For the people from this area, the thought of going swimming or sunbathing and enjoying friends along the sandbars of the Sabine River often stirs up much excitement. Indeed, the river is a little slice of heaven in our own back yards. Our people have been enjoying that lazy old river since our ancestors relocated to the region over 150 years ago.
It’s fascinating that for over sixty-plus years, the Sabine River was a big shipping route for plantation owners and farmers who could sell their cotton. It is said the one could hear the steam whistles for up to fifteen miles around. A 1932 article from the Beaumont Enterprise describes the sound of the whistles: “[you would generally hear] four or five long blasts—if there’s plenty of steam in the old boilers—low, resonant sounds—as though someone in a little patch of woods at some distance drew a well-resined bow slowly across the “G” string of an old violin.”
Captain John G. White said, “We’d always blow long and loud for the landings. The old ladies, and sometimes the young ones, would nearly always come down to the bank to greet us. They’d bring greens, butter, milk, eggs, and anything else they had handy. And they were always presents to us. . . - and you can bet your life we never forgot our friends, we always brought them candy or fruit—and anything else we thought they’d like. They enjoyed our coming because there weren’t many visitors along the river In those days.”
Old stories of the glorious steamboat days were often recounted by the children of early pioneering families and passed down the line for generations. One such story came from the children of W.L.Y. and Elizabeth Nichols Eaves who lived near the Junction. They said that the steam whistle could be easily heard on Eaves Loop where the homeplace stood. The children would grab as many pine knots as they could carry in their arms and would run, barefooted, through the swamp to the sandbar where they waited for the boat to arrive. The captain would give them candy in exchange for the pine knots used to fire the great steam boilers.
Steamboats came about for ease of selling and transporting cotton. Five years was all a river steamboat was expected to last, especially those that traversed the snaggy old Sabine River. It was well known that the river was tough on the wooden hulls.
It was in 1843 when Captain John Clemmons navigated the first steamboat up the Sabine. The boat was called the “Sabine” and was described as a sturdy boat that made several successful trips up and down the river.
It was almost 1860 when the “Biloxi” steamed up the river from Mississippi. It’s cargo consisted of “several dozen” enslaved people, to be sold at auction. The patch of land where the slaves were unloaded became known as Biloxi, Louisiana. Many of the towns that were once in this area, such as Biloxi, Sabine Town port, all fizzled out and were slowly overtaken by the swamps.
Between the years 1860 and 1910, just naming a few, the “Dura”, “Maude Howell”, “Bertha”, “Tennesaw”, “Minna”, “Lark” and the “Minnie” also navigated the river.
It was said that the “Dura” was only fourteen feet wide and seventy feet long. “Dura” could only carry about a hundred bales of cotton at a time. Captain John G. White, once captain of the “Dura”, remembered she had been seized for a debt of about $800. He said, “I worked her clear out of debt, but the coming of the railroads put a stop to steamboating. It doesn’t take much explanation to see what happened.”
One of the most famous of Sabine River steamers was the graceful “Neches Belle”, piloted by Captains John M. Liles, Will Loving and John G. White. Her engines were reportedly from Vicksburg, and she had side-wheels with an oaken hull. The”Neches Belle” was a moderately-sized boat and was only able to ship 500 bails of cotton at a time. According to old records, it cost $3,000 to build her.
Captain Liles of the “Neches Belle” was a resident of Burr’s Ferry, Louisiana. In 1873, he became the first post master for the town. During this period, Burr’s Ferry was a bustling area and was a significant shipping point along the river.
Liles was also co-owner of the “Neches Belle” with Captain Sam Allardyce of Almadane, Louisiana. According to an article from the Leesville Daily Leader, dated April 11, 2001, “Soon after the turn of the century, Capt. Samuel Allardyce moved to [Almadane] to run the general store, the cotton gin, the grist mill, and the sawmill. He also provided a news source to the community -- on Tuesdays and Thursdays he shared World War I news by reading the newspaper to customers gathered in his store.”
It was reported that in 1897, the “Neches Belle” was also impounded for debts owed in Logansport, Louisiana. She was simply tied up and abandoned at the dock. The river was particularly high at this time, and when the waters subsided, “she turned over” and was scraped.
For some forty or fifty years after the “Neches Belle” sank, it was said that “when you’re crossing the historical bridge at Logansport, [you can see] the white bones – a little part of the rotting bottom-planking of the “Neches Belle” lying in the shallow waters of the Sabine.”
Captain John G. White recounted numerous stories of a lifetime piloting riverboats along the Sabine. The captain recalled seeing the Atakapas Indian villages along the beautiful subtropical route. He also stated that he knew the location of Jean LaFitte's schooner that had sank. LaFitte was an infamous pirate who traversed the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston to Florida and had allegedly buried his treasures here in Louisiana.
A popular pasttime of the day was steamboat races, many were held in Galveston Bay, Texas. The captains would stuff as many pine knots as they could into the boilers. It was reported that spectators could see flames rising high from the tall smokestacks as the steamboats reached top speed. There were at least two terrible explosions involving steamboat races, both occurred in Galveston Bay and took the life of dozens of people.
There was an article in the Beaumont News-Beacon, dated 1873, describing a steamboat race on the Sabine. According to the article, it was between the steamboat "Captain James L. Graham" and a cotton boat named “Era No. 8”.
“The black smoke rose in perfect clouds, indicating an unrestricted use of pine knots. In the race from Sabine Pass, the ‘Era’ left 56 minutes ahead of the ‘Graham’. [Eventually] the ‘Era’ was only one or 200 yards ahead,” the article reported, “We suppose the ‘Era’ will not give up yet, and we will have the pleasure of seeing a little more of the fun ourselves."
There is a section of the river nicknamed “Steamboat Bend” near Merryville. For many years, one could still gaze upon two giant smoke stacks sticking out from the murky river water. Also the steamboat "Laura" sank in a deep hole not far from Merryville. There are hundreds of documented wrecks in the Sabine River, from the Civil War battle at Sabine Pass to WWII schooners that had been deliberately sank in the river tributaries near Orange.
As old Captain White had stated, the steamers started fading out in the mid-1890’s, mostly because the railroads were more efficient for transporting goods. The final curtain came down on that illustrious and romantic bygone-era of the Sabine River steamers.