Unsolved Mystery: The Murder of an Eggner's Ferry Bridge Toll Collector
Scattered in the pages of the Paducah Sun-Democrat during the fall and winter of 1940, among accounts of the Nazis’ movements in the Balkans and FDR’s defeat of Wendell Willkie for an unprecedented third term as president, a murder mystery unfolded on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River.
On the night of October 28, 1940, 35-year-old Ollie Dunnagan was collecting tolls on the Trigg County side of the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge when he was gunned down. The next evening’s edition of the Sun-Democrat included the account of Professor Carman Graham, then principal of the Murray Training School. He discovered Dunnagan’s body shortly after 8 p.m.
“I drove up to the window then and not seeing the tollkeeper, got half out of the car with the idea of placing the money on the inside windowsill," Graham told the paper. "In one glance, I noticed a man’s feet on the floor, the cash register open and an overturned chair. We investigated then and saw the man had been shot several times. He looked to have been dead not more than 10 minutes.”
Two shots were fired outside the tollbooth. Three followed inside. Dunnagan was hit four times. He didn’t get the chance to reach for a gun he had nearby. A small amount of money had been taken from the cash register, but $25 Dunnagan had on hand to make change was overlooked.
By Halloween, a total of five people were arrested, all young men from Trigg County and the Golden Pond area. Two of them – the Birdsong brothers – were on bond for holding up Dunnagan the previous summer. They were moved to the city jail in Mayfield because of “high feeling” in Trigg County toward the possible killers of the popular Dunnagan.
But one-by-one, they were all released. Kentucky Gov. Keen Johnson offered a $250 reward for information leading to Dunnagan’s killer, but the trail went cold.
One man thinks he knows what happened. Spencer Balentine is a fourth generation distiller of moonshine and owner of Hardin’s Silver Trail Distillery, so-named for the sobriquet given to the roads located between the Rivers – now Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. He says in 1940, his father and uncle spent almost all of their time near the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge.
“They were either swimming out in the, used to be like a swimming hole on the right hand side there when you’re approaching the bridge. They were either there or they were riding bicycles over the bridge or just always around at all hours of the night," Balentine said.
But it’s not just the fact that his father could have been in the area of the tollbooth at the time of the murder that intrigues Balentine. He says his father and uncle often alluded to having a secret for the rest of their lives. On future moonshine runs, no matter how many times Balentine asked his father to elaborate, he kept the secret. He says his father brought it up again at his uncle’s funeral.
“I came through with my dad at the visitation and he patted him and said, ‘You took her with you and I’ll take her with me’. Talking about this secret. And then when my dad passed away, probably 10 years later, he took it with him," Balentine said.
Balentine says he thinks that Ollie Dunnagan’s killer or killers believed the tollbooth operator had spoken to the police about the moonshine operations he must have witnessed running over the bridge on an hourly basis. Balentine says in the '50s, a relative performed a survey of the number of cars leaving the area stocked with ring-handled jugs of moonshine, and estimated that 2,700 gallons were exported from the Silver Trail each week. The distiller believes it’s possible Dunnagan broke some kind of between-the-rivers, moonshine omertà, endangering the business.
“My dad was a deacon for 40 years and a very devout, religious man, but he always told me, he said, ‘If nobody saw you do anything, and you don’t tell it, they got nothing'," Balentine said. "So that was kind of their code and that’s the way that he got by.”
In the end, it’s likely the killer is dead, never brought to justice for the tollbooth operator’s murder. The only lasting action taken from Dunnagan’s death was moving the tollbooth from the Trigg County to the Marshall County side of the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge. Authorities reasoned that the “dense bottomlands and heavy woodland areas afforded easy escape for highwaymen.”
Thanks to Bob Valentine for contributing a dramatic reading to the audio version of this story.