Alligatorville
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A TALE OF SABINE PASS:
"CALL US 'ALLIGATORVILLE' IF YOU WILL"

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from YELLOWED PAGES, XIII (Summer, 1983), 42-44.
Sources: Galveston DAILY NEWS, 1883-1886, quoting Sabine Pass TIMES.

The year was September, 1886, and yep, that's what the Sabine Pass editor said on the newspaper microfilm that I was reading, "Call us 'Alligatorville' if you will." Naturally, my eyeballs backtracked a little across that microfilm for verification, because I had heard of Augusta, Sabine, Sabine City, and Sabine Pass, but by jiminy, never ever have I heard of Alligatorville as some variant name for Sabine Pass, Texas. Mosquitoville, perhaps, because I've been there lots of times and fought off those bat-sized blood suckers with the barbed fangs, but I don't recall that any big crocs ever chased me across the Sea Rim marsh.

I'd always thought of Sabine in terms of cotton bales, galloping 'Yankees,' and "gallinippers" (bat-sized skeeters), but not alligators. Not that I ever doubted that there weren't a few out there in the marshes. I realize now that some of those nightly banshee wails I used to hear and attributed to the wandering ghost of the headless Yankee (i. e., the U. S. S. Clinton's starboard gunner, who lost his head to one of Dowling's cannon balls) were probably old Master Gator's grunt or growl, whatever it is that gators do, amorous as usual and pining for his gatorettes.

Turning the microfilm a bit farther, I read: "But the peculiar feature that will strike you dumb with wonder will be the masterly manner in which the alligator will play 'possum,' remaining as if dead until his pelt is removed, and then turn over quietly on his feet and walk deliberately off to grow another skin."

"Frog feathers!" I caught myself muttering and spiced on each end with a couple of my unprintable expletives. Now I know I'm gullible as hell, known on a few occasions to believe most anything or most any yarn I'm told, but that 'growing another skin' bit had to be hogwash; in fact, I'd say that was shoveling an ounce too much sheep dung down my gullet in one scoop-full.

I remember a day in 1929 (I must have been about nine years old then) when the old folks killed and dragged a fourteen foot, 10-inch gator, weighing 700 pounds, out of Block's Bayou at Port Neches. And one old trapper next door said he wasn't even fully grown yet. Now I'll readily confess that I ain't particularly skilled at skinning alligators, but can you imagine that big brute snoring gently while I slit across his ribs with my hunting knife? The chances are he'd have dispatched 'yours truly' to the happy hunting ground with one swish of his giant tail or one swipe of his 32-inch snout.

, Nowadays, I suspect that old man was probably right about that beast when he said the croc was only a gator pup. I recall reading one old article on the Galveston "News" microfilm which stated that the bones of a giant, 21-foot alligator had been found in a Taylor's Bayou mud flat back in Civil War days. But none of the gators at Sabine Pass in 1883 were ever more than seventeen feet long and maybe a thousand pounds in weight. Elsewhere on the microfilm reel, I read where some yokel killed a 19-foot alligator sunning himself on a log raft in the Beaumont dock area in 1898. And later, that same Beaumont alligator-slayer conceded that, were it indeed not for the Sabine Pass gator-slaughtering of the 1880s, Beaumonters would be seeing a lot more of the twenty-foot variety.

But back to Sabine Pass in the days when it preferred to be called 'Alligatorville.' It appears that before 1883, no one ever dreamed of killing any of the big brutes, except perhaps when a yearning for delicious gator-tail steak beckoned. And then some outsider, probably a 'furriner' from Galveston, came to town and began swapping their hides for gold coins. I sometimes suspected, too, that it was probably that same 'furriner' who acquainted and sold the Boston shoe manufacturers on the fact that croc hides make as good or better shoes as those made of buffalo skin. And before 1883, nobody ever saw a pair of shoes made out of alligator skin.

As I recall, there are three or four ways to kill gators. If you like, you can shine their eyes at night with a lamp or flashlight and shoot them in the ear. Some people I've known baited hooks with turtles or mullet in order to catch them. Or else, if you wish, you can "pole" them in the marsh pot holes while they are hibernating, that is, if the marsh is passable to man or horse. But at Sabine pass in 1883, there were just about as many big crocs among the cattle herds as there were steers, tasty newborn calf being always at the top of old Mastor Gator's menu. And that year was a dry one -- with man or beast able to walk most anywhere in the marsh dry-footed. So whenever possible, the Sabine Passites shot them in the eyes with muskets while the big caymans were asleep among the cattle.

