[p. 144]

"Thirty Feet to the Gulf"

FROM its beginnings Beaumont has been a port. Schooners laden with lumber, shingles, cotton and other farm products skimmed over the river to coastwise ports, the West Indies, Mexico and South America. These white-winged carriers of the sea performed the same service as the white-covered wagons did in interior trade.

Next came the small steamer, with its stern wheels, which paddled up the river as far as Nacogdoches county, plied other rivers along the coast, and made nearby coastal ports, although their radius did not equal the schooners which were not averse to entering any sea.

But the misfortune of having the Neches river empty into Sabine lake gave only three feet of water. It was in the 90's that the citizens of Beaumont began an agitation for a deeper waterway with the government help. All efforts other than that put forward by the representative in congress from this district had to be paid for by private subscription. But the fight was carried on until a start was made by the government, and the citizens contributed through taxation to induce the government to complete the work.

Dredging was done at the mouth of the Neches river in 1880 and 1895 to secure a channel 50 feet wide and five feet deep, but funds were exhausted before deep water in Sabine Lake was reached. As late as 1897 there was only four feet of water connecting Beaumont with the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1899 a project was approved for dredging to a depth of eight feet from the mouth of the Neches river to deep water in Sabine Lake. But it was not until March 3, 1905, that the people of Beaumont began to see a realization of their dreams, a beginning they believed would ultimately result in bringing ocean-going steamers to the city wharves. At this time a project was approved and amended in 1907, providing for a channel 100 feet wide and nine feet deep. This work was completed in 1908, and became serviceable in ordinary high tide to vessels drawing 11 feet of water. It was due to the valiant and untiring efforts of Congressman S. B. Cooper that this depth was secured, his activity being justified by the fact that business developed to approximately a quarter of a million tons annually. Even then the government was not convinced that the possible development of commerce would justify the expense of deepening the channel.

S. B. Cooper when 19.
(click here for enlarged image)

But in 1909 the people of Beaumont got authority by act of the Texas legislature to organize a navigation district, thus initiating the plan of localities sharing in the cost of deep-water development. This proposal for the people to match the government dollar for dollar in bearing the expense, after overcoming great opposition under leadership of Senator Joseph W. Bailey, backed by a strong committee of citizens sent to Washington from Beaumont, was adopted by congress in 1911, providing for a channel 25 feet deep and 90 feet wide. Under its provisions the Jefferson County Navigation District was required to put up $428,000 and agree to maintain the channel for three years. The total cost of improvements, including the Sabine river, was $1,143,000.

The port was opened in 1916. The first oceangoing steamship to reach the city was the Nicaurauga, and from this beginning the use of the ship channel jumped from less than a quarter million tons with nine feet of water, to more than a million tons in 1918, and near three million tons eight years after the port was opened.

This surprising use of the waterway demanded full recognition at the hands of congress, and Beaumont, as well as the Sabine district, received a classification along with the older ports of the nation, a classification which justified the government in defraying all the expenses of future improvements with the exception of certain river work.

Still pleading, still pounding away and with increasing tonnage passing through the port, the dreams of the early advocates were surpassed when congress appropriated on March 1, 1922, $2,191,111 to provide a channel 30 feet deep an d 125 feet wide. This, in effect, will give the port 31 feet of water, which is sufficient to accommodate the largest vessel afloat, with the exception of a few transatlantic liners and battleships of the dreadnaught type. It places Beaumont on an equal footing with the greatest inland waterways in the world.

The greatest advantage of the port of Beaumont is safety of vessels during storms, and fresh water, which has the effect of freeing ships of barnacles. Shipping in the Beaumont harbor has never been damaged by high winds, as is so often the case with ports near the open sea.

In the deepening and widening of the river, the work of straightening out the stream so far as navigation is concerned, has been going steadily on. In the first major project, the elimination of bends shortened the distance approximately one and one-half miles. It also had the effect of making navigation easier.

The thirty-foot project will carry some like improvement, shortening the distance approximately another one and one-half miles. In fact the port of Beaumont is in very much the same position as Cairo, Illinois, when Mark Twain commented upon the work that had been done in straightening out the Mississippi river.

Mark Twain was brought up on a steamboat, and years after leaving the steamboat service he again made the trip from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans. He remarked that at the rate the distance between Cairo and New Orleans was being shortened up, in the space of 2000 years Cairo would be 168 miles below New Orleans. At the rate the distance between Beaumont and the mouth of the Neches is being shortened, within 100 years Beaumont will be 275 miles below Sabine Pass.

The city of Beaumont has shown a wonderful amount of progress in providing facilities with which to make the port usable. The waterway was practically valueless until provision had been made to handle the inbound and outbound cargoes.

Rather than risk the danger of private monoply at the water front, the city purchased land from time to time, until it now owns the water front from Sabine Pass avenue to the Kansas City Southern bridge. It has been liberal in its expenditure of money to construct facilities in the way of wharves. Altogether $1,400,000 has been spent from bond issues for this purpose.

Beaumont as a deep sea port is probably the first port in the world to obtain that distinction through the faith of its own citizens, a faith that compelled recognition from the United States government. In this it set an example that gave cities like Orange and Houston connections with the open sea for large vessels.

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