Tidbits of Shelby County History
History of Steamboats on the Sabine River

In last week’s article, I shared information on some of the steamboats that traveled to East Hamilton. I found this article written by Albert Axen (date of article is unknown) giving more history on the steamboats that traveled the Sabine River.

Down through the year, the tireless Sabine River has raced her course from deep in East Texas to the sea. She has hosted hundreds of men and dozens of boats. Along her banks have grown and then faded clusters of houses, warehouses, and stores, which made up long forgotten towns. She has carried millions of logs to the sawmills in Orange. She has fed her neighbors by the hundreds. For centuries she wound her course through the lives of the people of Texas and Louisiana. But time, like a river’s eroding action, has erased the Sabine’s fable of fame, fortune, and fantasy. For now, there are only a very few memories of the infancy of Texas along this river’s western shore.

During the middle 1880’s the Sabine River was used for commercial trade. It is almost 500 miles by river from Logansport, Louisiana to Orange, Texas, yet once upon a time, steamboats made regular trips to the island port. Merchants waited for furniture, coffins, saddles, copper pots, iron skillets, and even spices. Some looked to the coming of the steamboat for a letter from a relative, or a newspaper from New York or London. N.J. Caraway & Co. and ace Hardware are two firms in Logansport that have remained since their forefathers met the steamboats for supplies.

The Sabine River’s water route was only navigable in the early spring and winter months when the rains put the water level with the riverbanks. During these months, logs were also floated down the river to the gulf ports. Many logs are still at the bottom of the river at Logansport. The logs were of virgin cypress and will remain as a monument to another age.

As legends go, the pirate Jean LaFitte was the first to sail far north on the Sabine. He and his crew went ashore near Patroon Creek to establish the long-forgotten town of Shacklefoot, regarded by historians as “a den of robbers and thieves”, LaFitte was also said to have left some captives of pure Spanish descent, whose descendants still occupy the area around East Hamilton.

In the year 1837, the United States Army sent Major B. Riley of the Sixth U.S. Infantry to chart the Sabine River’s course. His chars, made while rafting downstream, have changed little to this day until you reach Logansport. It was his charting that opened the Sabine to commerce.

A year later the steamboat, VELOCIPEDE, navigated the Sabine, making two trips upriver. She was followed upstream that same year by the CERES. The steamer WISCONSIN made the trip in 1839, and RUFUS PUTNAM in 1840. TheALBERT GALLATIN also tackled the river in 1840.

It was never easy for the steamboat captains. They could move only when the river rose enough to make her navigable, allowing passage over the massive snags Major Riley found in 1837. Two of these massive snags exit today although covered by the waters of Toledo Bend. They are located about 72 miles downstream from what was Hickman’s Ferry. Downstream another 80 miles, Major Riley found what was known as the “narrows”. Three separate channels choked into one where the river currents twisted, turned, and swirled.

If there is a niche of praise for the rivermen who fought the river over a century and half ago, many names would be enshrined there. Some of the steamers and their captains included: VELOCIPEDE – Capt. Wright and Capt. Delmore, CERES – Capt. Reid, WASHINGTON – Capt. J. Brown, SOCIOTO BELLE – Capt. Peter D. Stockholm, PEARL PLANT – Capt. John Clemmons, THE FLORIDA – Capt. John Price, Capt. W.E. Rogers, Capt. A.J. Pinkston, DURA – Capt. George Wolfford, EMILY P. -Capt. Lancaster, ERA – Capt. G.B. Burr, FANNIE –Capt. Lou Boattise, ALBERTA – Capt. Green Godwin, FRANKIE SWIFT SUE – Capt. J.W. Griffth. Other steaboats included:  UNCLE BEN, JOSIAH BELL, BEN HENRY, LIZZIE, LAWRENCE, L Q C LAMAR, ADA, NELLIE.

The old riverboats died, many of them in the river. Others sailed to more navigable waters. The CERES, WISCONSIN, and the PUTNAM all sank in the upper Sabine at early dates. The WASHINGTON opened her seams in dry weather and sank at Fullerton’s Landing. The UNCLE BEN, a Civil War vessel standing by with cotton clad decks at the Battle of the Sabine Pass, struck a snag on the upper Sabine. The beautiful, toned bell from the UNCLE BEN, now sits in front of Center Elementary School. After being salvaged from the UNCLE BEN, who went down near East Hamilton, the bell served the First Baptist Church, until around 1906. The bell then was placed on the roof of the old Center High School building erected in 1912. A rope from the bell came through the roof and was in the school lobby. (Note: Note:  In 1857, UNCLE BENwas a 135-foot boat which made five round trips to Belzora, near Tyler, Texas, carrying 1,000-bale loads to Sabine Lake on each trip. The "Ben" belonged to Robert Patton before the Civil War, to the Confederate States government during the war. The sidewheeler UNCLE BEN was principally a Sabine River cotton boat in peacetime but served on the Neches River during the Civil War when it was a cotton-clad gunboat. On the boat was installed a double wall of oak beams and the interior space was filled with cotton bales. Two 12-pounder smoothbore field guns and a single 64-pounder rifled cannon was installed on the boat. It was snagged and sank in the Sabine River at East Hamilton in 1867. The bell from the UNCLE BEN is now in the possession of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and has been restored. Their plan is to mount the bell outside the Daughter’s Building on the square to be used to “ring in” historical activities around the square)

During the end of the 1800’s, three steamboats came to Logansport’s docks and stayed. Deep beneath the waters of Toledo Bend those gracious old boats of another era sit.

