Neches River Cotton
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By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont SUNDAY ENTERPRISE-JOURNAL, November 26, 1878, p. 13-E.
Sources: two published, sister volumes entitled W. T. Block, COTTON BALES, KEELBOATS, AND STERNWHEELERS, one a history of the Trinity River cotton trade, 1838-1900, and the other a history of the Sabine River cotton trade, 1837-1900, have now been published as one book by Dogwood Press, entitled Cotton Bales, Keelboats and Sternwheelers: A History of the Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades, 1837-1900.

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Most of us never think of an old Neches River cotton boat as being the equivalent of television's "Love Boat," the proprieties of the Victorian Age being then in vogue and tough, old river skippers and chaperones what they once were. But the truth is, 'Fulton's Folly' came to mean a great deal more to early East Texans than just a freight carrier. Youth being what youth has always been, oftentimes romances were sparked aboard and marriages were consummated. And the fondest memories of early Beaumonters were of those moments spent on moonlight excursions aboard the "Laura" or "Neches Belle."

During the 1870's, Captain Andrew Smyth of Bevilport, Jasper County, became the symbol of the hard-nose Neches River skipper's search for financial stability, but I'd wager that even old "Cap'n Andy' winked his eye more than once when romance blossomed in some remote and moonlit corner of the steamer "Laura."

Between 1850 and 1900, cotton-freighting on the Neches River was largely limited to the months between December and May, a period when upstream water levels usually were high and cotton bales awaited transportation at the landings. During the 'off-season,' beginning in June, steamboats were usually tied up at Beaumont or elsewhere in the tidewater region, or else engaged in excursion trips or hauling freight or lumber to Galveston.

Excursion voyages became a boon to steamer owners, crews, and Beaumonters alike. They provided some employment for the sternwheeler crews after the cotton-freighting season ended. The East Texas frontiersmen worked hard and played hard, and no other facility offered better accommodations for relaxation, dining, and dancing than did the steamboat, which usually had several staterooms, a bar, one or more musicians, and space for dancing.

Of dozens of surviving accounts, perhaps no other news brief so adequately portrays the joys of excursioning as the following quote from the Galveston "News" of May 15, 1892:

"The First Regiment band gave a moonlight excursion on the steamer "Neches Belle" Thursday night. The music, moonlight, and cool breeze were enjoyed by about 125 people who were loathe to leave the boat when shores were reached."

Similar accounts exist as far back as 1859, when an early school teacher, Henry R. Green, and a party of Beaumonters rode the steamboat "Florilda" to Sabine Pass. (The 2,500-bale boat was the largest sternwheeler ever to ply Texas' inland waters.) Green recounted that he had:

" . . . attended a party last evening, given on board the 'Florilda,' whose use was cleverly tendered to the citizens of the Pass by her gentlemanly commander and where there was a great deal of beautiful women, funny dancing, a few ugly men, much pleasure, exchanges of friendly feelings, and the most stupendously-accursed wine ever administered to saint or sinner."

The 'golden age' of steamboating lasted only until the Civil War on the Brazos River and until 1873 on the Trinity River. Thanks to the lumber industry and the relative late arrival of the railroads, however, steamboating on the Neches and Sabine Rivers lasted until 1900. And a few excursion boats lingered on until a decade later.

There was a great variety of sternwheelers in existence. Many, such as the "Camargo," were little more than river scows equipped with engines, whereas some Mississippi River packets were sumptiously-appointed, even by today's standards, with well-furnished staterooms, electric lighting, mahogany interiors, and inlaid marble floors. The Texas steamers were usually much less elegant than those on the Mississippi, but even the "Neches Belle" had electric lighting by 1893.

During that ox-cart age before passenger trains, the river boat provided the best accommodations and least hardships to the traveling public. Packets frequently traveled as far inland as Belzora (near Tyler, Smith County) on the Sabine River and to Pattonia, 12 miles south of Nacogdoches, on the Angelina-Neches watercourse. Although a few voyages traveled the Trinity all the way to Dallas, Navarro County was usually considered to be the head of navigation on that stream.

