Where The Sabine River Is
About Neches River Steamboats
About Boats On The Sabine River
Letters From Three
This article is borrowed from the website of W.T. Block,
take a look at it
I brorrowed this page to make
linking to boat and captain listings possible and because
in the past I have merely linked to pages like these only
to find they later dissapear from the web, thus loosing that
information to all of us.
Reprinted from Beaumont
October 24, 1974
As daylight illuminated the lower Neches River
on September 9, 1863, a frontier settler of Port Neches observed
a "rickety old cottonclad," the Confederate gunboat
weaving its way slowly among the serpentine curves of the
river south of Beaumont, Texas. The vessel carried a boat
load of uninvited guests, Union prisoners-of-war of the 75th
New York Volunteers, who had surrendered to Lieutenant "Dick"
Dowling at Sabine Pass on the previous day.
The steamer had traveled all night on the 50-mile
journey from Sabine Pass to Beaumont. One of her paddle wheels
was broken, reducing the speed to about 3 miles an hour. The
"Uncle Ben's" pilot could steer only "by keeping
the helm hard a-starboard" (compensating for the broken
paddle wheel by keeping the rudder to starboard).
The three hundred or so Confederates in Jefferson
and Orange counties had been dazed by the unexpected defeat-turned-victory.
Only a handful of soldiers could be spared to guard the Federal
prisoners bound for imprisonment at Camp Groce, near Hempstead,
Texas. During the long night, groups of Union prisoners surveyed
a plan to overpower their Rebel guards, but abandoned any
attempt in the face of the old gunboat's state of disrepair.
The Sabine River sidewheeler had known happier days in the
cotton trade. Before the war, scores of people often lined
the river banks at such cotton-shipping points as Belgrade,
Salem, East Hamilton, Sabinetown, or Belzora whenever the
old cotton steamer loosed its loud and shrill steam whistle.
Its arrival often meant new merchandise in the stores, mail,
newspapers, or gold coins returning from a cotton crop sold
in New Orleans or Galveston.
Its sailing brought both tears and happiness.
Friends waved farewells from the saloon deck, and newlyweds,
arm in arm, often departed on a honeymoon to Galveston.
Built in 1853, the 135-foot steamboat found
both its cradle and grave in the turbulent Sabine River. The
only known picture of the "Uncle Ben" was one drawn
by a Union war correspondent which later appeared in the "Harper's
Weekly" for Oct. 10, 1863, but the pictures outlined
almost no details of the vessel. Drawn during the Battle of
Sabine Pass, the artist depicted the steamer only as a sidewheeler
with twin stacks.
Little is known about the "Uncle
Ben" prior to 1857, the year that its builder and
owner died. A former Georgia riverboatman, Captain
Robert S. Patton was a pioneer navigator of both the Sabine
and the Angelina-Neches watercourses, for he shipped Nacogdoches
County cotton from Pattonia and Smith County cotton from Belzora.
Between 1846 and 1850, his sternwheeler "Angelina"
was captained by his brother,
, and made frequent trips from Pattonia to Sabine Lake.
R. S. Patton devoted much of his business career to breaking
the monopoly of the Red River merchants at Natchitoches, La.,
who dominated the East Texas cotton trade, and whose high
river-shipping and wagon-freighting costs absorbed half of
the value of each bale.
The Patton brothers settled at Pattonia on the
Angelina, 15 miles south of Nacogdoches, during the middle
1830s, and began keelboating cotton to Sabine Lake. In 1846
they built the steamer "Angelina"
at Pattonia, which averaged about five voyages a year, carrying
cotton to the coast and returning with lumber and assorted
freight for Nacogdoches merchants.
In an effort to garner the cotton trade of Northeast
Texas, Robert Patton built a river port on the Sabine River,
between Tyler and Longview, that he called Belzora in 1847.
At first he keelboated from Belzora aboard the "T. J.
Rusk," a flatboat complete with wheel house and rudder,
but lacking an engine. Later he installed a steam engine and
changed the name to "General
Rusk" (not to be confused with a deepsea steamship
of the same name), which began its brief career on the Sabine
in Jan., 1851. Since steamers could reach Belzora only when
the upper Sabine River was at flood stage, Patton was often
forced to keelboat cotton to Fredonia, Upshur County, or other
river ports farther downstream.
