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Rainbow Bridge 1938 opening brought an end to area ferries

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday November 27, 1999.

NEDERLAND—The “horse and buggy days” officially ended with the arrival of the 1933 Ford V8, and never again would Americans worship at the altar of slow movement.

One problem that remained was transportation arteries, for the nation’s highway system was still geared to the ox wagon, with still too many dirt roads and ferries. The residents of Jefferson County were more than glad to say ‘good-bye’ to the last ferry, Dryden’s between Port Arthur and Orange, and for a moment they could boast that their Rainbow Bridge was the tallest in the South.

After Jefferson County became a political entity, many pioneers sought to establish ferries, which meant a guaranteed income. Soon John Sparks operated the ferry across Taylor’s Bayou on the dirt road to Sabine Pass. James Chessher owned the ferry across Pine Island Bayou on the dirt road to Woodville, and Brown’s ferry crossed Village Creek.

Many of the earliest county records are ferry licenses, including the requirements of ferry operators. During the 1830s Richard Ballew owned the ferry across Sabine River, several miles north of Orange, and W. C. Beard and William Ashworth owned the Santa Ana ferry (at Mobil refinery). Each was permitted to charge “short ferriage” or “long ferriage” rates. “Long ferriage” at Santa Ana meant traveling 2 miles to high land up Beard’s Bayou. “Long ferriage” at Ballew’s was a 4-mile voyage up the old Sabine River channel to Niblett’s Bluff.

In 1847 the Santa Ana ferry franchise was revoked and passed to Nancy Hutchinson. After Ballew died about 1840, his ferry franchise passed to Ursin Guidry.

During the 1830’s Henry Millard operated the “Pine Bluff” ferry about 3 miles north of Beaumont. After Millard moved to Galveston, his ferry franchise was transferred to John and Person Collier.

The early ferries were allowed to charge a specified fee for a horse and rider, a buggy or wagon, and 2 cents for each head of cattle crossed. Ordained ministers crossed free of charge. Often ferrymen were required to provide food, lodging, and cattle pens, and some ferries were licensed to sell liquor. Each ferryman paid a percentage of his receipts as a county tax.

Guy Mansfield operated the Mansfield Ferry near Jefferson County courthouse from 1900 until 1928, and it was the next to last Neches River ferry to cease operation. As a child, the writer crossed over that ferry many times and recalls that house boats were docked ‘three deep’ on each side of the river near the ferry.

The last ferry on the lower Neches River to close down was Dryden’s, which operated from about 1913 until the Rainbow Bridge was completed in 1938. During the 1920s, that ferry was about 85 feet long by 24 feet wide, with a capacity for about 12 cars. A small tugboat, that could reverse direction by swinging around, propelled it and the voyage usually required 15 minutes if no ship were close.

Surviving photos of the ferry’s east landing reveal a long canal, which would suggest a levee through the marsh for a shelled roadbed. However, that assumption would be false.

Earlier the canal had floated a pile driver that drove wooden pilings for 1-˝ miles through the marsh to high land near Bridge City. Then creosoted trestle timbers were bolted horizontally to the pilings, upon which 4-inch creosoted stringers were bolted to the trestles. The bridge through the marsh had 4-foot high wooden fences built on each side, and being only about16 feet wide, there was barely room for one auto to pass another.

Rainbow Bridge was worth its weigh in gold during World War II, when it permitted residents of one county to work in the shipyards and defense plants of the adjacent county.

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