The Josiah Bell battling the Yankees to powering a sawmill
Josiah Hughes Bell crossed into Texas from the Missouri Territory in 1821 and became one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred,” the original settlers of Texas. Bell eventually settled on New Year Creek, near Old Washington. Bell moved to the west side of the Brazos River, where he was granted land by the Mexican government. He established what later became known as Bell’s Landing. Bell’s Landing became an important inland river port. Bell later laid out two towns that became known as East Columbia and West Columbia. Bell died in 1838 after becoming wealthy from his river enterprises and his sugar plantation, His estate was valued at $140,000.
When Robert Mills had a side-wheel steamer built in 1853, he named the boat the Josiah H. Bell after his late friend. The Bell was built at Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana. She was 171 feet long, 30 feet wide and could operate in 6.7 feet of water. Her 412 ton capacity could haul 1800 bales of cotton. The Bell was built out of white oak with a V-bottom, deep sea hull and the bow was reinforced, possibly with iron. The power plant was an upright 450 horsepower steam engine with three boilers. Her size and capacity made her the second largest steamer in Texas.
By 1854, the Bell was in the Trinity River cotton trade and possibility a little trade on the Brazos. In 1858 the Bell sailed between the Trinity and Galveston three times carrying 836 bales of cotton on one voyage. Before the end of 1859 she was sold to the Texas and New Orleans Railroad to haul railroad supplies and rolling stock. In January the two biggest steamboats in Texas, the Bell and the Florilda were sailing on Sabine Lake carrying supplies for the building of the railroad between Orange and Liberty. They carried rails, crossties and rolling stock.
The Union Navy capture of Sabine Pass in 1862 caused the Bell to be trapped in the Sabine River. During that period the Bell is believed to cut across the long sandbar at Conway’s Bayou, four miles south of Orange creating what came to be known as the “Conway’s Bayou Cutoff.”
On Jan. 1, 1863, General John Magruder’s Confederate forces recaptured Galveston and Magruder became determined to lift the Union blockade at Sabine Pass. He sent the Bell and the Uncle Ben to the Levingston Shipyard in Orange to be refitted as cottonclad ships and armed with cannon. The Bell had a double row of cotton bales installed between the first and second decks. She was armed with a 64 pound cannon. The Uncle Ben was similarly armed.
On the morning of Jan. 21, 1863 the two cottonclads left the mouth of the Sabine River at full steam to engage the Union blockading ships, Morning Light and Velocity. The artillery force on the Bell was under the command of Lieutenant Dick Dowling. Dowling’s men had named the 64 pounder “Annie” after Dowling’s wife. Also aboard was a compliment of sharpshooters under the command of Captain Matt Nolan. One of the sharpshooters was Alexander Gilmer, who would later become one of the leading citizens of Orange, a timber baron, and a very wealthy man.
The two Union ships decided to attempt to outrun the cottonclads. As they sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico, the wind began to die. The Union ships were sail powered. They had enough wind to move, but not enough to outrun the Confederates. After a 20 mile chase the gunboats had caught the sailing vessels and the battle began.
When Dowling felt he was within range of the Morning Light, he let loose with a few artillery shots. Those shots were enough to knock out the main rigging, destroy the quarterdeck and hit one of the Morning light’s guns. As the Bell drew closer the sharpshooters fired with such a volume and accuracy that all of the men topside rushed below deck, abandoning the deck cannons. It was said that Nolan’s sharpshooters were so deadly that the Union sharpshooters in the riggin “fell to the deck like so many squirrels.”
By 11 a.m., the Uncle Ben had done similar damage to the Velocity. Both ships sent up white flags and surrendered. The Confederates had captured both ships, 13 cannon, 139 prisoners, ammunition and a considerate amount of supplies. They had reopened the port. General Magruder sent a proclamation to foreign consuls inviting commerce. The Secretary of State, C.S.A. also sent communication to foreign councils inviting commerce through an “open port.”
After a year of inactivity at Sabine Pass, Magruder decided that the Bell would be of better service as a blockade runner. The cotton bales and armor were removed and the Bell was sent back to Orange to the Levingston Shipyard to be converted as a blockade runner. The Bell was on the shipways when the Confederates learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered on April 12, 1865.
The carpenters at Levingston decided that the Bell was too proud a vessel to be surrendered to the Union victors. They removed the engine, steam drum, the three boilers, all the piping and shafting. The stripped hulk was towed four miles south of Orange on the Sabine River and sunk.
When H. J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore built their mill at Orange in 1877 they found the Bell’s old 450 horse engine and boilers still in storage at the shipyard. The engine was put into service at the first Lutcher and Moore mill, called the “Lower Mill.” When the mill was enlarged to mill 200,000 board feet of lumber daily, the old engine was moved to the planning mill. A history of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company related that the old engine remained in continuous use for 50 years without having any breakdown; “without so much as the shearing of a single pin.”
The final disposition of the engine is unknown. When the mills went out of service in the 1930s and sold off all machinery as scrap iron the old engine was probably ground down and recycled.
The hull of the Bell may lie in the river off the mouth of Conway’s Bayou among the wooden ships that were towed to that area, burned and sunk following World War I. Some research has revealed a hull that is shorter and wider than the others in that area. There is speculation that it is the Bell, but research to confirm that has not been done.