And Now You Know: Riverside was a city in a city

Published 9:33 am Friday, June 22, 2018

By Mike Louviere

The City of Orange is discussing the possible use of the old Riverside property. Some of those passing by that vast acreage of weeds, bushes, and trees may not realize that Riverside was home to several thousand people for nearly 40 years.

In 1940, the U.S. Navy awarded the contract for 12 destroyers to Consolidated Shipyard. Levingston and Weaver, the other shipyards in Orange were working towards contracts to build vessels for the Navy at their yards. Orange was on the verge of becoming a boomtown. The problem was that Orange was a city of only about 7,000 residents. There would be tens of thousands who would be needing housing.

On May 19, 1942, the announcement was made that the federal government had acquired 348 acres on the west bank of the Sabine River to build a 2,000 unit housing complex. The complex was the largest residential engineering project ever undertaken up to that time.

The project would entail clearing the swamp and marshland of trees and all other obstructions to construction.

Once the land was cleared, sand was pumped from the river and mud was dredged up and spread over the area. The millions of cubic feet of material was only allowed to partially settle when the pipe for water and sewer lines was laid on top of the dirt/sand. Additional material was then spread over the pipes. No trenches were dug. The pipes were just laid down and covered.

There was no storm sewer system. The curb and gutter streets were graded to drain toward the center of the streets and the streets were graded to flow to the river. The streets never drained very well and often after only a light rain the water would rise to nearly curb high.

The major problem with the streets was that there was no steel available for reinforcement. Over the years the concrete began to crack, and the streets became very uneven.

The project was named Riverside. The first section would be 2,000 housing units. After it was completed, another section called Riverside Addition would be built. That addition would be 2,500 units.

The first houses were one, two, and three-bedroom duplex units. They would contain an addition to the bedrooms, a living room, small kitchen, and a full bathroom. The floors were finished and polished pine. The houses were covered in either slate or asbestos siding. Interior walls were finished sheetrock. No insulation was used.

Riverside Addition was not built as well. The floor plans were the same, but the exterior walls were only two layers of sheetrock covered with a rubberized paint. Some of the units had finished interior walls, some did not. There was little or no privacy.

Many of the people that would live in Riverside came from rural areas. Some had not had running water or interior plumbing. Some were used to throwing kitchen scraps in the yard and letting the animals eat them. Sanitation became a problem and people had to be educated to carry their garbage to a central point for pickup.

Riverside grew to be a city within a city.

There were three schools, named for the first three young men from Orange to die in the war. There was a large grocery store, several beauty and barber shops, a pharmacy, and a community center.

The building that survived the longest was the former Tilley Elementary School. The building was where Lamar State College—Orange got its start. It was casually called “Tilley Tech”.

After the war ended and the government wanted to rid itself of Riverside, it was offered to the City of Orange. The City could not accept Riverside because nothing in the complex had been built to any city code.

In 1948, the complex was sold to A. Pollard Simon of Dallas.

By the 1960s, decline had begun. Some of the long-time residents were moving out and those moving in did not care for the property very well.

Simon died in the mid-1970s and the property was sold to H.R. Management of Houston. The new owners began to sell off the remaining buildings and by the mid-1980s the last units had been sold and the land cleared.

Interestingly, some of the units built in the 1940s and only expected to last 10 to 20 years can still be found scattered around the Orange area, very much intact with residents living in them.

“And now you know”