The size of some steamers and the distances they traveled inland during the flood season is amazing too. When one looks at the Sabine River in the vicinity of Longview, Texas, today and realizes that 135-foot steamers once traveled that far inland, it defies belief, but there are too many, well-documented accounts of such voyages. Oldtimers often stated that some flat-bottomed sternwheelers "could navigate in heavy dew." In March, 1851, the 200-foot, iron steamship "Liberty," both square-rigged and side-wheeled, navigated the Sabine all the way to Fredonia, Upshur County (near Gladewater), and brought out a load of cotton without mishap, a fact documented in two accounts in the Marshall (Tx.) "Republican." However, it is also known that between 1849-1851, the upper Sabine River was at flood stage almost continuously because of monsoon rains in Northeast Texas.

Although steamers plied both the Sabine and Trinity rivers by 1838, the first record of a Neches River voyage appeared in 1846, when the "Angelina" built at Pattonia, began its cotton-freighting voyages to Sabine Pass. Robert Patton, its owner and builder, was East Texas' largest cotton factor during the 1840's, shipping from both Nacogdoches County on the Angelina and Smith County on the Sabine River. As early as 1840, Patton began shipping cotton from Nacogdoches to Sabine Lake on the keelboat "T. J. Rusk." The steamer "Angelina" carried cotton until Feb., 1850, when it sank a few miles south of Evadale, Jasper County.

During the 1850s, Nacogdoches County produced and shipped about 12,000 bales annually, an amount equal to all of the lower Neches River counties combined. And the Neches River route reduced shipping costs to $3.50 a bale, less than half of the overland wagon route to the Red River at Natchitoches, La.

The "Kate," the second packet on the river, arrived in 1849 and was also based at Pattonia. For the next 4 years, it carried 1,000-bale loads to Sabine Pass for its owners, Bondies-Roehte and Co., who trans-shipped their commodities by schooner to New Orleans. The "Kate" was then transferred to the Trinity River where it sank at Wheeler's Landing with 1,000 bales aboard in 1856.

Between 1840-1853, there were a number of cotton factors or commission merchants at Sabine Pass, including A. Hotchkiss, (Sen.) Stephen Everett, M. H. Nicholson, Otis McGaffey, Bondies-Roehte, and Hutchings and Sealy. So shrewd were the trading practices of John H. Hutchings and John Sealy that in seven years time, they virtually eliminated all competition at Sabine Pass. However, they moved their business to Galveston in 1854. Today there are indeed few people aware that two of Galveston's great institutions, the Hutchings-Sealy National Bank and the John Sealy Medical Complex (which includes the Medical School), are end results of the $50,000 profit in gold that the two cotton entrepreneurs earned in Jefferson County.

The leading Neches steamboatman of the 1850s was Capt. John Clements, who had earned his river spurs as a keelboatman on the Sabine. He operated cotton warehouses at both Bevilport and Sabine, and between 1852-1857, brought five new packets to the Neches, the first being the "Pearl Plant," and later, the "Doctor Massie," "Mary Falvey," "Juanita," and "Sunflower." Gradually, he disposed of his cotton-trading assets, and in 1860, he bought the Sour Lake Hotel and retired from maritime pursuits.

Although the Neches River packets usually belonged to their skippers or to cotton brokers, it was not unusual for a leading cotton planter to double as a steamboat owner and captain in order to insure dependable transportation for his own and his neighbors' cotton. In 1860, Captain William Neyland bought the "Sunflower" from Clements and based it at Bevilport, where he also owned a cotton warehouse. In 1860 Neyland grew 225 bales of cotton on his Jasper County plantation and was also one of the county's largest slaveholders. After an eventful career as both Confederate tender and blockade-runner at Sabine Pass, the "Sunflower" was transferred by its new owner, Capt. D. E. Connor, to the Trinity in 1867, where it sank at Patrick's Landing, north of Swarthout, with 553 bales aboard.