Although competing against four riverboats on
the Angelina-Neches and three others on the Sabine River,
Patton's steamer "Uncle Ben" carried one-third of
the 15,000 bales of cotton exported at Sabine Pass in 1857.
During five successful voyages, two of which covered the 800
river miles to Belzora, the steamboat averaged 1,000 bales
on each trip to Sabine Pass.
After Patton's death in 1857, his estate sold
the sidewheeler to John G. Berry of Sabinetown. He in turn
sold the "Uncle Ben" for $8,000 to Charles H. Ruff
and Otto Ruff, brothers of Beaumont, and C. H. Alexander,
Sabine's largest antebellum commission merchant.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War
in 1861, the steamboat was chartered by the Confederate States
government for use as a transport and tender. By December,
1862, the new owners had realized $17,362 in charter fees.
The Confederacy then purchased the "Uncle Ben" outright,
for a new Confederate commanding general in Texas had some
aggressive plans of his own.
In Nov., 1862, Gen. John B. Magruder arrived
at Houston to command the Military District of Texas, New
Mexico, and Arizona. He soon planned the recapture of Galveston
Island from the Federals (which occurred on New Year's Day)
and the breaking of the blockade at Sabine Pass. Magruder
sent the steamers "Josiah
H. Bell" and "Uncle Ben" to the Levingston
shipyard at Orange, Tx., where they were outfitted as gunboats,
a task superintended by Capt. Charles Fowler, the chief of
Confederate gunboats in Sabine Lake.
To protect the gun crews, Fowler installed a
double wall of oak beams on the vessels and filled the interior
space with cotton bales. He then mounted two 12-pounder smoothbore
field guns on the "Uncle
Ben" and a single 64-pounder rifled cannon on the
"Bell." The civilian crews remained aboard both
boats. Unfortunately, Magruder entrusted the blockade battle
to an arrogant and inefficient inebriant named Major O. M.
Watkins, who remained intoxicated throughout the entire offshore
For artillerists, the general ordered Capt.
K. D. Keith's Company B of Spaight's Battalion from Fort Grigsby
at Port Neches to Orange on Jan. 15, 1863. Captain Odlum's
Co. F, First Texas Heavy Artillery, was ordered aboard the
"Bell," and other units from Spaight's Battalion
and Pyron's Regiment were asssigned aboard both vessels to
serve as sharpshooters. And on January 21, both gunboats,
their stacks belching black pine knot smoke, steamed out of
the Sabine Pass to engage the blockade ships, the "Morning
Light" and "Velocity."
A thirty mile chase at sea ensued with the Union
ships unable to fill their sails due to the slight or non-existent
breeze. As the slow steamers came within range, Lt. Dick Dowling
and the "Bell's" gun crew scored four direct hits
on the "Morning Light." Soon the Confederate sharpshooting
musketeers forced the Union artillerists from the decks, and
both blockaders surrendered. The three guns of the Rebels
were hardly a match for the Bluejackets, for the "Morning
Light" had nine 32-pound guns aboard, and the "Velocity"
had three 12-pound cannons. Capt. Keith's gunners then doubled
as sailors to bring the captured "Velocity" into
In the fall of 1865, it appears that the "Uncle
Ben" was auctioned to persons unknown, and the steamboat
soon returned to the Sabine cotton trade. By then the sidewheeler
was approaching a relatively old age for the river boats of
that era. During one of her many successful voyages made during
the post-bellum years, the "Uncle Ben" struck a
snag and foundered in the river near East Hamilton. And apparently,
the hull was considered a total loss from the beginning for
no attempt was ever made to raise it. Thus was ended what
was perhaps the most illustrious career of any vessel in the
history of East Texas steamboating.
The loss of the "Uncle Ben" in 1867
was a blow to the Sabine River trade, but other steamboats
soon replaced her. All that remains of the old cotton boat
today is her bell, which hangs in the high school in Center,
Texas. Each peal tolls the submission of the sternwheelers
to the rails which replaced them, a regretable but necessary
step in the progressive march of humanity, but nonetheless,
an epoch fondly recalled by the oldtimers who patronized them.
Also See Riverboats and
the Civil War for more about the part they played in that
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