SHELLBANK AND RADFORD, LOUISIANA: TWO OLD GHOST TOWNS OF CAMERON PARISH
By W. T. Block
In the Cameron Pilot of Nov. 27, 1970, there was an inquiry about Shellbank, Cameron Parish, La., and a response from the Cameron Library reported that there was no Shellbank, Louisiana. However, while the writer was officer-in-charge of the Orange, Texas post office in 1972, he found the ancient metal hand postmarking stamp (later destroyed by a postal inspector) of the old Shellbank, La. post office.
Shellbank was perhaps more of a trading post than a community, located on Pavell's Island, the delta island in the Sabine River, now known as Sabine Island. Between 1853 and 1915, many farm families, principally from Black Bayou or the present-day Bridge City vicinity, received their mail at Shellbank, although they could only reach that post office by boat.
In 1853, Augustine and Sophie, who were German immigrants, built a cotton-trading post and a wharf on the high shell bank of the island. For 20 years, the Sabine River flatboatmen had floated their loads of cotton to the mouth of the river, where sometimes they waited indefinitely for the New Orleans schooners to arrive to buy their products.
Afterward, Gus Pavell bought the cotton that came down the river and later he carried it to Galveston on his schooner Sophia. Steamboats and schooners often stopped to deposit or pick up mail, and as a result Shellbank soon became a post office as well. And for 40 years, Shellbank remained the nearest post office for all the farm families living on Black Bayou or in southeastern Orange County, Texas.
In 1867, Gus Pavell died, but he willed the trading post and his schooner Sophia to his brother, Ferdinand Pavell of Johnson's Bayou. In 1870, A. G. Swain leased the trading post for a couple years, and in 1871, Linford and Co. built schooners in its shipyard there. After Swain left, Ferd Pavell operated the Shellbank trading post and served as its postmaster until 1900, when he relinquished it to his son, August Pavell. Ferd Pavell owned two residences, one at Pavell's Island, where he also owned a shingle mill, and the second at Johnson's Bayou, where he and his son owned a store, a cotton gin, and a sugar mill. During the 1870's-1880's, Shellbank received mail on a twice weekly schedule via the steamboats, that traded between Orange, Texas and Johnson's Bayou.
By 1915, all reasons for the Shellbank post office ceased to exist. All the Sabine River cotton was being shipped by rail to New Orleans or Galveston. Most of the Black Bayou farmers had moved away because of the loneliness; no transportation except by water, and eroded soil; and the nearby Texas farmers were by then receiving rural service from Orange. With his business severely depleted, August Pavell closed up the trading post, and the postal service discontinued the Shellbank post office.
Radford, the other ghost town, was one of two post offices that developed on Johnson's Bayou after 1870, and was the nearest town to Sabine Lake. Louisiana cotton farmers, always on the move for more productive soil, streamed into Johnson's Bayou after the Civil War, and by 1885, its farm population was estimated at 1,200 persons. Both Radford, with 175 persons, and Johnson's Bayou, population 150, were thriving by then. Four stores at Radford were owned by Caswell Peveto, J. C. Griffith, Austin B. Smith (the writer's uncle), and Calvin Peveto, and there were also two cotton gins and two sugar mills located there.
In 1885, about 600 acres of farm land were expected to yield 1,000 bales of cotton. There were also about 200 acres planted in sugar cane, needed to feed the cane grinders, and elsewhere on the bayou about 100 acres of satsuma orange trees and grape arbors provided much of the fruit sold in Galveston.
Two steamboats, the Emily P. and Lark, remained exclusively in the Orange to Johnson's Bayou trade, importing groceries, lumber, and hardware, and returning with cotton, syrup, fruit, and cattle. The schooner Dreadnaught sailed exclusively in the Galveston to Johnson's Bayou trade, making one round trip weekly.
The morning of Oct. 12, 1886, showed no particular cause for alarm, with most of the children in the school house and all the field hands were picking cotton. By 4 PM, the lake waters had risen 4 feet, and by 7 PM, 140-mile gale winds were pounding the homes and oak trees.
Some houses, except those with holes cut in the floors, floated away; in others the terror-stricken refugees fled to the attics or roof tops, where they tied themselves to chimneys, or children to branches in the live oak trees. By the following morning, 17 small children had lost both parents, and 20 parents had lost all of their children. During the night, 110 persons had drowned there, and 86 more drowned at Sabine Pass. Most of those that survived walked about in a dazed state, talking incoherently. The two steamboats, carrying rescue workers, were soon providing what relief was possible.
Within a few days, all of the survivors left on the steamboats, for the stench from 20,000 dead cattle became unbearable.
Both Radford and Johnson's Bayou were totally destroyed, and Radford and its post office were never rebuilt. A Galveston newspaper soon reported: "Johnson's Bayou and Radford were once communities with more than 1,000 inhabitants.... Today they are communities of beggars. The buzzards are the only feathered fowl in the air....."
By 1887, only six families had returned to Johnson's Bayou, the remainder having scattered about elsewhere, Slowly some of them returned, and by 1894, there were 57 families, totaling about 400 persons, living there.
In Galveston Daily News of June 1, 1894, merchant John M. Smith (also the writer's uncle) bragged about the general good health of the Johnson's Bayou population, and he cited two large families to prove it. Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Berwick had married in 1866, and by 1894, they had 24 children and had "never had a doctor in the house." By then, Mrs. Berwick was 48 years old and she "was the picture of good health...."
Mr. and Mrs. Dolzie Theriot of Johnson's Bayou also had 24 surviving children from a single marriage. The oldest person living there, Placide Laban, was a War of 1812 veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, and he was 102 years old.
Shellbank, La. lived out its usefulness, and as a result, was abandoned. Radford, La. was totally destroyed in 1886 and was never rebuilt. Both communities once played a vital role in the economy of Cameron Parish, and their erstwhile existence deserves to be noted and remembered.