According to Henry R. Green, the "Falvey" and "Doctor Massie" were well-equipped for the passenger trade and made scheduled weekly voyages between such points as Sabine, Beaumont, Concord (on Pine Island Bayou), Wiess Bluff and Bevilport (both in Jasper County), and Pattonia for many years. After the Civil War began, both packets disappeared from the river, and most likely went to sea as blockade-runners.

A leading Jefferson County steamer captain and pilot of that era was Peter D. Stockholm, whose long career on the Neches and Sabine Rivers spanned almost 40 years. He was closely associated with Clements and at various times captained the "Juanita," the "Bertha Roebuck," and others steamers. He died at Beaumont in 1901.

In 1857, Henry Force and Henry Clay Smith of Orange built the "T. J. Smith" at Town Bluff, Tyler County, to serve as a mail packet between Beaumont, Orange, and Sabine Pass. Upon booking passage from Beaumont to Sabine in 1858, Green recorded that the "Smith" ran "like lightning with a thunderbolt after it, (was) neatly finished, comfortably arranged, and well worthy of the patronage of shippers and the traveling public." When its owner and skipper, Capt. H. C. Smith, defected to the Union Navy in 1862, the packet was confiscated by the Confederate States government. When last reported, the "Smith" was inoperative and docked for repairs at Lake Charles, La., in 1863.

Two of the largest Texas steamers, the 1,800-bale "Josiah H. Bell" and the 220-foot "Florilda," arrived at Beaumont in 1859, but not for the cotton trade. The tracks of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad were then being built across Jefferson and Orange counties, and the steamboats ferried iron rails, crossties, locomotives, box cars, and construction materials to sites along the rivers. The "Florilda" came from the Mississippi trade, but the "Bell" first arrived on the Trinity River in 1855, from where it ferried many loads of cotton to Galveston. The "Bell," with a V-bottom, deepsea hull, built of staunch white oak timbers, was well-known for its plowing of new channels and clearing out of logjams in the serene Trinity.

Both vessels served the Confederacy with distinction. The "Florilda" was a transport and tender, generally maintaining the railroad connection from Beaumont to Niblett's Bluff (north of Orange), La., a quartermaster depot and supply line feeding Gen. Richard Taylor's army in central Louisiana. When a disastrous hurricane destroyed Orange on Sept. 13, 1865, the "Florilda" capsized and sank in the Sabine and was never refloated. The "Bell" served the Confederacy well as a cottonclad gunboat with one 64-pound rifled cannon mounted on it. On Jan. 21, 1863, the "Bell" and another steamer, the "Uncle Ben," broke the blockade at Sabine and captured the "Morning Light" and "Velocity" following a 30-mile chase at sea. In April, 1865, both steamers were at Orange being converted to blockade-runners when news of defeat reached Texas. In May, 1865, the "Bell" was scuttled in the Sabine, 4 miles south of Orange, to prevent its capture by Federal troops, but its boilers and engines were removed and for years used by the Orange sawmills.

During the war, several Neches steamers, including the "Roebuck," "Grand Bay," "Dime," "Jeff Davis," and "Sunflower," served the Rebel cause with distinction as transports, tenders, and blockade-runners, but only the latter was still around in 1865 to re-enter the cotton trade, eventually sinking in the Trinity, "a total loss," in 1867. The others probably went to sea as blockade-runners near the end of the war and never returned.

The fact that Sabine Pass cotton shipments dropped from 20,000 bales in 1860 to 6,000 bales in 1866 reflects the adverse effect of the war on East Texas' major industry. But the Neches River cotton trade revived rapidly nevertheless, if the number of new boats on the river by 1867 is any indicator. Between 1866 and 1872, two Neches River skippers, Captains William and Napoleon Wiess brought three new packets, the "Alamo," the "Adrianne," the "James L. Graham, to the Neches River, and built a fourth boat, the "Albert Gallatin," on the banks of Brake's Bayou at Beaumont.

The "Graham" was probably the river's fastest packet of the post-bellum era and soon established a new 4 1/2 hour record between Beaumont and Sabine Pass. Soon after, the Sabine Pass "Beacon" ran an editorial lamenting the fact that Jefferson County had to tolerate "a contemptible pony mail to Beaumont" when much better service by water was available.

