The Sabine River and surrounding waterways were once the mode of travel to move cargo from one location to another.

Like all modes of transportation, there are risks. Vehicles are involved in wrecks, trains derail and ships sink. For members of the Texas Archaeological Studies Association, during the past 20 years they have been searching local waterways to preserve the past for future generations to see and learn from their expeditions. They are also working on mapping the river using sonar to see what lies below the surface and the stories associated with the hidden treasures.

A  large, heavy, metal chain believed to date back to the late 1800s found on the banks of the Sabine River in Orange may give some clues as to what lies in the dark, murky water. It most assuredly has a tale to tell.

Bruce Lockett, director of the Texas Archaeological Studies Association, said they believe it is a brigantine. In sailing, a brigantine is a vessel with two masts and only the forward of which is square rigged. It is often used to carry cargo.

But, he didn’t say this out of the blue. The team has conducted extensive research along with the use of a “high- tech” side scan sonar. The image on the screen depicts what appears to be a hull of a ship resting on the bottom of the waterway.  It is with the information received from  the sonar images that will tell the size of the hull  and the dimensions. This will give them a lead and then they will research local manifests and other documentation to determine the history of the ship and its’ identity.

But, before they can dive on the project, they will be contacting officials. Once the permission is granted, then the investigation continues.

The hulls of the ships made in this time period where crafted of oak which should be well preserved in the fresh water, he said.

 A side scan sonar image shows the hull of a ship.

A side scan sonar image shows the hull of a ship.

“It should all be intact,” Lockett added.

Through research, the group knows of 15 shipwrecks south of the Interstate 10 to the mouth of the river.

In addition, Devil’s Pocket, a river near Mauriceville, there is a steam boat which is reported to have sunk after striking a log and damaging the hull. It is believed to have been filled with cargo containing gold, silver and barrels of liquor. In addition, Lockett said there should also be the motors and boilers intact which once propelled the vessel along the water. However, first they are waiting until the winter months to begin. But, like any treasure hunt, they must find the exact location of the ship. It’s all part of the process. Forensic archeology is needed on projects such as this, Lockett said.

However, even if the ship contains the booty, or any other ship found, they cannot touch the contents without the permission of the Texas Historical Commission. They also cannot dive on shipwreck sites without the permission of the THC which is a very vital step in preserving the rich history.

From 1800 to 1900, there were 16,000 steamboats built. There are about 2,200 ship wrecks on the Texas coastline, according to Lockett.

The arrival of the steam-driven paddle-wheeler Velocipede at Sabinetown in 1837 marked the beginning of steamboat traffic on the Sabine River and of the steady growth of riverside communities, roads and eventually railroads.

The river is said by historians to be navigable for one thousand miles in the 19th century. The Sabine River became a vital traffic  route in the economic development of Southeast Texas.

Commercial cargo was being hauled up and down the river. Navigating the twisting waterway was not easy. Nineteenth century boaters had to dodge shifting sandbars, debris, sunken logs, timber and low hanging limbs. Water levels were unpredictable and were known to rise or fall as much as six to ten feet at a time. Boaters had to pick the best time to ensure success or otherwise they may be stranded for days.

The fluctuating water levels and water hazards proved to be a big problem for steamboats which commonly ended up on the river bottom. In the years preceding the Civil War, the Sabine River bustled with commercial boats hauling goods. They traveled downstream from areas in Texas and Louisiana to Gulf ports. They returned with much needed supplies to the towns located on the river, according to Dr. Howard Williams, Picturing Orange.

About five steamers forged ahead in the waters of the Sabine during the agricultural shipping season. Among the largest and best known in 1859 was the Florilda which was a 220-foot packet  with the capacity of 2,500 bales of cotton. The other was the Josiah H. Bell which had a 1,800 bale capacity. The Bell which was constructed of oak timbers featured a V-bottom deep-sea hull and sharp prow which allowed it to navigate safely when others could not.

By the late 1950s, the cotton trade on the Sabine had become quite lucrative. In 1860, the agricultural census reported more than 7,300 bales of cotton had been shipped out of 11 Texas counties in the previous year. There was another 14,000 bales out of western Louisiana parishes. By 1861, an estimated 20,000 bales of cotton were reaching the Sabine annually.

They were purchased in 1859 by the Texas and New Orleans Railroad and put to work carrying rails, cross ties, timbers and other needed freight used to connect the rails from Houston to Beaumont, according to Dr. Howard Williams.

During the Civil War, the sturdy steamboats were called into service for even more serious business. The Bell, which had been  fitted as a gunboat, was on the weighs at Levingston Shipyard in Orange, and being converted to a blockade runner when the Florida sank. As soon as word was received that the Confederacy had been defeated, the Bell was steered about four miles south of Orange and scuttled into the Sabine River to prevent the ship falling into the hands of the Union troops.

The gun, commanded by Dick Dowling and affectionately named Annie, was mounted on the deck of the Confederate destroyer  and went down with the ship in May 1865, along with 39 caskets of silver coins, according to Lockett.

In addition, in September 1865, 20 ships belonging to the Confederate fleet also sunk following a ferocious Gulf hurricane. They were moored in the water near where Ochiltree Park is currently located.

The south was defeated and Orange was in turmoil as citizens worked to put their life back together.

The Texas Archaeological Studies Association may have a lot of unanswered questions and more ships to locate, but they have  already found steam boats by Bon Weir. The Ida Reese was one of their discoveries and at one time belonged to the Wingate family.

Originally from South Carolina, David R. Wingate was born in 1819 and married at age 20 to Carolyn Morgan. Together they had seven children. After losing two children and a sawmill to fire, he later moved his family to Newton County.

By 1852, he was a large cotton grower. In the 1860s, he maintained a sawmill in Sabine Pass which was said to be the largest in Texas during that time period. However, in 1862, the Union Army burned everything he owned in Sabine Pass, including his house, the mill and a large amount of stacked lumber.

Wingate moved to Southeast Texas and later moved his family to Orange County in 1874. He built three sawmills costing in excess of $60,000. However, they all burned. So, perseverance prevailed and Wingate rebuilt them. During his lifetime, Wingate lost a total of five sawmills and a sixth one burned to the ground after his death.

Wingate also lost a schooner and the steamboat Pearl Plant during the war between the states. In 1873, he lost the Ida Reese which was found many years later by the Texas Archaeological Studies Association.

The information gained by the Texas Archaeological Studies Association about these events are from the Russell diary. The important facts were written down during the Confederate War by the local postmaster, according to Lockett. They also find information from Coast Guard records, Galveston record of ship wrecks, newspaper clippings and other historical journals.

Another one of their discoveries was a gun boat which sank January 28, 1863 one mile north of the Sabine Pass lighthouse during the Civil war.

The possibilities are endless if people are willing to search for the past. However, there is no telling how far or how deep their travels may take them.

Earl Ennis and Barney Anders show a large, heavy, metal chain believed to date back to the late 1800s found on the banks of the Sabine River in Orange  which may give some clues as to what lies in the dark, murky water below.