[p. 39]

Early River Trading


Before the Iron Horse
(The steamboat Laura)
(for a larger image, click here)

TIME was when the entire Nacogdoches territory was served by steamboats plying the Neches and the Angelina, and this commerce would be going on today were it not for rail competition.

There are men still living who commanded boats in the old days, and around them hover a shadowy group, who too served on the old side wheelers as they chugged to and fro on the Neches and who, like the boats themselves, have saluted and passed on.

Captain W. E. Rogers, a familiar figure on the streets of Beaumont for fifty years, and Captain E. I. Kellie of Jasper are among the navigators of the Neches yet alive. Captain W. A. Fletcher, Captain William Wiess, Captain Napoleon Wiess, Captain Cave Johnson, Captain James Dalton, belong to the latter group who helped to make river history here.

Descendants of these men are among Beaumont's most substantial citizenry, and some of the community's largest estates and greatest fortunes had their beginning in the river transport system.

The little side-wheelers plied the rivers much as a local freight train is now operated. They started their small cargoes of supplies to the settlers on the trip up the stream and on the way back gathered their cargoes of products for the outside markets. Every settlement along the river, almost every farm, provided its own landing, and no consignment of freight was too small to attract the vessel in its course to and from the headwaters of navigation.

Vessels of that day were built for utility only. They were primarily freight carriers, passengers accepting accommodation at their own risk of inconvenience and discomfort. The light draft of the vessels prevented luxurious features of construction, and the sparse settlement along the rivers made them unnecessary. Hard work was the lot of every man engaged in transforming the wilderness into a habitation for man, and every agency he engaged was of necessity but an aid to the universal task. So there was no gay life on the boats that plied the Neches and Angelina rivers, and little gambling such as spread the glamor of romance over the river traffic of the Mississippi in the days of its pristine glory.

Visits of seagoing schooners to the bar at Sabine were few and far between; the transportation of products was a seasonal task, and navigation limited somewhat by the stages of water in the rivers. Hence the one purpose of the masters of vessels was the utmost dispatch in loading, unloading and passage. There was no time for idling among the crews, and idlers were not welcomed as passengers. It was all work and no play along the docks and on board the boats during that laborious period of development of transportation along the rivers of southeast Texas.

Not only did the material interests of the people depend upon the freight carriers on the rivers, but their cultural advantages were limited to such service as this means of communication could give. There were no telegraphs of course, and mail was their only means of communication with the outside world. The mail service was limited to such as could be supplied by the schooners coming from northern and eastern ports, and until the late fifties none of these ships made Sabine a regular port of call. At that time the Morgan line established a reasonably regular service by routing its schooners by way of Sabine on their way from New Orleans to Galveston and back. Even under this service letters and newspapers were months coming from "back home" to the settlements here, while prior to that time receipt of mail from the outside was listed among the happy accidents of the year.

Crude and laborious though the service was, the energetic and resourceful pioneer transportation kings of that day did their task efficiently. The service they rendered met the requirements of the commerce of the day as adequately as do the incomparably greater transport systems of today. American initiative and ingenuity were equal to the problems as they arose and as the demand for transport increased the men engaged in the work found ways to meet it. Larger boats were built, and as they learned the ways of the rivers, they were able to take advantage of the tide stages in the streams, with the result that the cotton grown on the farms along the valleys and later the cattle driven down from the prairies farther inland, were carried to market in ever-increasing quantities from year to year, until the railroad came to relieve the river boats of their task.

The sidewheeler Florida, 250 feet long and "2500 bales" capacity, perhaps the largest of the early river boats, captained by Captain W. E. Rogers, brought to this port the first consignment of iron for the Texas and New Orleans railroad, and much more of such material was brought in by other vessels of the fleet, thus helping toward the construction of the agency which destroyed their own usefulness. (ed. note -- the boat was called the Florilda.  There was an early tugboat named the Florida.)