During the 1870s, an arch rivalry developed between Capt. Napoleon Wiess of the "Graham" and Capt. G. B. Burr of the Sabine River cotton boat, the "Era No. 8." {Note: there were thirteen steamboats named "Era" built at Shreveport, La., with only the number in back being different.} In May, 1873, the Beaumont "News-Beacon" carried a long account of the racing sternwheelers, and event won handily by the "Graham," which ended as follows:

"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," but as they passed up the reach below town, the "Era" was only one or 200 yards ahead. We suppose the "Era" will not give up yet, and we will have the pleasure of seeing a little more of the fun ourselves."

Racing, a favorite sport of Texas steamer owners, was then an extremely dangerous practice due to a lack of steam control devices and gauges. In 1841, the first "Albert Gallatin" in Texas, while racing, blew up in Galveston Bay with 15 people killed and injured. In 1853, while the packets "Farmer" and "Neptune" were racing in Galveston Bay, firemen fed pine knots and barrels of fat bacon into the furnace of the boilers until the "Farmer" finally exploded, killing 30 persons.

The sidewheeler "Uncle Ben" was principally a Sabine River cotton boat in peacetime, but served in the Neches River during the Civil War when it was a cottonclad gunboat. In 1857 the 135-foot boat made five round trips to Belzora, near Tyler, Texas, carrying out 1,000-bale loads to Sabine Lake on each trip. The "Ben" belonged to Robert Patton before the Civil War, to the Confederate States government during the war, and was probably sold at auction in 1865. It was snagged and sank in the Sabine River at East Hamilton in 1867.

In 1869 Capt. Andrew Smyth and his partners brought the squarenose scow steamer "Camargo" to the Neches, but Smyth soon tired of the packet's steerage problems during the river freshets. When he decided to buy a new vessel, he sold the "Camargo" to C. H. Alexander and Co., cotton factor of Sabine Pass. In January, 1874, the sternwheeler, by then captained by Sherwood Burch of Sabine, sank at Townsend's Ferry on the Angelina River with 202 bales aboard.

The 'golden age' of Neches River steamboating, the 1870s witnessed many new cotton boats on the river. Beginning in 1869, Capt. Charles Hausinger's propeller-driven steamboat "Kate" was based at Smith's Bluff near Port Neches while shipping Neches River cotton. The "Kate" was so small it would have been economically unprofitable to operate except that it towed a wooden barge which increased its bale capacity to 400. In 1873, the "Kate" became the second Neches vessel with that name to founder in the Trinity, where it struck sunken logs at Moore's Bluff. It was raised and repaired in 1874.

During 1873-1874, the iron-hulled steamer "Stonewall" made weekly voyages hauling cotton between Bunn's Bluff, north of Beaumont, and Galveston. Beginning in 1877, Captain Burr kept the sternwheeler "Flora" principally in the Neches River trade until it capsized and sank during the hurricane of Aug., 1879.

Starting in 1869, Capt. Lewis King's cotton boat, the "Orleans," was intermittently in the Neches and Trinity trade until it sank at Sabine Pass during the hurricane of Sept., 1871. In Aug., 1879, Captain W. E. Rogers' packet, the "Pelican State," was equally unfortunate, plying the Neches until it was irretrievably driven into the marshes at Sabine by a storm. During the 1870s, a Trinity River plantation owner, Capt. Jules Poitevent, brought the "J. J. Warren," "Early Bird," and "Pearl Rivers" to the Sabine River, but only the latter remained on Sabine-Neches waters, the other two returning to the Trinity. Under Capt. Wilson Junker, the "Rivers" hauled down large loads of cotton, but perhaps it greatest achievement was the building of the Sabine jetties. On one occasion, the "Rivers" sank in the Neches River north of Beaumont, but it was quickly raised and repaired.

