THE GREAT STORM OF 1886:
A DAY OF AGONY AND DEATH AT SABINE PASS, TEXAS
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, January 9, 1977.
Sources: Galveston DAILY NEWS, October 14-21, 1886.
As is apparent to any visitor to the Sabine Pass Cemetery, Tuesday,
October 12, 1886, was not a day of ordinary significance. That date is etched all too
frequently on the numerous markers in the ill-kept cemetery.
On that fateful afternoon a century ago, hurricane winds and a massive
tidal wave quickly engulfed the seaport community, and by midnight, the town had been
washed away. Entire families were drowned, and the survivors were left too dazed and
incoherent in most cases for communication.
Some days afterward, a Galveston "Daily News" correspondent
recorded that, "Sabine Pass was once a port. Sabine Pass is (now) nothing but a
trackless and barren waste."
Although the storm raged across Southeast Texas with force sufficient
to destroy the D. J. Williams and R. W. Snelling sawmills at Kountze, Beaumont suffered
only very moderate damage, mostly just a few sawmill smokestacks, and Orange lost only its
new Catholic church.
Many earlier and subsequent hurricanes have damaged Sabine heavily, but
in each instance the town has refused to die. Oftentimes many survivors had given up and
moved away, but always a nucleus of nestors remained or returned to rebuild from the
Already the community was only a shadow of its antebellum self. By
April, 1861, the population had reached about 1,500, and four major commission merchants
were shipping 20,000 bales of cotton annually and importing the necessities for frontier
living. But the fall months of 1862 would change that panorama of serenity. Within three
months time, 100 residents and Confederate soldiers were dead of yellow fever, as many
more survived, but three-fourths of the town fled to inland points and never returned. In
addition, detachments of Union sailors came ashore, destroyed all Confederate
fortifications, burned the sawmill industries (the largest in Texas) and residences, and
threatened to return and burn the entire town. As a result, Sabine never fully regained
its pre-Civil War eminence as a seaport city.
By 1886, Sabine Pass had grown back to contain about twenty business
houses, three cotton gins and about sixty families. An equal number of farm families were
scattered along the two 7-mile marsh ridges, known as "Front Ridge," where the
present highway is located, and "Back Ridge," which began at Keith Lake and
intersected the Front Ridge at its western end.
After the 1886 storm had subsided, all that remained intact was Gus
Higby's store and the residences of Dr. J. J. L. Gilliland and W. F. McClanahan, the
town's publisher and printer. On the Front Ridge, Moise Broussard's three story mansion,
built in 1877, survived, but the cattleman lost a herd of 1,100 steers.
Before the hurricane arrived, Sabine's neighbors to the east, Radford
and Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, were very prosperous farm communities, with four large
stores, several cotton gins and sugar mills, and 1,200 inhabitants. Their mail, export,
and import requirements kept two steamboats, the "Emily P." and
"Lark," engaged for much of the year and the schooner "Dreadnaught"
occupied full-time in the Galveston trade. The storm flattened both settlements with an
appalling loss of life and wiped out several entire families.
The day of October 12 began as most other days, with no indication of
any offshore disturbance. The wind blew slightly from the southeast. Schools and stores
were open, men were at work as stevedores on the waterfront, and others labored in the
gins or cotton fields, for all of the cotton grown in Jefferson County came from the
Sabine Pass ridges. By 3 o'clock P. M., the waters of the Pass began to rise rapidly, and
the first gusts of storm winds swept onto the shores. By 7:00 P. M., the lower floors of
houses were filled with surging waters, and a full-blown hurricane was battering in the
doors and windows. These were the beginnings of the night of death and destruction.
No knowledge of the disaster reached the outside world for the next 48
hours. Johnson's Bayou was totally isolated except by water, and the telegraph lines and
rail tracks of the Eastern Texas Railroad to Sabine had been washed away.
On October 14, the schooner "Andrew Boden" left Orange en
route to Galveston. Upon reaching Sabine Lake, the vessel witnessed the handiwork of the
winds and waves -- floating houses, furniture, and all manner of debris -- and soon
rescued two brothers, Fred and Reuben Pomeroy, who were clinging to the wreckage of a
capsized yawl boat. Their story, which left no doubt about the extent of death and
destruction, follows in part:
"There were 45 women and children at the Porterhouse Tavern in
Sabine Pass, and some 15 or 20 men. They remained in it until half of it (the building)
was swept away. A yawl (a one-masted sail vessel) was hitched to the house, the water
having risen about four feet, when the end of the house was blown off. The yawl was manned
and loaded down to the water's edge. The sea was terribly rough, and during one of those
spasms, a wave struck the yawl and nearly half-filled it. All of them rushed to one side,
the boat capsized, and some of them were never seen again."
Among the victims of the shipwreck were Mrs. Edsea Pomeroy, Mrs. Laura
Pomeroy and four children, Mrs. Mary Whiting, Homer and Lucy King and their two children,
Mrs. Wilson A. Junker and son Carlisle, Mrs. Sarah Vondy and four children, Mrs. B. F.
McDonough and daughter, and many others.
