And Now You Know: The Mystery on Pavell Island

Published 9:02 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2019

In Hunt County, near Greenville in the northeast portion of Central Texas, the Cowleech Fork, Caddo Fork, and South Fork converge to form the upper Sabine River. The point where they join is now submerged in Lake Tawakoni reservoir. 

The river flows southeast to about the 32nd parallel where near Carthage it turns south to form the boundary between Texas and Louisiana. 

An impoundment 10 miles west of Leesville, Louisiana forms the 70 mile long Toledo Bend reservoir. The river exits the Toledo Bend Dam and flows through the East Texas red dirt until it transitions into the bayou country, surrounded by wetlands, flows past Orange and merges with the Neches River to form Sabine Lake, then exits into the Gulf of Mexico at Sabine Pass.

The Spanish explorers named the river the “Rio de Sabinas”, from las Sabinas, the Cypress trees that grew along its banks. The river was crossed by settlers going from the settled United States into the frontiers of Texas and later used as a water highway for the transportation by flatboats and steamboats that could go as far north as Logansport, Louisiana.

There was heavy trade on the river. Logs being floated to the sawmills in the latter part of the 19th Century had been preceded by tons of cotton coming into Orange by flatboat and steamboat from upstream. 

At the end of the 550-mile journey of the Sabine was a small island south of Orange. Flatboat men would often tie up on this island waiting for the rough waters of Sabine Lake to calm down enough for them to float to Sabine Pass to load their cargoes of cotton onto ships for transportation to Galveston.

Two German immigrants, Capt. Augustine and Sophie Pavell had come to Orange looking to build a new life. 

“Gus”, as Augustine became known, noticed the boatmen using the island and decided that there may be a way for him to enter business by moving to the island and building a store to sell supplies to the boatmen as they either passed by or tied up there. 

By the end of 1854, Gus had not only built a store he had also built a cotton warehouse and begun to buy cotton from the boats and ship it to Galveston himself. While in Galveston, he would buy supplies he and Sophie needed for their store.

When Gus would sail to Galveston, Sophie would be left alone on the island, which had become known as “Pavell’s Island.” Sophie being left alone would be the source of one of the biggest mysteries of Orange. 

The only neighbors the Pavells had were George and Augusta Block who lived at Black’s Bayou and Solomon and Martha Sparks, who lived about a mile upstream of the island. 

When Gus was gone, nearly everyone that Sophie met would be a stranger.

By 1860, the businesses had begun to prosper and the value had grown to over $10,000.  

Sophie was ably handling the store and warehouse duties and Gus was making several trips to and from Galveston each year. 

One day as Gus returned from Orange with a load of cowhides, Sophie informed Gus that she was going to have a baby. Gus was happy and suggested that they sell the island business and move to Galveston, but Sophie would not agree. She was happy on the island and wanted to remain there. She told Gus she would be fine, to continue as he had been and she would continue to operate the island store.

Later that year, as Gus returned from a voyage to Galveston, Sophie met Gus on the dock and told him that the baby had been stillborn. She took him to a high point on the island and showed him where she had buried the baby. There was a small grave, decorated with flowers. There was also a brass urn, used as a flower vase. Gus sent to Galveston for a small tombstone to further mark the grave.

In 1861, the Civil War caused river trade to virtually cease due to the Union blockade at Sabine Pass. 

Gus was over 40 years of age and did not enlist, but with his knowledge of the waterways, became an expert and successful blockade runner. Sometimes he would sail to Galveston and return by train, from Houston.

Sophie was alone for long periods of time on the island and often passersby would see her tending the baby’s grave.

After the war, the Pavells decided to leave the island. Gus had made a lot of gold coins from his blockade running and they had a small fortune from their years of business on the island. They decided to relocate to Galveston. They could operate a mercantile business and have a social life with church and theater attendance.

Their timing could not have been better. On September 13, 1865, a hurricane blew in and destroyed Orange and the business on Pavell’s Island.

Sometime after the storm, Solomon Sparks went to the island with the idea of buying the island and moving his shingle mill there. As he explored the island, he found the excavated grave with the small tombstone. He spotted the item that he had always thought was a flower vase but was, in fact, a two-foot section of two-inch bronze pipe that appeared to have sawn from a bedpost. He could see the tarnished markings from the years it had stood buried upright on the grave. In the bottom of the grave, he could see the markings where a casket had been. He also found a $20 gold piece.

When he returned home, Sparks wondered about his findings. If Sophie had really exhumed the skeleton of her baby, why would she have left the small tombstone instead of taking it to their new home in Galveston? Why would she not have wanted it for the new grave in their new home in Galveston?

Sparks wondered if she had really had and lost a baby, or if it had just been a ruse to cover an elaborate “bank” that no one would ever think to look for. It appeared that as Sophie was appearing to care for the grave she was actually making deposits in an underground bank. Was Gus aware of her ruse? 

No one would ever know. It is just one of the mysteries of the Sabine River.

“And now you know.”