In Jan., 1872, a Galveston editor announced that "the Neches now has a new steamboat called the 'Laura.'" For the next decade the new packet became the most remunerative steamer in Neches River history, amassing sizeable profits for Capt. Smyth and his partners. A former Beaumonter, Dr. William Seale, has chronicled the career of Smyth and the "Laura" in a classic of steamboat history entitled "Texas Riverman." In 1879, while docked at Beaumont, Capt. Smyth died of a stroke and is buried in the Magnolia Cemetery in that city. The writer does not know who replaced Smyth as captain. The "Laura"remained on the Neches for two more years, but sank one night while at anchorage in Beaumont; it was never raised.

Early in 1881, another fast packet, the "D. van Buskirk," arrived on the Neches River under Captain A. A. Neyland, and it was to render the "Laura" it stiffest competition for the remainder of that year. It was replaced in 1881 by the sternwheeler "Colonel Hooker," an old Calcasieu River snag boat, which also remained for a single shipping season.

Around 1885, Captain Bill Loving transferred the old steamer "Vicksburg" from the Sabine trade to the Neches. By 1888, its hull had grown leaky and unseaworthy, and its owners, Loving and Capt. Pearl Bunn, decided to scrap it and reinstall its engines in a new hull to be built on the banks of Brake's Bayou, near the Reliance Sawmill, at Beaumont. In 1889 they completed and launched the "Neches Belle" at a total cost, excluding the machinery, of $3,000.

The "Belle" was to become the most elegant and luxurious Neches River packet of its day, and it afforded many Orange and Beaumont residents with memories of pleasant excursions afloat. The partners later sold the sternwheeler to Capt. S. C. Allardyce, and the "Neches Belle" remained in the Sabine River thereafter until it sank at Logansport, La., in 1897.

With the advent of large scale lumbering and river logging in 1876, a new type of steamer, the log tug, appeared on the Neches, and steamboating there soon entered a state of decline beyond all possible recovery. Beginning in 1880, the building of the East Texas Railroad was to divert the shipment of much Southeast Texas cotton to market via a new and alternative method. During the river freshets of the last quarter of the century, the stream was filled with floating logs, and it became increasingly difficult for the sternwheelers to break through the log jams while sailing north in search of cotton. And as the plantation owners on both sides of the Neches-Angelina watercourse became accustomed to shipping cotton to market on iron wheels, the old steamboat became a less dependable and unwanted transportation facility.

Nevertheless, the lumber steamers lingered on the Neches River for many more years. The "W. P. Rabb," named for its captain, was perhaps the best known of these, and it plied the river for a decade until the Texas Tram and Lumber Company sold it in 1895 to the new Port Arthur Land Company for use on Sabine Lake as a tow boat. In 1893, the lumber steamer "Charles Lee" came to the river, where it towed log rafts downstream and carried freight and supplies to the Yellow Bluff Tram Company near Buna. Between 1895 and 1910, there were several other lumber boats on the river, including the "H. A. Harvey" in 1898, the "Caprice," the "Henrietta," and the "John Henry Kirby." But the more efficient steam or naphtha-burning tug boat had already made its debut on the stream, and the old sternwheelers gradually bowed to the march of progress, especially the rails that they had helped to construct.

With the passing of the cotton boat, a delightful and nostalgic epoch of river history came to an end. For decades, the steamer's arrival upstream had meant mail and newspapers from the outside world, honeymooners returning from Galveston, new merchandise in the market place, or a year's cotton crop returning in the form of gold coins. Altogether more than eighty packets had sailed the river at one time or another, but most of them, because of its proximity, had plied on the Sabine as well.

In a sense, the Neches River steamboat trade did not disappear; it simply evolved, becoming first the long tows of lumber barges which traveled south to Sabine Pass, and later, the diesel tows of petroleum products which still navigate the river. But for the oldster and frontiersman, the passing of the sternwheeler meant the passing of the quieter, simpler, and friendlier days when life was less complicated than today and cotton was king. And a few of them missed the excitement spawned when the steamboat's shrill whistle shattered the ominous silence below the bend in the river.

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Copyright 1998-2023 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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