Blue Elbow Swamp, a natural phenomenon

Blue Elbow Swamp web

Early on a mid-March morning in Southeast Texas, in the shallow waters of the Blue Elbow Swamp, a broadband water snake slithers over the cool mud and through the green and brown grasses hunting for its food.  A quick motion causes the slimy creature to become perfectly still.  The large snake is aggressive, but not venomous.  Its only defense is its camouflage. 

Overhead, the Great Blue Heron, his blue-gray wings shining in the morning sun, comes toward the ground for a closer look at the unidentified movement.  The Heron scans the ground closely, but it sees nothing. The black and gray snake, like a cold stone, blends safely into his shadowy resting spot. The disappointed heron moves on. The snake slithers on through the mud and grass until it reaches its hollow bald cypress log where it is safe from his predators.     

Tucked neatly away behind the guise of lazy mid-city life in Orange is a natural phenomenon called the Blue Elbow Swamp. The 3,300 acres is a preserved wildlife area, which receives its name from a sharp bend in the Sabine River. At the risk of sounding cliche, the area is no less than a “sportsman’s paradise.”  The area offers everything to entice a hunter, a fisherman, or a nature observer.

The Tony Houseman Park, as it has been officially named, is located near the Interstate-10 bridge spanning the Sabine River between Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas.  The first exit in Texas serves as the face for the swamp that spreads from Little Cypress Bayou to the West bank of the Sabine to the Sabine South of I-10. 

The welcoming rest-stop facade offers travel information, restroom facilities,and a raised, protected boardwalk where less adventurous observers can experience the nature.  
Wild game ranging from wild hogs to white tailed dear, from wood ducks to coyotes, call the Sabine floodplain home. Some of these are resident populations, while some are migratory. The wood duck, for instance, varying from year to year and depending on the time of year, may have as few as fifty specimens or as many as seven-hundred. 

The pileated woodpecker is another joyful resident of the unique area, boasting its colorful pattern of blue, red, black, and blue, and decorating its drab, repetitive song with the dancing rhythm of its yellow beak against the bald cypress stumps. The feral hog is also encountered occasionally, wandering here and there, sniffing for roots and other food. 
The wild swine may seem harmless enough with its poor sense of sight and inability to look up at its surroundings, but it is indeed a feisty animal, and its heightened sense of smell and hearing make it quite aware of it surroundings. All of these creatures come together to decorate a beautiful landscape like no other place on earth.

Undoubtedly, Fishing is the most popular activity at Tony Houseman Wildlife Management Area.  The landscape offers a variety of habitats, with various depths and types. The Sabine is almost 60 feet deep at the bend for which the area is named. 

Water creatures abound in the swamp as well.  Fishermen must be careful as they consider the perfect fishing spot. The swamp is home to a great variety of venomous snakes which include the Western Cottonmouth, the Southern Copperhead, Coral snakes, Timber snakes, and Western Pigmy Rattlesnakes.

Other snakes, although they are almost identical to their venomous counterparts, should not alarm fishermen.  Among these are the Western Ribbon snake, and the Broadband Water snake.  Braving these trecherous waters is well worth whatever fear may strike the heart of a fisherman.  The area is well-known for excellent Crappie fishing.  Bream, spotted bass and perch also are plentiful. 

Fly fishers have an opportunity to catch during the spring when the water is shallow. Red poppers, blue catfish, and flathead catfish are also popular here. The landscape is ideal for gigantic alligator gar. 

Frogging is another popular pastime, the swamp being home to a large population of bullfrogs. Dylan Frazier, a Sophmore at Bridge City High School, enjoys frogging along the bank of the Sabine River. 

When asked how he liked his frog legs, he said, “Boiled or fried.  It doesn’t really matter.  There’s nothing like them.” Then, the young man spotted a three foot alligator wallowing playfully in the mud. “I sure would like to wrestle him. But he’s just a baby.  That wouldn’t be fair. I’m bigger than he is.”

This remarkable oasis, for many reasons, is a great recreational area.  The reserve was purchased by the Texas Department of Transportation  A large portion of the purchase was later transferred to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife to make up for the seemingly destructive use of this the wetlands for highways.

Since the transfer, the oraganization has done much to preserve the natural treasure located here. To say the least, it is remarkable how many facets of nature and history are observable in a place so close to civilization.

Today, this historical piece of land serves more of a recreational purpose than it does a commercial purpose, but this has not always been the case.  The land provided subsistence for local American Natives called the Atakapans, who populated the area between sixth and the nineteenth centuries.

It is certainly the trees, however, which have had more historical significance than any other aspect of the swamp. The landscape is littered with moss and cypress stumps today, but at one time, it was a full forest of valuable wood. The Cypress-Tupelo forest served the logging industry during the 1800s and the early 1900s.The land played its most significant role in the limited logging which fueled the logging industry of the Orange area during the late 1800’s and early 1900s, a feat dominated by H. J. Lutcher and G. B. Moore.

The cypress and tupelo logs were harvested around the banks when the water was low.  The interior of the swamp would be harvested when the Sabine flooded at predictable seasons of the year. Loggers would cut through the bark around the base of the tree in order to kill it and let it dry out. 

The tree would remain standing in that condition until the floods during the winter, when they were cut and floated down the Sabine River to the saw mills, bound together into log rafts. (One of these log rafts can be seen in the ajoining photograph.) Some of the stumps still bare these bark marks at their base, more than a hundred years later.

Both Cypress and Tupelo were in high demand because of their tendency to last against decay.  Cypress is in high demand for construction in humid areas.  Cypress planks were shipped from Orange to areas all over the world.  Most of the famous plantation homes in the South were built of Cypress and given Tupelo shingles.  Many of the preserved homes of the period have the original wooden shingles and have required little repairs over the years.

These early methods of logging did little permanent damage to the Blue Elbow Swamp.  In the 1940s, however, heavy diesel-powered draglines and winch boats were used to dig canals through the interior of the swamp.  These logging canals disrupted the proper flow of water for the growth of the trees.  Not enough water is present to support the recovery of the stripped cypress forest. The use of machines helped the loggers speed productivity, but did irrepairable damage to the natural ecosystem. 

Since 1997, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife Areas has done what it can to prevent and to reverse the deterioration of this remarkable wildlife area, while making it available for those who would enjoy its many attractions.