She was the Tycoon’s Toy
In the glory days of the oil industry in Southeast Texas the oil tycoons had “toys” that equaled those of any potentate anywhere in the world.The two largest refineries in the world were located in Port Arthur; one belonged to Gulf and one to Texaco.
Both companies had started after oil was discovered at Spindletop in Beaumont. The headquarters for both companies were in the area and there were investors from all over the United States coming to Port Arthur to view the large complexes. The tycoons needed entertainment while they were here, and with the waterways, one of the most natural things to own would be a yacht.
On the inventory of the fleet of Gulf Oil filed in Jefferson County in 1920 was a yacht named the “Wild Duck” with a value of $12,500, no doubt a princely sum in the 1920 era.
It is not known whether the Wild Duck ever was in Port Arthur. On the other hand, the “AVA” was.
The Ava belonged to the Texas Company, later known as Texaco.
She was a grand vessel, painted white with green trim, and a lot of mahogany woodwork with a natural finish.
Ava was a trim vessel approximately 60 feet long. She had 10 square windows and six portholes on each side of her main deck. On the upper deck there were eight square windows on each side. There was an awning covering the fan deck, framework to rig an additional awning was in the bow area, forward of the pilothouse.
It must have been nice for the tycoons in their straw boater hats and the ladies in their fancy dresses to sit in the breezes under the shade as they enjoyed the view majestically cruising along the Neches River and Sabine Lake.
The yacht was outfitted with the finest china, silver, and linens. She had furniture that equaled that of the finest hotels. There was a piano, poker tables, a pool table and even a table to shoot dice on, a crap table.
She was a majestic vessel, only the finest people were invited to be on board during big oils heyday.
Like a lot of fancy painted ladies the Ava had a flaw. She could not cruise in rough water.
On one of the few times that she was taken out across the bar at Sabine Pass and into the Gulf of Mexico she encountered some “rollers”, waves that just seem to roll into shore. When hit by them, the Ava rolled so hard that the craps table was flipped on top of the piano. Chairs, tables and anything else that was not tied down slid across the floor and became a jumbled mess.
For the rest of her career with the Texas Company, the Ava was kept inside the calmer waters of the rivers and bayous.
The Port Arthur refinery was the flag ship for the Texas Company, but the headquarters were relocated to New York, New York.
Tycoons were no longer coming to Port Arthur to visit and be entertained. The Ava was berthed at the Texas Company facility in Port Neches and was no longer used. A decision was made to sell the Ava to the highest bidder.
Joe Bailey of Bridge City bought the Ava and brought her to Cow Bayou.
He owned Bailey’s Fish Camp on the downstream side of the swing bridge over Cow Bayou on Highway 87. The Ava was docked on the west bank of the bayou behind his fish camp.
She became the personal yacht of Bailey. He would take his family for trips down the bayou into the rivers and out into Sabine Lake, providing the lake was calm enough. Some of Bailey’s friends were lucky enough to be invited on board for parties and an occasional trip or two.
“She was very nice. When daddy bought her from Texaco they left all the plates and things like that. There were a lot of nice furnishings when we got her. It was always fun to take trips on the Ava,” said Bailey’s daughter, Marilyn McKeown.
McKeown now lives in Australia but was recently in Bridge City for a visit. When asked about the Ava’s problem with rough waters she answered very matter-of-factly, “She had a flat bottom.” Five words that speak volumes for anyone who knows about boats.
A flat bottom boat will float on top of waves and not go through them. The boat will roll and toss, not giving a comfortable ride.
“Daddy was going to try to put the Ava in a dry dock and have a vee bottom put on her but I guess it cost too much. He never had it done,” said McKeown.
For years the vessel was docked with her bow facing the bridge. Her white and green paint was kept clean and bright and her mahogany was polished.
People crossing the bridge must have wondered what such a grand vessel was doing on Cow Bayou and what it was like to be aboard her.
One day she was gone. The time had come for the Bailey family to pass her along to a new owner. Another dock on another body of water became her home, until she was taken out of service for good.
The Ava is gone but the memories of the grandest vessel to ever sail Cow Bayou are still vivid for those that knew her.