Orange built Warships in World War I
In 1859 Samuel H. Levingston started a shipyard in
Orange. Levingston paid his six employees a total monthly salary of $588. Averaging
nearly $100 per man, it must have been one of the highest paid occupations in
Orange. It was also the start of a long tradition of shipbuilding that
continues to this day.
Orange first experienced wartime shipbuilding on a
large scale during the World War I years. The active shipyards in Orange
included the Orange Maritime Corporation, Southern Dry-dock and Shipbuilding
Company, Weaver and Sons, Levingston Shipbuilding Company, and the National
Shipbuilding Company owned by Henry Piaggio, who also owned the International
Shipbuilding Company headquartered in Pascogoula, Mississippi.
Piaggio’s National Shipbuilding yard would build
more ships in less time than any other yard along the Gulf Coast. National
Shipbuilding built 14 225 foot long four and five masted barkentines. It was
the heyday of wooden shipbuilding. Some of these ships required as many as one
million board feet of lumber each.
The longest ships built entirely of wood were
constructed by National Shipbuilding in the Orange yard. They were the S.S. War
Mystery and the S.S. War Marvel. The ships were 330 feet long with a 49 foot
beam, or width, and a capacity of 4700 tons. The War Marvel and War Mystery
were operated by the Cunard Steamship Company under the British flag.
The War Marvel was completed in January 1918 and
sank west of the Strait of Gibraltar on January 5, 1919. The War Mystery was
completed in February 1918. The ship was burned in Oran Algeria on February 23,
The ships were built mostly of yellow pine lumber
with oak being used in the keel and keelson areas and in the sterns and
The majority of the ships built in Orange were
designed by naval architect Theodore E. Ferris and referred to as the “Ferris
ships”. They were 3500 ton capacity steamships with an overall length of 281 ft
6 in and 268 feet between the perpendiculars, they required a draft of 23 ft 6
in when loaded. The beam measured between 45 and 46 ft. The stems were straight
and the sterns elliptical, there were wooden deckhouses on the bridge and poop
decks, a single smokestack, and two wood-pole masts for lifting cargo. Each
ship had four cargo hatches on the upper decks and a steam wench on each end
for working the cargo booms. The coal powered steam engines were capable of
driving the ship at 10 knots.
Orange yards built both wind and steam driven ships,
but the days of sailing ships was coming to a close and the steam age was
beginning. The U. S. Shipping Board required a large number of ships for the
war effort and the orange yards were willing and able to comply with the
Orange had a ready supply of timber, sawmills that
were more than adequate for supplying the needed lumber and the craftsmen in
the shipyards to do the job. Each of the Orange yards had ample contracts to
build cargo ships and a few tankers.
When the war ended in November, 1918, there was a
surplus of ships being built in Orange. Sixteen vessels had been launched and
were awaiting final touches when the end of the war came. Disposal of the ships
became a problem.
The Emergency Fleet Corporation had 462 ships to
dispose of. The asking price was $75000 per ship, not including the cost of any
machinery that may need to be installed. There were few buyers interested.
Twenty six built in Beaumont that were incomplete at the war’s end were sold for
$21000. The cost of building these ships was in excess of $10 million.
With the development and use of acetylene torches
for cutting steel, shipbuilding was going to the building of steel ships and
away from wooden ships. No one wanted to pay storage fees for the unfinished
ships, nor did they want to take the trouble to dismantle them.
The most cost effective way to deal with these ships
was simply to sink them. They were towed to the area near the mouth of Conway
Bayou. The water there was deep enough for the hulls and wide enough so as not
to impede river traffic.
Some of the metal was salvaged and the ships were
towed to their final resting place, set afire to burn down to the waterline and
allowed to sink. Their remains may still be seen today. The fresh water of the
Sabine River has helped to maintain the preservation of the wrecks. The portion
of the wrecks made from cypress has not been affected very much by the
The area has been a favorite fishing spot for many
years for local fishermen. Boaters know that at low water levels they need to
use caution when in the area. There are still timbers and steel rods jutting
from the wrecks.
The Texas Archeological Studies Association has done
some research in the area and also taken aerial photographs of the site of “Orange’s
Lost Fleet.” There is a suspicion that there is a ship there that was not part
of the WWI vessels. They believe that this area may be the final resting place
of the cotton-clad steamer the C.S.S. Josiah H. Bell.
Near the end of the Civil War the Bell had been
taken to Orange for repair and refitting. When the war ended the Confederates
did not want the Josiah Bell to fall into the hand of the Union forces that
were coming in to occupy Orange. The Josiah Bell was towed about four miles
downstream from Orange and sunk. No one has been able to pinpoint the location.
The TASA looked at the aerial photos and saw that
one wreck was large and fat as opposed to the others who were long and slender.
It will take time to further research and determine if the Conway Bayou area is
the location of the Josiah Bell.
The wooden ship built in Orange that had the longest
career was the Nawitka. She was renamed the Admiral Brommy in 1938 and was
bombed and lost in 1943.
Possibly the ship that had the most interesting
change of duty was the Argenta. She was sold to Britain in 1922 and became the
H.M.S. Argenta. After she developed problems with leakage she was put into use
as a prison ship that held 263 men. The Argenta was scrapped in 1925.
Shipbuilding in Orange went into a lull until the
need arose for ships in the World War II years. Orange once again became a
powerhouse of shipbuilding for the U.S. Navy. Shipbuilding slowed after the war
years, but is once again becoming a vital part of Orange with the establishment
of Signal International and Orange Shipbuilding yards.