The NECHES BELLE was perhaps the grandest and most popular of the boats. Most of the natives of Logansport got a glance at the NECHES BELLE when the Sabine River was low the summer before Toledo Dam was completed. Almost the entire 150-foot length of the vessel was visible to anyone standing on the bridge across the Sabine. The planks of her deck make of cypress, were well preserved.During World War II members of her crew volunteered to raise the sunken boilers for Logansport’s scrap drive.

The NECHE BELLE was built in Beaumont, Texas in 1889 near the mouth of the bayou. Pearl Bunn and Capt. Will built the big steamboat with lumber from the Reliance Lumber Co. The machinery came from another boat, the VICKSBURG. They built the NECHES BELLE on dry land, put it on rollers, and lowered it into the water. It cost about $3000 to build the boat, not counting the machinery. (Note:  The BELLE was a side-wheel, wooden hull packet that was built to handle 500 bales of cotton.Empty she weighed 130 tons, loaded she weighed 242 tons. NECHES BELLE, as described in documents, was 101.4 ft long x 27.7 ft beam x 4.7 ft depth-of-hold and 241gross tons.The Beaumont Enterprise announced that the recently launched vessel traveled at the rate of16 miles per hour and could carry 241 gross tons on scant five feet of water.) Soon after launching, the boat came to Orange by way of the Neches River and Sabine Lake. A boatload of sightseers went out on the first trip on the Sabine River. Her second deck housed a saloon where bands played, and passengers enjoyed the finer luxuries of steamboat travel.

Capt. John White was Capt. Will’s first mate when the NECHES BELLE made her last trip. These are the words of Capt. John described the journey to a newspaper reporter before he died.

“We sailed out of Orange during the latter 1890’s with lumber to build a new bridge for the H.E. & W.T., the railroad from Shreveport to Houston. (Sometimes referred to as Hell Either Way Taken). But she never came out of port at Shreveport. She was seized by the law for some sort of debt. I can’t recall just now what it was. We tied her up and left her there. That was in fairly high water. Soon the river fell, and the NECHES BELLE keeled over……. I have no doubt that she’s still there.” (Note:  On the vessel's last trip to Logansport in 1897 with a load of rail construction material, the packet was tied up and its title was impounded in court litigation for debts. The Belle's timbers dried out during the low water season, and its leaking hull filled on the next river freshet, leaving the once-proud steamboat berthed in its water grave. The hey-day of the large steamboats came to an end soon after. A few smaller steamboats still operated but never the large, luxurious boats of the riverboats like the BELLE).

The MAUDE HOWELL had a Logansport native as captain, the late E.E. Price. The steamboat hauled many bales of cotton, giving the farmers a market for their fields of the fluffy white product. Timber and skins ran a close race for second as cargo. The MAUDE HOWELL was sunk around 1890 on the Texas side of the Sabine River across from where the NECHES BELLE had sunk.(Note: The small 250-bale boat was built at Logansport in 1892 and operated by Captain H.F.F. Martin. The vessel measured 61.9 ft long x 15.2 ft beam x 47 ft depth-of-hold and 31 tons. It had a single deck with a square head and square stern. Sometimes in late 1898 the vessel was scuttled 1 mile north of Logansport on the west bank of the Sabine River.)

Capt. Price also steered the EXTRA, a 100-foot side-wheeler that hauled cotton between Logansport and Orange. Capt. EE would stand with a rifle in the pilot house of the EXTRA and shoot the huge alligators that then infested the Sabine River. The EXTRA sank a few miles downstream from the bones of the NECHES BELLE.

Long ago Logansport was known as “polvadour” (DeSoto Parish was settled by the Spanish and French) and later called Logan’s Ferry. Local legend tells of another ship, a Spanish vessel, sinking three or four miles south of the EXTRA. The ship is said to have been carrying barrels of whiskey and gold. Ears ago when the weather was warm and the water low, Texas and Louisiana boys dug for gold from the old ship.

Steamboat traffic on the Sabine River, hauling mostly cotton, was at its peak between the Civil War and 1897 when the railroad bridge at Logansport was built. Then the “Hell Either Way Taken” puffed and rumbled it message of impeding doom to the vessels below It is also interesting to note that the last trip of the NECHES BELLE brought lumber to build the railroad through Logansport. Thus, the steamboat era on the Sabine River ended.