Peter Stockholm
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CAPTAIN PETER D. STOCKHOLM: A PIONEER SABINE RIVER STEAMBOATMAN

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise. Sources: Enterprise and Journal, Sept. 26, 1901; and "Capt. Wiess Tells of 48 Years Ago," Enterprise, Jan. 12, 1912; Texas Custom House Records; and other sources.

If one can envision an East Texas crisscrossed only by cattle tracks and wagon trails, then he or she can appreciate the value of the rivers as avenues for faster transportation and commerce. And the usual instrument for such travel was the sternwheel or sidewheel steamboat, which dominated the inland carrying trade during most of the last century.

The shrill blast of an approaching steamer was the most welcomed sound that many pioneer East Texans ever knew. Its arrival meant mail and newspapers from Galveston, city "drummers" and other faces in the settlement; new merchandise in the stores, and perhaps a year's cotton crop returning from Galveston in the form of gold coins.

Inversely, its sailing signaled the dispatch of mails, the departure of friends; a load of cotton, hides, and other commodities bound for market, and, oftentimes, young lovers en route to a Galveston honeymoon.

Steamboating was a seasonal activity, wholly dependent upon the early winter rains to raise the water levels of the rivers. Between December and June, that occupation paid from $15 to $30 weekly, making it the highest-paid craft in the state. During the off-season, most river men doubled as ship carpenters in a shipyard somewhere, also at $15 a week.

With the first rise in the rivers, steamer captains raced inland, fully believing that the "early bird gets the worm." Obviously, cotton carried from the nearest landings to the coast was the most profitable, and as the season advanced, packets invariably probed deeper and deeper inland in search of cargoes.

At any time after 1840, the pilot of the first steamer entering the Sabine River was likely to be Captain Peter D. Stockholm, a veteran boatman whose 35 years of experience gave him an unequalled knowledge of the bars, shoals and pitfalls of Sabine and Neches navigation.

Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., in 1815, Stockholm's early apprenticeship included boat-building and seamanship. His boyhood chum in Brooklyn was Charles Fowler, long the port captain of Galveston for the Morgan Steamship Lines, and, during the Civil War, the Confederate commandant of Sabine Lake gunboats.

In 1839, Stockholm settled at Sabine Pass, Texas, where he was to reside until he moved to Beaumont around 1878. His early years were divided between piloting during the cotton-shipping season and employment in the off-season as deputy collector or cargo inspector for the Republic of Texas customhouse.

His earliest years afloat on two Sabine River steamboats are best retold in his own words from the Galveston "Daily News" of April 12, 1888, as follows:

". . . In 1840 the steamer "Washington" came in at Sabine Pass .... Capt. Reid headed his boat for the upper river, Capt. Stockholm as pilot, and with much hard labor, fought his way through the treetops, sunken logs, sand bars, and shoals, and finally, when the water fell, he tied up at Fullerton's Wharf, just below Sabinetown, where she remained during the summer of 1841."

"The boat was neglected, her seams opened, and when the water came up the following fall, she sank. Years afterward, the ribs of the old "Washington" marked the final resting place of that fourth attempt at steam navigation on the Sabine River."

"In 1844, the "Scioto Belle" put her prow into those waters, Stockholm again at the wheel, and after many days landed at (East) Hamilton, much to the surprise of the inhabitants .... This venture was fraught with less danger, and the "Scioto Belle" lived to come downriver, and was taken to Galveston, from which port she made frequent trips up the Trinity. . . ."

Despite his long absences from home, the steamboatman managed to court a winsome girl, Mary Keith, whose parents were the pioneer settlers of the Keith Lake region, north of Sabine Pass. They were married on Jan. 11, 1847, but the young bride was to know many moments of loneliness whenever her husband steamed north in search of cotton.

Also in 1847, Stockholm bought a shipyard at Sabine Pass in partnership with Dexter B. Jones, but he sold his interest in June, 1849. During the same month, he bought a half-interest in Charles Baxter's shipyard at Orange, Texas, and one of the surviving archives at the Jefferson County courthouse is Baxter and Stockholm's contract with Capt. Moses L. Patton to rebuild the superstructure of the first Neches River steam packet, the "Angelina," in 1849.

Stockholm's principal business partner during the 1850s was Captain John Clements, who brought six new steamboats, the "Mary Falvey," "Bertha Roebuck," "Juanita," Pearl Plant," "Doctor Massie," and "Sunflower," to Sabine Lake during that decade. At various times, Stockholm was master of both the "Juanita" and the "Roebuck." His command of the latter was to continue throughout the Civil War.

Although Northern-born and reared and opposed to slavery, the captain took the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy in 1861, and he spent the next two years ferrying troops and supplies aboard the Rebel tender "Roebuck" between Beaumont and Niblett's Bluff, La., a Confederate quartermaster depot north of Orange. In 1862, Stockholm was particularly elated when command of Sabine Lake's Rebel fleet was given to his lifelong friend, Captain Fowler.

