And Now You Know: Orange’s Boomtown Economy

Published 6:33 am Saturday, February 24, 2018

By Mike Louviere

Looking at Orange today, it may be hard for one to believe Orange was once a vibrant, prosperous city with a large number of millionaires. In the early 1880s, Orange was the center of East Texas sawmill activity. At the peak there would be seven major sawmills and several shingle mills. Logs were rafted down the Sabine River to the mills at Orange.

In 1896, Orange was described as the principal lumber manufacturing center of the Southwest. Two additional railroad lines had been added to handle the export of lumber. Barges loaded with lumber were towed across Sabine Lake and loaded onto ships at Sabine Pass for export across the world. At the turn of the 20th Century, sawmills were producing 700,000 board feet of lumber per day. The mills were paying $3,000,000 per year in freight charges to export their products.

Orange had a population of 3,835 in 1900. The city had no hard surfaced roads and no bridges. It did have a first class electric light and water plant. By 1910, the population had grown to 5,527.

In 1913, the first oil well west of Orange began to produce. This well had an effect on the economy of Orange, even though the oil field was west of Orange.

In 1916, the deep water port was opened and brought new prosperity to Orange. It gave Orange the ability to ship lumber worldwide directly from the mills and to also export the crops of rice that were beginning to be grown in Orange. The 1920 population grew to 9, 212.

World War I brought shipbuilding to Orange. Wooden cargo ships were being built to fill the need to ship materials to Europe for the war effort. The first ship built was the City of Orange, a five masted schooner.

In 1917, National Shipbuilding laid the keel for the largest wooden cargo steamer ever built. She was the War Marvel, built for the Cunard Lines. The ship was 4800 tons, 318 feet long, and a 48 foot beam, or width.

In 1917, lumber production swelled to 7,450,000 board feet shipped out of Orange.

By 1918, there were five shipyards in Orange: International Shipbuilding, Orange Maritime, National Shipbuilding, Southern Drydock and Shipbuilding, and Weaver and Sons Shipbuilding.

The end of the war brought an abrupt end to shipbuilding. Contracts for ships under construction were abruptly cancelled. Partially built ships were stripped of their masts and other valuable parts, then towed down river to the area near Conway’s Bayou and burned to the waterline.

About this time Orange sawmills began to slow production. Railroads were being built that opened up the inland forests to timber cutting. The cut logs could be transported by rail to new mills more economically than they could be floated to Orange by river. Orange economy began to slump. The last log was cut at the large Lutcher and Moore mill on December 16, 1930.

Wartime population of Orange had been estimated at about 17,000. The 1930 census reported the population at 7,913, slightly over a third of the 1917 estimate.

By 1940, population had dropped slightly to 7,472. Due to the efforts of Congressman Martin Dies, shipbuilding returned to Orange. This time it was contracts with the United Stated Navy for steel warships. The wartime population swelled to nearly 60,000 with three shipyards working around the clock to turn out the needed ships, boats, and barges for the war effort. The only gun bearing warships built in Texas were built in Orange at the Consolidated, Levingston, and Weaver shipyards.

At the war’s end in 1945, Orange population began to drop off as the shipyard workers left town. By 1950, the population had dropped to 21,000.

Another boost to the economy began in the late 1940s when DuPont built the Sabine River Works and began petrochemical production. DuPont would be joined by other petrochemical companies that would be built on what became known as “Chemical Row.” Orange began to be a “Boomtown” once more.

The economy has taken a downturn once again and Orange has had another loss in industry and population. Orange economy “boomed” with lumber, ships, and petrochemicals. What is coming next will be interesting to see.

“And now you know”