The "Andrew Boden" returned to Orange, and soon afterward,
the steamboats, "L. Q. C. Lamar" and "Emily P.," and a relief force of
150 men left Orange for Sabine and Johnson's Bayou. A youth named David King rowed a skiff
30 miles to Beaumont to bring the first news of the disaster to that city. Men and
supplies were dispatched to the stricken areas from Beaumont aboard a schooner and the
steam tug "Scherffius" and its barge, a part of the largest rescue operation
that either Beaumont or Orange had ever engaged in. When notified by telegram of the
disaster, Galveston citizens sent a relief expedition aboard the revenue cutter
"Penrose" and the tug "Estelle."
The Galveston "Daily News" observed that "Beaumont and
Orange vied with each other in sending relief parties and assistance to the stricken
towns....Were it not for their prompt aid, those who escaped the storm would have perished
for want of food and water."
Within 24 hours, each city was caring for between 200 and 300 destitute
refugees, those left with only the clothes on their backs, a figure which would soon swell
to 1,200 persons.
The scenes of devastation which greeted the rescue workers were
sufficient to melt the most callous observer. Some survivors were still in a state of
insensibility, although physically unhurt, and others scrambled about the area in search
of relatives. The largest group of survivors were those who had taken refuge in Higby's
Store. Dr. Gilliland and Felix McReynolds had already organized a relief committee to
search for stranded survivors and bury the dead.
The force of the gale was especially visible at the lighthouse, where
the walls had sustained large cracks and fissures from winds estimated to have exceeded
150 miles per hour. The walls of the brick lightkeeper's cottage were shattered to bits of
rubble. A three-acre tract of high land in the inundated marsh adjacent to the railroad
was shared by the carcasses of 300 cattle, countless snakes, wolves, rabbits, foxes,
muskrats, and raccoons, all of the latter that still lived being in a stupified state. The
Galveston newspaper noted that:
" . . . Buzzards are the only members of the feathered family now
in the air, while the surface of the water and land is covered with dead birds and
Gradually, the tales of death and heroism began to unfold. Parents had
striven valiantly to save their families, often slipping into the tide only when their
last strength had ebbed or their children had drowned. Young R. A. McReynolds carried his
bride of only a few months in chest-deep water until a wave swept her away. Fourteen
members of the Johnigan and Clark families died when the walls of their house collapsed.
Otto Brown and his wife clung to debris for 22 miles before being rescued in the Sabine
River marsh, but all of their children drowned during the storm.
Mrs. John Stewart and daughter Frederika floated across Sabine Lake to
Aurora, present-day Port Arthur, surviving by clinging for 12 hours to a mattress and a
door frame. Columbus Marty, his wife and three children floated across Sabine Lake on a
roof top. After watching his family slip one by one into the water, Marty was eventually
cast ashore on a Sabine River shellbank. The final death count at Sabine was 86 persons.
The situation at Johnson's Bayou was equally as bad or worse. No
member, or no more than one, of the F. Dalton, Sam Brown, E. Fanchett, Joseph Luke, Frank
Tanner, William Ferguson, George Smith, Alfred Lambert, Shell Wagley, James Hawkins, Henry
Johnson, and Robert Hambrick families survived the storm.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Texas and Louisiana cattle drowned in the
flood. Seven thousand carcasses dotted the Johnson's Bayou ridges alone, and countless
thousands more floated in the inundated marshes. The stench became unbearable for the
relief workers. The few surviving cattle were soon crazed for lack of fresh water and
fodder and most of them died as well.
Many vessels were tossed about like corks. The large schooner
"Hercules," dragging three anchors and loaded with 300 tons of Mexican mahogany,
grounded two miles inland in the marsh. The schooners "Silas" and
"Henrietta" lay five miles from the beach. The raging tides swept the Sabine
Pass waterfront clean of all docks, warehouses, and pilings.
Remarkable incidents and sights resulted from the wiles of the winds
and waves. An unbroken plate glass window was found ten miles inland. A piano floated for
30 miles to a point in the Sabine River marsh. A chicken coop, grounded near present-day
Port Arthur, contained seven dead hens and four live ones. A canary bird, whose cage
floated across Sabine Lake, suffered only "badly ruffled feathers." The body of
a Negro man was found "more than 20 miles from Sabine Pass, still closely hugging his
Beaumont's Relief Committee, consisting of B. F. Edwards, Leon Levy, W.
C. Averill, William Wiess, and S. F. Carter, began a nation-wide appeal by telegraph to
raise funds and supplies for the destitute refugees. Similar committees at Galveston and
Houston sent shiploads of supplies and $7,000 in cash. Other Texas communities responded
as well, for each coastal resident assumes the role of "his brother's keeper,"
if the need arises, during the hurricane season.
Beaumonters responded again during Galveston's hour of agony in 1900,
and as recently as 1957, when hundreds of Louisiana residents drowned in Cameron Parish
during Hurricane Audrey.
Radford, Louisiana, was never rebuilt, and Johnson's Bayou never
regained its pre-1886 eminence as a satsuma orange and cotton-producing community. There
were some widespread predictions that Sabine Pass would not be rebuilt. Although some
families soon resettled at Beaumont and Orange, many others returned to the seaport city
and began sifting through the debris, seeking the wherewithal with which to reconstruct
their homes and their livelihoods. Within one year, ships were docking again at Sabine's
new wharves, and the churches were reorganizing in the town that refused to die.
The one exception was Sabine's Masonic Order. The Grand Archives at
Waco reveal that Tyrian Lodge, established in 1855, did not reorganize after the storm of
1886. Apparently, a majority of the membership either drowned or moved away, and Tyrian
Lodge has remained a defunct chapter to the present day.