And Now You Know: The Harry Lee was once an Excursion Boat

Published 8:14 am Sunday, July 29, 2018

By Mike Louviere

Shortly after the steel bridge was built across the Sabine River at the foot of Green Avenue, plans were made to develop the land alongside the new highway in Louisiana. Eventually, this area would be known as “East Orange” and would be a strip of nightclubs and gambling establishments.

The most famous of the places to gamble was the Showboat. Over its life, the Showboat would be the most notorious of the places. It was well known that the owners did not like to see anyone win their money. There was a report that when the water level was low and clear that from the walkway to the boat from the shore, one could see many billfolds and wallets lying on the bottom. The owners had been robbed of their money and the billfolds and wallets tossed into the water. Largely forgotten is the former life of the Showboat.

The sternwheel paddleboat had been designed to cruise inland waterways. She had been named the Harry Lee and had a sister ship, the Robert E. Lee. By 1930, the Harry Lee had come to Orange and was serving as an excursion boat on the Sabine River.

An advertisement in the Orange Leader in July 1930 announced: “The showboat will be here Saturday. Several parties are planning to be on the showboat Harry Lee when it leaves here on its Saturday night cruise from here. The boat will leave here at 8:30 O’clock. The showboat has not been to Orange in over a week, as the latest excursion was cancelled so that repairs could be made to the boat.”

Joseph Peck the general manager of the Harry Lee was an old-time showman who had been associated with New York stage productions for many years and for years had been on the musical comedy road shows on their southern and western tours.

Peck was said to be personally acquainted with most of the stage stars of the preceding 35 years and counted Fred Stone, Will Rogers, and Al Jolson as personal friends.

“Talking pictures are certainly here to stay, however lots of us miss the speaking stage and I firmly believe that we are due for a revival of the drama and musical comedy within the next few years. The ‘Show Business’ has been one of the most progressive of all lines of business”, said Peck.

According to Peck, the showboats are finding favor more than ever. Many of the old-time showboats were operating full steam on the Mississippi River and East Coast.

“If the people of the Sabine ports like the excursion trips of the Harry Lee and the patronage continues in the future as well as the last few weeks of operation there is the possibility of some real old time show boat entertainment being added,” said Peck.

Peck liked the Sabine area and was perfectly at home on the steamboat. His cabin was on the lower deck and was not more elaborate than any of the ship’s officers’ cabins.

“I’m just one of the men and we are all trying to please out passengers,” said Peck.

A special offer was made by the Orange Leader for the first five children to bring a copy of the Orange Leader to the office of the paper after 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, these five would receive one ticket each for a cruise on the showboat.

The Saturday Kiddie Cruise would take place at 2 O’clock, the regular cruise was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. A special half fare rate would apply to women and children for the afternoon trip. Each of the children would be given a box of candy.

Night trips on the Harry Lee were four-hour cruises for the fare of $1. There was free dancing with music and songs by Harry Lee’s Sailor-Boy Serenaders. Patrons were encouraged to “form a party.” Games of Bridge were available, you could dance or lounge on he cool decks. “Showboating is different; it is a sport for young and old—Join the crowds, come aboard at 8:30 Saturday night.”

Sometime later, in the late 1930s, the steamboat was docked and turned into a site for gambling and drinking. The boat thrived during the war years when there was the influx of people into Orange. People working in the shipyards made more money than ever before in their lives. They also lost more money than ever before.

After the highway was rerouted north to become Interstate 10 and the road in front of the Showboat closed. The boat was towed away from Orange. The report was that she “became a restaurant in Mississippi”

“And now you know”