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And Now You Know: Exploring the history of Rio de Sabinas

Mike Louviere, And Now you Know

Early Spanish explorers named the river Rio de Sabinas because of the great number of bald cypress trees they encountered. “Sabinas” is the Spanish word for cypress. Some of the earliest inhabitants were the Caddo tribe on the upper regions and the Attakapas tribe on the lower regions. As English-speaking people came into the area, the river became known as the “Sabine River.”

The river forms in Hunt County, where three forks, the Cowleech, Caddo, and South Forks join together, the site is now part of the Lake Tawakoni Reservoir. The Sabine is from 510 to 553 miles long, depending on which source is consulted. It is the 33rd longest river in the United States.

From 1836 to 1845, the river served as the International Boundary between the Republic of Texas and the United States. There was a seven-year surveying project to place markers on the boundary. One marker remains near Logansport, Louisiana. It is the only international boundary marker located inside the United States.

Steamboats began running from Sabine Pass at the mouth of the river to Logansport, nearly 200 miles upriver, in the early 1840s. Once it was found that the river could be navigated that far north, the river became a major transportation route for all types of cargo, but mainly for the cotton that was grown on the plantations around Belgrade and farther upriver. 

Boats would carry goods for the towns on the trip upriver and bring cotton downriver to Sabine Pass.

Resin, or Reason, Green, in the early 1830s settled an area on a bend about seven miles north of Sabine Lake. As the area became populated it became known as Green’s Bluff. In 1840, the town changed the name to Madison in honor of President James Madison. 

There was confusion in the mail service due to the town of Madisonville, located farther north. 

In 1858, the name of the town on the river was changed to Orange, possibly because of a grove of orange trees in the area.

The river had always been important to the town and the traffic on the river had been varied. From reports of ships belonging to the pirate Jean Lafitte going up the river to Ballew’s Ferry ten miles north of Orange to bring slaves for sale to Louisiana plantation owners to more legitimate river traffic such as dry goods and cotton, Orange grew as river traffic increased.

During the Civil War years, Orange was the site of Confederate army activities, being located between the Confederate forts at Sabine Pass and Niblett’s Bluff. 

After the battle at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, there never was another threat of Union activity on the river, so Orange remained safe for the remainder of the war years.

After the war and reconstruction, Orange began to become an important part of the timber and lumber industry. 

Due to the virgin pine and cypress forests, Orange became a lumber boomtown. At its peak, there were 17 sawmills in Orange. Millions of logs were floated in large rafts down the river to the Orange mills. 

Milled lumber was taken by river to Sabine Pass to be loaded on larger ships and shipped to Galveston and thence worldwide.

Because of the amount of lumber produced Orange became a vital part of World War I shipbuilding. Shipyards in Orange built large four and five-masted sailing cargo ships for the war effort. 

The sawmills in Orange gradually closed for a variety of reasons and by the mid-1930s the lumber boom in Orange had ended. 

In 1940, another boom would begin when steel shipbuilding would come to Orange.

Levingston and Weaver’s shipyards had been established in Orange, building wooden ships. They would be joined by Consolidated Shipbuilding, a branch of United States Steel. All three became major shipyards because of their location on the deep, wide river.

U.S. Congressman Martin Dies was successful in getting a contract signed with the U.S. Navy for shipyards in Orange to build warships for the war everyone knew was coming. 

In 1940, the population of Orange was about 7,000. After the war started and the shipbuilding began Orange exploded. By the war’s end in 1945, Orange had grown to a population near 70,000. 

Orange was the only place in Texas that had built warships for the war effort. 

Consolidated built destroyers and destroyer escorts. 

Weaver built YMS class minesweepers. 

Levingston built auxiliary vessels and seagoing rescue tugs for the British Royal Navy. 

The river had once again brought a profitable era to Orange.

After the war, because of the location on the freshwater river, the U.S. Naval Station was built at Orange. A reserve fleet of surplus warships was brought to Orange and remained until the early 1970s. The status was changed to a Reserve Base in 1975. The facility closed in 2008.

The third boom the river brought to Orange was when DuPont decided to build a chemical plant in Orange. 

The river provided water needed for the processes in the plant and shipping of products in and out of the plant. After DuPont, several other chemical companies decided to locate in Orange. 

The area south of Orange became known as “Chemical Row”.

The river flows pretty much as it always has by Orange. 

From Orange down to Sabine Lake, it is industrialized now, with smaller shipyards, and the port that was established in 1914. 

A portion of the river going into Sabine Lake has become part of the Intracoastal Waterway with a large amount of barge traffic replacing the long-gone steamboats.

On the bend of the river where Orange started and so much local history has happened, the City of Orange has built a park with a wooden walkway on the bank of the river. 

“And now you know.”