Henry Bailey: Rebuilding the legacy
Pictured in a photo from June 1954 – from left are Henry Bailey, brother Robert Bailey, cousin Stewart Duckworth and brother Gilbert Bailey. The Baileys are all brothers.
Dave Rogers – For The Record
He knows if he rebuilds it, they will come.
“There’ll be a lot of people want to come,” Henry Bailey said in the heat of a mid-July workday. “They’re always asking me.”
Bailey, 71, spent his early life learning the value of hard work at Rob and Sue Bailey’s Bait Camp.
Now, after a career in oil exploration and drilling, he’s working to rebuild the well-known jumping-off point for Sabine Lake near the foot of the Rainbow Bridge.
It’s a slow go. Slow but steady.
“A lot of people want me to reopen this,” he said. “I’m trying to put the old place back together. But I’m taking my time.”
With a dragline crane he brought from Nebraska, he dug out the last of the hurricane-tossed debris from the channel in front of the boat launches. He brought piers from Galveston and rebuilt the bulkhead.
A new blue building sits on stilts overlooking the boat launch, its tin roof sparkling in the sunlight. It appears move-in ready for a store selling fishing tackle and snacks.
“About two years ago,” is his answer when asked his timeline for reopening the business. “I’ve been working ever since the hurricane. I don’t have anybody to help me.
“It’s hard to get anybody I can trust.”
That said, Henry has without fanfare reopened the boat launch, on the honor system.
“People can launch their boats right now,” he said. “The canal is plenty deep.
“I’m not selling [bait or] things, yet, but I have a mailbox and people can put $2 in. I’m charging $2 for the boat launch, same as we charged in the ‘60s.”
Two dollars was big money when Henry Bailey grew up on the southwest edge of Orange County back in the 50s and 60s.
That was the daily sum his dad, Rob Bailey, paid his sons and nephews to work at the Fish Camp at the far end of Old Ferry Road, about six miles from Bridge City’s main drag, Texas Avenue.
“A lot of people came here,” Henry recalled. “There was no other place to launch a boat and buy bait.
“We’d sell live bait — crab and live shrimp. Another kid worked at the launch to collect those fees and a third worked in the store. In the winter time, our routine was skinning animals and putting them on racks to dry.”
When the fishing slowed, Rob Bailey worked as a trapper in the area marshes to feed his family.
“He trapped muskrats. Sometimes minks and otters. But muskrats were the big ticket,” the younger Bailey said. “They were small and easy to clean.”
The words “Bailey Fish Camp” were identified with recreational activities in Bridge City for the better part of a century.
Henry’s grandparents, Henry and Mary Bailey, opened up the first Bailey Fish Camp in the mid-20s. Originally, it was a seafood restaurant fronted by a store and some of the first gas pumps seen in the area.
It was located on Old Ferry Road right across from the Dryden Ferry landing and was an immediate hit. A second story addition, which came to be known as the “Dance Hall,” opened a decade later and boosted the commerce.
“One reason Bailey’s was so popular back then was because of the breeze,” Henry Bailey said. “In those days, people didn’t have air-conditioning. That second floor was the spot to get cool.
“I remember the Orange Ladies Bridge Club met over there.”
After Bailey’s grandfather died, “Grandmother” Mary Bailey ran the business until 1954.
In the 1940s, two sons of Henry and Mary Bailey, Rob and Joe, opened businesses on opposite ends of Bridge City.
Joe Bailey Fish Camp sat on Cow Bayou. It was famous for its pool tables, water skiing exhibitions and top notch entertainers.
Rob Bailey and his new wife, Sue Young, opened their place a mile down the road from the ferry landing. They built and rebuilt homes there as hurricanes took their toll.
For young Henry, growing up there was an adventure he looked forward to every day.
“You know at one time this was a big mining area, all along the lake here,” he said.
He explained the shell bank had been dug out to use on roadways.
“There was a shell bank here 10 feet high and 30 feet thick, just full of Indian stuff, old pottery and skeletons. I used to go looking for arrowheads and old coins.
“I found a 1880 nickel right here two years ago,” Henry Bailey said. “It would be worth $50,000 in mint condition. But in the condition I found it, it was worth about a nickel.”
Bailey said he never wore shoes as a youngster, something that came in handy when he had to cross standing water on the road to the bus stop which was located up near the ferry landing, a mile from his door.
“I thought you were a sissy if you wore shoes,” he recalled. “Finally in the seventh grade, the people at school said they’d send me home of I didn’t wear shoes.”
Another memory for Henry Bailey was of Sydnes Island, a piece of land deposited at the mouth of the Neches Rivers, just across from Bailey’s by dredges digging the ship channel 100 years prior. His mother, Sue Bailey, succeeded in getting it named a bird sanctuary by the Audubon Society in 1975 and herself named its official warden.
Her study and photography of roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and cormorants made her much in demand as a lecturer and birding authority.
But the island was washed away, like the fish camp and much of the Bridge City area, by Hurricane Ike in 2008. It was right on the heels of Sue Bailey dying of cancer.
“Two thousand-eight was a bad year for me,” Henry Bailey said.
The Catch-22 of Syndes Island is typical of the younger Bailey’s experience in rebuilding.
“I don’t understand the rules,” he said. ‘You can’t deposit sand there because it’s a sanctuary. But it can’t be a sanctuary if you can’t deposit sand there.”
But Henry Bailey soldiers on.
“For the people – the kids – I’ll get it open eventually. It’ll just be a mom-and-pop place where you can launch a boat, get some bait maybe a snack or two.”