Across the River – back in the day
When the highway was built across the marsh to Orange, it was only natural that there would be businesses that would build there to attract Texas residents. Louisiana had looser laws regarding alcohol and gambling. Once the bridge was built replacing the ferry across the river, it was easier for Orangeites and others to go “Across the River.” It was only natural that there would be bigger and fancier night clubs built.
The stretch of night clubs on the east bank of the Sabine River became known as East Orange, Louisiana. To a degree they were wide open businesses. They were exempt from Texas laws and so far away from Vinton and Lake Charles, Louisiana that the Calcasieu Parish laws were seldom enforced.
Orange, Texas was not much more than a sawmill town. Even though there were some large sawmills that produced millions of board feet of lumber and shingles and there were a number of very wealthy timber barons, the average citizen was what would now be of a low middle class. That would change in 1940 when the U.S. Navy announced that they would be signing a contract to bring wartime shipbuilding to Orange. Orange would grow from a small town of about 7,000 in 1940 to over 70,000 by the time the war ended in 1945.
People were coming into Orange from rural areas in East Texas, South Louisiana and other regions. People who had never had money were suddenly making as much money in one month as they had formerly made in one year. They were working hard, making money and when they had time off, and were away from the job, they wanted to party.
The night club operators were ready and willing to take all the money anyone wanted to spend, anytime. There were nice night clubs, cheap beer joints and several that defied classification.
Crossing the river from Orange, the first place on the right was Felix DeMary’s Dinner Club. The Flamingo Club was next. They were nice places with dinner meals, bands and dancing.
Across the highway at the foot of the bridge was the Night Owl, Club Irving , and Buster’s, owned by Buster Johnson and billed as “The Spot You Should Not Miss”. Johnson once booked the Guy Lumbardo Orchestra for a one night stand.
In the middle of these clubs on the left side of the highway was the Showboat. It was a club with drinking, dancing, slot machines, and nearly everything designed to empty the pockets of the customers. The Showboat was an actual real paddle wheel river boat that had formerly been named “Harry Lee”.
The Showboat was the roughest of the spots “Across the River”. There was a tendency of the management to do anything to keep the customers drinking and gambling until they were out of money. It was also a spot known for rough treatment of anyone leaving with money in their pockets. It was said that when the water was clear at low tide you could see numerous billfolds laying on the bottom as you crossed the gangway to the ship. Several times Orange boat. Even though they had no authority, Orange police would often go to the area and try to help with identification of bodies. Law from Calcasieu Parish seldom went due to the extreme distance.
The places by the bridge never closed. Doors were open and lights were turned on around the clock. Groups of people who were ending their shifts at Levingston and Consolidated shipyards would often walk across the bridge and go to the clubs and not come back until they were out of money or it was time to go back to work. As there were men with money, there were also women to help them spend their dollars. It was like a “forever party” with hundreds of party goers.
The road through the marsh was a ridge that had been built by dredging the mud from the marsh and allowing it to settle enough to build the roadway. There was a long wooden beam trestle bridge that was referred to as “The Mile Bridge” because it was a mile long. Across that bridge on the south side was a small café run by Pete Aucoin. It was said to have the best gumbo in the area. It was built on piers off of the side of the road over the water and Aucoin would often go outside and make grunting noises and call up alligators for the amusement of his customers.
On solid land at the end of the road on the north side was the Grove Night Club, operated by Sam and Marian Smith. It was elegant for the time and the area. It was a place where those wearing a coat and tie or an elegant evening dress would not feel out of place. Easily the nicest of all the places, serving the best food, it was the place the U.S. Navy contracted to hold commissioning parties when ships were launched at the Orange shipyards.
Wartime shortages did not apply at the Grove. Throughout the rationing years, the Grove was able to obtain all the meat, sugar, butter, and any other rationed items in whatever quantity they needed to have what they needed for the parties. It was a great arrangement for the Smith.
All of the clubs were profitable for all the club owners. Most of the clubs operated for several years after the profitable war years ended. The beginning of the end was when Highway 90was relocated and a new bridge was built upstream from Orange.
One by one the businesses began to close as traffic shifted to the new highway and ceased to flow past their businesses.
Felix DeMary was the one who stayed the longest. He stayed in business until the bridge at Orange was removed. The Showboat had been towed to Mississippi and turned into a restaurant. The Smiths had long since closed the Grove. The other clubs just faded away.
Buster Johnson opened a new club on the new highway, still called Buster’s. There were new night spots built on the new highway, but they were eventually put out of business when the highway was once again relocated and became Interstate 10. The site of Buster’s is now the Louisiana Highway Information Station.
The north part of the old highway is accessible from Interstate 10. It goes for several miles to the location of the old bridge. The bridge was burned by arsonists in 1974. The location is now called “the burned bridge.”
According to local legend, the bridge was burned because a woman caught her husband in a car with a woman on the west end of the bridge. She supposedly drove to the east end and set the bridge on fire.
Photo -The Grove Nightclub was a place where those wearing a coat and tie or an elegant evening dress would not feel out of place. Easily the nicest of all the places, serving the best food, it was the place the U.S. Navy contracted to hold commissioning parties when ships were launched at the Orange shipyards.