Josiah H. Bell: The big engine that could
In the 1850s, America was at the height of its industrial age, and at the culmination of tension between the North and the South concerning states’ rights. Never before had motivation in economic and political matters been so high. In the midst of this daring “can do” atmosphere, the Josiah H. Bell was built in Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Ind. The name may not immediately ring a “bell” to locals, but the ship and her famous engine- both during peace and wartime- played a pivotal role in local history, however obscure it may be.
Some ships are practical; others are beautiful. Josiah H. Bell was both. The vessel was made of clean, white oak timbers. She was large and stable as well. The ship was built as a deep sea steamer, in fact, with a V bottom hull. The naval monster was 171 feet long, 30 feet wide, and had a nearly seven foot depth of hold. The side-wheel steamer could carry 412 tons of cargo, 1800 bales of cotton, the second largest such capacity in Texas at that time. Most significant was the faithful engine that gave her tremendous power. A 450 horse-power upright engine was mounted on the ship. The massive marine engine was powered by three boilers. Robert Mills bought it in 1854.
Although she was created for deep sea duty, the ship was only carrying cotton on the Trinity River in the 1850s. The powerful engine and the V bottom hull, however, served an unanticipated yet valuable purpose, as recorded in one interview with W. A. Bowen, long- time Trinity River sailor:
“The Josiah Henry Bell . . . ran the Trinity River trade from about 1854 to 1860, and having a deep-sea hull, she paid little attention to snags and willows, but rushed right on, breaking through them like weeds, and shoving snags and sawyers out of the way… It was the Bell which first made the new channel going out of the Trinity into Galveston Bay at Anahuac. The river had begun to spread over the flats, sluggishly pushing its way across the shallows, and had deposited a bank of soft mud. The J. H. Bell, after sounding, took a run and would plow as far as her momentum would take her, and then back up and try again, Thus she finally went through…”
Numerous other stories tell about the Bell’s adventures in channeling as she bullied her way through stubborn shallow waters either for her own passage or to improve their usefulness.
By 1860, the Bell and her powerful, legendary engine were hauling rails, crossties, and rolling stock for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad. She traveled along the Neches and the Sabine Rivers transporting cargo between Liberty and Galveston and between Orange and Beaumont.
In 1862, the Josiah H. Bell became a Confederate cotton clad gunboat boasting a huge weapon- a single 64-lb. rifled cannon from the Tredegon Iron Works in Richmond, Va- which was operated under the direction of Charles Fowler and his crew. The boat stayed in Sabine Pass ready for action.
In early 1863, the Bell saw the action she hoped for. Sergeant H. N. Connor states in his journal entry of Jan. 21: “At daylight went on board the Bell and the two steamboats steamed out toward the bar. Saw the U. S. frigate Morning Light, of guns, eight 32-pounders and 1 32-lb. rifled cannon, and the schooner Velocity . . . two 24-pounders, standing out to sea. Gave chase, the sea being smooth and 25 miles from the bar, succeeded in bringing on the action. And after an engagement of about one hour, we closed the fight by opening with our small arms, and closing and boarding when both vessels struck their colors. We had one man wounded; the enemy’s loss was one killed and quite a number seriously wounded, some mortally.”
Though there were a few close calls, this victorious fight, when the Bell forced the Morning Light to surrender, was the only action the Bell would see during the war. The Bell is often named in a discussion of the Battle at Sabine Pass, but by the time the Bell arrived as reinforcement, the fighting was over.
The Bell stayed at Sabine Pass until the Confederacy surrendered to Union forces. When the “cruel” war ended, the ship was undergoing changes. Lt. Dick Dowling had decided that the historically versatile ship would be more productive as a blockade runner. In May of 1865, when Union forces were coming ashore to occupy Orange, it was decided that the old ship should go down with her history, being far too proud to be insulted by the possession of the Yankees. The hull was towed down the river a few miles and sunk. The Bell was gone, laid to rest after her duty was done. The vessel is rumored to be at the shallow bottom of an unused channel of the Sabine River near “Conway’s Bayou Cut-off. But a glimmer of her pride lived on still. The enormous, powerful, capable steam engine that had made her so productive was removed and hidden away as it was far too valuable to throw away.
When Henry J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore of Williamsport, Pa. chose Orange as the site for their enormous Star and Cresent Saw Mill in 1877, they found the old faithful engine of the Josiah H. Bell to be ideal for their operation. The marine engine began a new life as the central engine in the “Lower Mill” of the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company of Orange, which is discussed elsewhere in this newspaper edition.
As of 1905, the engine had been in service for fifty years “without shearing so much as a pin.” When Lumber-Moore ceased production and that mill was dismantled in the 1930s, after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 utterly dissipated the demand for lumber, the legendary engine was sold as scrap metal, probably to be used again in another war.