporters. Even their long-time crony, John Wood Timpson, turned against them after he was named head of the Highway Commission and refused to allow any looting of the department.