Rio de Sabinas, Orange’s River
Early Spanish explorers first named the river Rio de Sabinas because of the great number of bald cypress trees they encountered. “Sabinas” is the Spanish word for cypress. Some of the earliest inhabitants were the Caddo tribe on the upper regions and the Attakapas tribe on the lower regions. As English speaking people came into the area, the river became known as the “Sabine River.”
The river formed in Hunt County in extreme northeast Texas where three forks, the Cowleech, Caddo, and South Forks joined together; the site in now part of the Lake Tawakoni Reservoir. The Sabine is from 510 to 553 miles long, depending on which source is consulted. It is the 33rd longest river in the United States.
From 1836 to 1845 the river served as the International Boundary between the Republic of Texas and the United States. There was a seven year surveying project to establish and mark the boundary. One marker remains near Logansport, Louisiana. It is the only international boundary marker located inside the United States.
Steamboats began running from Sabine Pass at the mouth of the river to Logansport, nearly 200 miles upriver, in the early 1840s. Once it was found that the river could be navigated that far north, the river became a major transportation route for all types of cargo, but mainly for the cotton that was grown on the plantations around Belgrade and farther upriver. Boats would carry goods for the towns on the trip upriver and bring cotton downriver to Sabine Pass.
Resin, or Reason, Green, in the early 1830s settled an area on a bend about seven miles north of Sabine Lake. As the area became populated it became known as Green’s Bluff. In 1840 the town changed the name to Madison in honor of President James Madison. There was confusion in the mail service due to the town of Madisonville, located farther north. In 1858 the name of the town on the river was changed to Orange, possibly because of a grove of orange trees in the area.
The river had always been important to the town and the traffic on the river had been varied. From reports of the pirate Jean Lafitte going up the river to Ballew’s Ferry ten miles north of Orange to bring slaves for sale to Louisiana plantation owners to more legitimate river traffic such as dry goods and cotton, Orange grew as river traffic increased.
During the Civil War years, Orange was the site of Confederate army activities, being located between the Confederate forts at Sabine Pass and Niblett’s Bluff. After the battle at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, there never was another threat of Union activity on the river, so Orange remained safe for the remainder of the war years.
After the war and reconstruction, Orange began to become an important part on the timber and lumber industry. Due to the virgin pine an cypress forests, Orange became a lumber boom town. At its peak there were 17 sawmills in Orange. Millions of logs were floated in large rafts down the river to the Orange mills. Milled lumber was taken by river to Sabine Pass to be loaded on larger ships and shipped to Galveston and thence worldwide.
The industry became so profitable that at one time Green Avenue in Orange had more millionaires than any other street in any town in the United States of similar population.
Because of the amount of lumber produced Orange became a vital part of World War I shipbuilding. Shipyards in Orange built large four and five masted sailing cargo ships for the war effort. At the war’s end there were 19 ships in Orange either under construction or just finished, that no one wanted. The contracts were cancelled. Steam ships were coming into use and steel was replacing wood in construction.
With no buyers, the ships were stripped of useful metal parts, towed down river to the area at the mouth of Conway’s Bayou, set afire and burned to the water line, and allowed to sink. Nineteen remain there today, a popular fishing spot and a hazard to navigation for careless boaters.
The sawmills in Orange gradually closed for a variety of reasons and by the mid 1930s the lumber boom in Orange had ended. In 1940, another boom would begin when steel ship building would come to Orange.
Levingston and Weaver shipyards had been established in Orange, building wooden ships. They would be joined by Consolidated Shipbuilding; a branch of United States Steel. All three became major shipyards because of their location on the deep, wide river.
U.S. Congressman Martin Dies had been successful in getting a contract signed with the U.S. Navy for shipyards in Orange to build warships for the war everyone knew was coming. In 1940, the population of Orange was about 7,000. After the war started and the shipbuilding began Orange exploded. By the war’s end in 1945 Orange had grown to a population of 70,000. Orange was the only place in Texas that had built warships for the war effort. Consolidated built destroyers and destroyer escorts. Weaver built YMS class minesweepers. Levingston built auxiliary vessels and seagoing rescue tugs for the British Royal Navy. The river had once again brought a profitable era to Orange.
After the war, because of the location on the freshwater river, the U.S. Naval Station was built at Orange. A reserve fleet of surplus warships was brought to Orange and remained until the early 1970s. The status was changed to a Reserve Base in 1975. The facility closed in 2008.
The third boom the river brought to Orange was when DuPont decided to build a chemical plant in Orange. The river provided water needed for the processes in the plant and for shipping of products in and out of the plant. After DuPont several other chemical companies decided to locate in Orange. The area south of Orange became known as “Chemical Row”.
The city on the river has settled to a population of 18, 595 on the 2010 census. There are a couple of small shipyards that are showing a profit and the chemical industry, though scaled back is still in Orange.
The river flows pretty much as it always has by Orange. From Orange down to Sabine Lake, it is industrialized now, with the small shipyards, and the port that was established in 1914. A portion of the river going into Sabine Lake has become part of the Intracoastal Waterway with a large amount of barge traffic replacing the long gone steamboats.
On the bend of the river where Orange started and so much local history has happened, the City of Orange has built a park with a wooden walkway on the bank of the river. Even with all the changes it is possible to walk on the river on a quiet evening and in the mind’s eye see the riverboats that used to ply the river in the old days.