During an interview, Capt. Stockholm once related the details of his most triumphant moment of the Civil War. It came on Jan. 21, 1863, when the Confederate gunboats "Uncle Ben" and "Josiah H. Bell" attacked the Sabine Pass blockading fleet in a two hour battle fought 30 miles at sea. When the Federals saw pine knot smoke rising with the early dawn, they hurriedly hoisted canvas on the "Morning Light" and "Velocity," hoping to escape, but there was insufficient breeze to fill their sails.

On that day, Stockholm was the pilot aboard the "Bell," but cotton bales strewn over the deck of the steamer so obscured his vision that he had to steer with the aid of a lookout. Confederate Major O.M. Watkins technically had charge of the expedition, but he remained so intoxicated throughout the battle that the burden of command fell solely to Fowler. Stockholm often related a part of the dialogue that transpired between Fowler and himself as the chase continued, and the slow steamers gradually overtook their victims.

"How's the steam holding out?" Fowler would ask.

"Fine, Charlie," was the pilot's response. "I got a full head up, but it's hotter than Hades here in the wheel house!"

"Good, Pete. Pour on them pine knots, keep a-sweatin', and cut 'er a mite to starboard."

In this first battle at Sabine Pass in which he was a participant, Lt. R. W. "Dick" Dowling commanded the gun crew aboard the "Bell," and he and his men would soon exhibit the same brand of gunnery skills that would win for the Davis Guards so much acclaim nine months later.

The "Morning Light" was a square-rigged ship, mounting nine 32-pound smoothbore guns, and at a range of 2 1/2 miles, Dowling's crew opened fire with their single 64-pound rifled cannon. The Rebels' rifled cannon enabled them to strike the enemy ships long before the latters' smoothbore weapons were in range. They soon struck the Federal ship "Morning Light" with four shell bursts, one of which wiped out a gun and its crew.

Capt. John Dillingham, the Union commander, quickly capitulated, and the steam cottonclads towed or sailed both of their prizes back to Sabine Pass. Stockholm's only memento of that battle was a prize Union cutlass, taken from the "Morning Light," which he cherished until his death.

Because the captured ship drew 16 feet of water, she was deemed too large to enter port, but both Stockholm and Capt. K. D. Keith, both of whom were licensed bar pilots, knew that she could be towed successfully through the soft silt of the Sabine outer bar. However, the drunken major refused them permission to try, ordering the vessel anchored offshore instead. When they asked the major for permission to place artillerymen aboard who could man the nine guns and perhaps fight off an attack, the inebriated officer refused again, allowing only cavalrymen to come aboard.

Later, the "Morning Light" had to burned when two Federal gunboats appeared, thus the major's blunder cost the Confederacy a fine ship, nine large guns, 200 tons of munitions, and 400 tons of badly-needed pig iron ballast.

Despite his long career afloat, Stockholm found time to assume some civic responsibilities and public offices. In 1847 he was elected justice of the peace at Sabine Pass. In 1871 he was appointed county inspector of hides and cattle, and the next year, he was elected again as justice of the peace. In 1882, after his removal to Beaumont, he served one term as county commissioner.

As their children grew to adulthood, many of them resettled in Beaumont, which was the primary cause for Peter and Mary Stockholm to abandon the home of their youthful years and to resettle in Beaumont as well. Their family included three sons, William, Peter, Jr., and George, and five daughters, Lydia (Mrs. C. A.) McKinley, Elizabeth (Mrs. Tom) Cuniff, Mary Ellen (Mrs. John) Will, Sarah (Mrs. Cyrus) Patridge, and Mrs. Jessie Jones. Certainly a secondary cause for their departure were the half-dozen gulf hurricanes which struck Sabine Pass during the 1870s.

Stockholm invested wisely and heavily in Beaumont real estate, which kept his old age there free of financial woes. At the time of his death on Sept. 25, 1901, the 86-year-old pioneer was the sole-surviving Jefferson Countian who had voted here under the Texas Republic.

According to his long obituary, the old Rebel warrior, although enfeebled in mind and body during his last illness, grabbed his souvenir cutlass a week before he died and threatened bloody vengeance against the anarchist assassin who had just murdered President William McKinley. His widow Mary survived until age 95 and is buried beside her husband, only a few feet from the Magnolia Cemetery office in Beaumont.

While the biography of Peter Stockholm remains one of those romantic sagas so characteristic of the Sabine River's frontier history, his personal life was considerably less romantic, knowing only those stark realities of pioneer life, short life spans, and primitive modes of transportation. Hence, his life story is another thread in that fabric of frontier folklore concerning the trail-blazers who sought a better way of life for themselves and their successors.

Copyright 1998-2016 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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