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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Short Life of
the Texas Highway Patrol

by C. F. Eckhardt

The Texas Department of public safety has an interesting history which begins not in 1935, but in 1875. It was in that year that Gov. Richard Coke, after ousting E. J. Davis from the capitol building in Austin in a confrontation which could have proved bloody but didn't, appointed the Milam County Militia as the Special Force of the Texas Rangers and sent them to clean up the rampant lawlessness south of the Nueces River. Although rangers had acted as lawmen at times before, they were not lawmen per se, but State Militiamen. Coke's appointment of Leander H. McNelly as captain of the Special Force marked the first specific appointment of a law enforcement officer as commander of a ranger force. McNelly had been a captain in the State Police but resigned that commission when it became obvious that the State Police were a political agency rather than a law-enforcement agency.

From 1875 until 1935 the Texas rangers--dubbed Rangers in an 1880s re-write of the law authorizing them to act as peace officers--wore two hats. As part of the state's militia they reported to the Adjutant General. As the state's only statewide law-enforcement agency, they reported to the Attorney General. Attorney General was an elective office, but Adjutant General was and is an appointive office. Adjutants General of Texas, until 1935, could come from the state militia (after 1906 the National Guard) or the Texas Rangers. William Warren Sterling, the last Adjutant General to come from the Ranger ranks, served from 1931 to 1933, during the administration of Gov. Ross S. Sterling. The men were not related.

By 1933 it was obvious Texas needed an entirely new sort of statewide police force. It was in that year that Gov. Sterling asked the legislature to establish the Texas Highway Patrol. The first chief of the new force was former Austin Police; Chief Lester G. Phares. The officers rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles and were issued factory-nickel-plated Colt New Service revolvers in .38 Special caliber. The pistols had TEXAS HIGHWAY PATROL stamped on the backstrap. Once the pistols were removed from the state's inventory and sold on the open market the TEXAS HIGHWAY PATROL stamping was ground off, leaving a strip of bare metal down the backstrap. These pistols--easily identified by the ground-off bare spot on the backstrap--are highly collectible today.

In August of 1935 the Highway Patrol and Rangers were consolidated into the Texas Department of Public Safety, with the Rangers eventually forming the Criminal Investigation Division of the DPS. The Rangers were stripped of their militia status at the time, something that did not set well with a great many older Rangers. The formation of the DPS in August of '35, stripping the force of its militia status by the administration of Gov. Miriam A. ;W. Ferguson, almost caused the collapse of the Ranger force. So many veteran Rangers, irked over losing their militia status and having seen what the Fergusons did to the Ranger force in Mrs. Ferguson's previous term as governor, resigned. Among them was Captain Frank A. Hamer, who formed a private detective agency and accepted a job as Chief of Security at a Houston-based oil company at a salary of $6,000 per year, a virtual fortune during the depression. At the request of Col.. Lee Simmons, Warden of the Texas State Prison System, Hamer resigned that job and took a commission as a Special Investigator for the Texas State Prison System--at a salary of less than $2,400 per year---in order to capture or kill Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.


C. F. Eckhardt August 13, 2013 column

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