Original Sabine River crossings into Orange had been at Ballew’s Ferry about 15 miles north of Orange and a long ferry ride from about where West Bluff is today and Nibblet’s Bluff.
When population grew in Lake Charles and Orange, the increase in traffic demanded a more direct route between the two cities. A highway was constructed across the marsh directly across the river from Orange.
The bed for the highway was made from materials dredged out of the marsh, piled up and let settle for a period of time until it became firm enough to build on. The finished highway was 18 feet wide. Along the sides of the highway were two ditches left from the dredging of the materials. They are still there today. The highway across the marsh was about six miles long. About two miles from the river was a one mile expanse that was not dredged and built into a road bed. It is like a narrow lake. The crossing was by means of a timbered beam bridge with an asphalt road bed. It was known as the “Mile Bridge.”
A steel bridge across the Sabine River that connected the highway to Green Avenue in Orange was opened in 1927. This bridge replaced the ferry that had crossed the river from the foot of Elm Street and connected with the highway.
After the bridge opened and gave better access to the highway there was naturally an increase in traffic. The road between Orange and Westlake, just west of Lake Charles, became known as the “Silver Strip.” There were things available on the Silver Strip that were not available in Texas, namely gambling.
There were plans being made and some basic construction of nightclubs to take advantage of what would become “easy Texas money” while the bridge at Orange was under construction. By the early 1930s there would be what amounted to as an unofficial town in the area “Across the River.”
There would be as many as 22 clubs between Orange and Vinton over the years.
The most unique of all the clubs was the Showboat. It was an actual paddlewheel riverboat that had seen service in the Memphis, Tennessee area of the Mississippi. The “Harry Lee” was brought to Orange and docked on the left side of the highway in the ditch left from the dredging. The boat consisted of three decks, was 200 feet long and 43 feet wide. Over the years it would gain a reputation as being the roughest of the clubs. There was drinking, some prostitution, and much gambling at the Showboat. The owners wanted gamblers, but wanted them to lose. If a winner tried to leave the boat, he was usually faced by some employees who tried to intimidate him into staying until he had lost his winnings plus everything he had gone into the club with. There were a lot of fights, stabbings, some shootings and even a murder or two.
The Showboat became known as a “bucket of blood.”
R. F. “Bob” Bass was Chief of Police in Orange from December, 1942 until August, 1946. In those years he would occasionally be called about a problem. Even though he had no jurisdiction, he would go. In an interview his son, Harley, related that his dad once went to the Showboat to see about a body floating in the water. When the body was pulled out of the water and Chief Bass rolled him over, he found two bullet holes in his back.
It was reported that when the water was clear enough to see the bottom from the gangway that went from shore to the boat’s deck, that one could see literally hundreds of billfolds. It was not unusual for someone to be knocked in the head, have his billfold taken and emptied and the bill fold thrown in the water.
Under somewhat strange circumstances the Harry Lee burned to the waterline. Fire trucks from Orange drove across the bridge to the burning boat but were unable to control the fire. The boat burned to the waterline.
A smaller boat similar to the Harry Lee was brought in by barge and docked where the Harry Lee had been and business resumed as usual.
The strip across the river from Orange was known as “East Orange Louisiana”. It was in Louisiana, so law enforcement from Orange had no jurisdiction. It was far enough from Vinton so that Louisiana law enforcement was rare. It was mostly up to the club owners to police themselves.
Some owners tried to operate honest businesses, but some just let anything happen at any time. In the less honest clubs it was not unusual for paychecks to be gambled away and in some extreme cases, houses.
Along the left side of the road near the Showboat were the German Beer Garden, The Night Owl, Club Irving, and Buster’s Night Club, East Orange.
Operated by M.J. “Buster” Johnson and advertised as “The Spot You Should Not Miss”, Buster’s Night Club was one of the nicer clubs. Johnson demanded that his customers treat each other with respect. He allowed no cursing in his club and would throw out anyone who violated his rules. Johnson also booked some of the top bands available. On one occasion he was able to book Guy Lombardo and his orchestra for a one night stand when they were passing through the area.
Johnson always wore a coat and tie. “If you want to run a nice club, you have to look nice. I always wear a nice suit. I treat my customers nice until they get out of line,” said Johnson in an interview.
On the right side of the road were Felix DeMary’s Dinner Club and the Flamingo Club. Both of these were clubs that had gambling as the major attraction, along with dinner and dancing. They rated along with Buster’s. They were by all accounts honest gambling clubs without the strong arm tactics of the Showboat.
Across the “Mile Bridge”, and the last of the bigger clubs was The Grove. The Grove was an elegant club operated by Sam Smith and his wife Marian. The Smiths had opened the Grove in 1937 and it soon became known as the best of the East Orange night spots. There was a gambling room with slot machines, roulette wheels, dice and card tables, a large dining and dancing area and a smaller “Peacock Room”. The Peacock Room had originally been a pit for fighting roosters when the club first opened. After about a year, the Smiths decided that cockfighting was not something they wanted to keep in their club, so they stopped it and remolded the pit into a dining room.
At times the Smiths booked big band entertainment. They had a house band that played nightly, but at times brought in extra attractions.
Couples and groups from Orange would drive to the Grove for a special night of dining, dancing, entertainment, and maybe a little gambling. When they went to the Grove they always dressed in their best. There was never a club like the Grove in the Orange area and may never be again.