I suppose some of the cattle drovers of those days were never quite sure whether they were cow pokes or "gator pokes."

I have another theory, too, about that 'furriner' gator-skinner; perhaps he might have been a Panhandle drifter from up around Amarillo way. You see, it was about that same time that the last big Panhandle buffalo herd succumbed to the hide hunters. So I suppose that 'furriner' just might have been one of those ex-buffalo skinners whose unemployment benefits had played out.

Anyway, at the very same moment that that "furriner's" gold coins began to clink on the store counters around town, the Sabine Passites began dropping their grubbing hoes and cotton sacks posthaste and, muskets and gator poles in hand, they galloped off into the swamps like homesick Yankees bound for New Orleans. The Sabine Pass "Times," as quoted in the Galveston "Daily News," gave some sprightly accounts as the massacre of the big swamp dragons continued, noting in October, 1883:

"Alligator hides are becoming an important commercial item. Large numbers are obtained along the Sea Rim, and on the lakes adjacent, and several hundred hides where shipped from here one day last week." In March, 1884, the same editor added another quote:

"Less than a year ago, two or three small boats entered our bayous for the purpose of killing and skinning alligators, the crews finding their game by night by shining 'his alligatorship's' eyes and shooting him, like deer in fire-hunting. One of these boats was manned by four men who hunted four weeks and carried away $900 worth of skins."

"The grand success of these adventures quickly opened the eyes of our citizens, and very soon outfits were rigged for new expeditions. The drought of that summer greatly facilitated matters by drying up the marshes so that hunting might be done on land by day . . . . In this way, a man and his 15-year-old son, in fifty days, secured skins to the value of $760. It is estimated that these amphibious lizards are quite plentiful enough near this city to keep one thousand men occupied for a hundred years.

Now I, with only the feeble math in my head, and no computer or calculator to work with, tried to determine how many big crocs that might add up to, and I came up with a figure close to a billion hides. Of course, you have every right to disagree with my figures.

In June, 1884, the same Sabine newspaper again observed that : "So far twenty-five hundred alligator skins and seventy-five pounds of teeth for ivory have been marketed since last report. Nineteen hundred other skins in one lot were offered this week, but the buyers would not pay the asking price."

By July 10, 1884, the editor noted that there were "several thousand" hides baled and ready for shipment in the warehouses, but buyers were few, and the market price had dropped to 72 cents a hide. Within a month, hunters were refusing to sell at all in order to force the price up to what they considered an acceptable amount.

After that summer, the price of gator skins rose steadily, and in September, 1886, only one month before a huge hurricane would destroy the town, the "Times" boasted that Sabine's "peculiar industry" had put $75,000 in gold in local pockets in less than two years, which even the lucrative cotton trade couldn't accomplish. Only three or four cotton brokers and merchants had been sharing the profits of that trade, whereas hunting crocs was open to anyone with a gun, a boat, or a gator pole. But the editor bemoaned the fact that the "hundred year's supply" had come to an end.

"We only regret," he stated, "that the supply has decreased until we are now unable to fill the demand. Our hunters now go away down the coast to Aransas and east to the bays and inlets of the everglades of Louisiana for their game."

And so it was for the local hiders; with their economic rug pulled out from under them, the Sabine alligator hunters had all but hung up their gator poles and were fixing to line up at the local unemployment office once more.

Lately, whenever I wander across the Sea Rim and I see or hear no gators, I point my finger in the direction of Sabine Pass and shout aloud to the ducks and muskrats: "For shame, Sabinites! But for your ancestors' greed, I could have had a hundred or more king-sized crocs nibbling at my heels!" And alas, I remain resigned to the fact that I may never experience that exciting adventure in this life, although from some source not readily recalled, I heard that the gator population is on the rise again, both in Texas and Louisiana.

Further comment on the subject I will not make in this discourse, lest the conservationists fault me with torrents of verbal abuse, but if you, the reader, discern that I would mourn the passing of 'his alligatorship' about equally with the extinction of mosquitoes, the wharf rat, and the rattlesnake, you're quite right! Or almost!

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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