Following the advent of the railroad, river commerce rapidly dwindled, until within a few years the last of the little packets was tied up to a secluded point along the river, there to stay while the speeding locomotives drew its former burdens to other ports, its screeching whistle's note sounding in the ears of the rivermen like an enemy's battle cry of victory. Like a vanquished host, the river fleet had saluted its conqueror and passed on.

Though long since passed away, river traffic left its impress upon the community, for like all great services to man its works have lived after it. It was this transport system which invited the first efforts toward developing the lumber business along the Neches and Sabine rivers, which has since taken its place as one of the leading industries of the southwest. It was to this industry that Beaumont owed its first commercial importance, and which converted it from a riverside village of 250 population to a town of several thousand people, making it, even in the earlier days, the most important station between New Orleans and Galveston. The development of the enterprise was comparatively rapid, beginning in the early sixties with the manufacture of shingles by hand. Later small mills were established along the streams, their output exported by way of the river fleet; and with the coming of the railroads the industry thus begun, grew rapidly to its present tremendous development.

The harbor of Beaumont in early days included practically the same part of the river which now accommodates the Beaumont city docks and wharves and turning basin, to which come great steel steamships from all ports of the world to carry the products of the Beaumont district to the markets of every isle and continent. But in lieu of the splendid steel and concrete structures which now greet the masters of the visiting vessels, there were then the crudest of wooden platforms on which cotton, hides, and furs, principal articles of commerce, were piled, and loaded by hand onto the decks of the flat-bottomed vessels tied alongside. These wharves were frequently destroyed by flood waters in the river and as often had to be rebuilt.

Beaumont's harbor of the old sidewheeler days was sixty feet at the end of Main street, and the depth was discovered in an unusual way. A schooner came up from Sabine Pass and was tied at the foot of Main. It was stormy that day and she moved away from the wharf and cast anchor. The anchor caught, and in an attempt to loose it, a sounding was taken. To everybody's surprise, there was sixty feet in the turning basin. It has filled up some since then.

Interesting Neches river history is contained in tie little pamphlet entitled "Reminiscences and Suggestions Concerning the Sabine-Neches Project," prepared by Captain William Wiess, Captain W. A. Fletcher, and Captain W. E. Rogers, published in 1910 for the benefit of the United States board of engineers and deep water committee of congress.

Here are extracts from the report of Captain Wiess :

"I herewith submit to you a list of 36 steamboats that operated on the Neches, Angelina, (a tributary of the Neches), and Sabine rivers from 1852 until sometime during the 80's, possibly a few of them until 1890. Most of these boats operated from 1852 up to the close of the war and some of them after the war. Many of them were extra good boats and paid large dividends to their owners; some of them were small and did not succeed very well financially. The capacity is given in bales of cotton:

"Juanita, 400; Angelina, 350; Pearl Plant, 450; Mary Falvey, 450; Sunflower, 600; Dr. Massie, 400; Grand Bay, 600; Era No. 8, 650; Flora, 300; Florida, 2500; Uncle Ben, 900; J. H. Bell, 1200; J. J. Warren, 1400; Emma, 200; J. L. Graham, 400; Cora, 900; Tom Parker, 200; L. C. Lamar, 1400; Pearl Rivers, 1200; Advance, 200; Stonewall, 600; T. J. Emery, 300; T. J. Smith, 350; Sabine, 450; J. L. Webb, 450; Roebuck, 550; Camorgo, 350; Tug Kate, 75; Pelican State, 150; Orleans, 600; Early Bird, 800; Rough and Ready, 500.

"I desire to say that as I have helped to wear out two steamboats on these rivers, and as I myself have run a 400-bale boat as high up the Angelina river as Pattonia in Nacogdoches county, to Rockland on the Neches and to Bellzoria on the Sabine, I feel I am competent to speak on these matters.

"The steamer J. J. Warren, carrying 1400 bales, ran as high up the Angelina river as Townsend's bluff in the south end of San Augustine county and brought out cotton. She also ran in the Sabine river.

"I have given you the size of these boats that you may know the kind of river trading we had at that time."

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