What Made Orange Great: Robert E. Russell remembers early Orange history

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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By Mike Louviere

Robert E. Russell had a wealth of Orange history and never put his memories on paper. In 1911, he decided to do so.

“My friends have often encouraged me to write a history of Orange. They feel I ought to know and remember everything about Orange. Some are curious as to whether I have written notes. By no means, I keep it all in my head.”

Russell seemed to have a detailed history of the early years of Orange, back to the early settlement of the area. He wrote that “the first settlers to the bluff were the Harmons, Reynolds, Goodens, Taylors, and as early as 1820 or 21 the Gardners lived out at what now (1911) is called Black’s Ferry or Cow Bayou, Mr. and Mrs. Gardner died and were buried out there in 1822 or 23. The first settlement on the river (present day Orange) was at least 41 years ago (1841)”.

He wrote that persons older than him had told him that the area had been a shingle and lumber market for some length of time.

He wrote that the County of Orange had been organized in April 1852 and had been part of Jefferson and Jasper Counties at times. The town was first called Green’s Bluff, changed to Madison and finally to Orange. At one time Orange had been called Pine Bluff and a town was laid out near Orange called Huntley in honor of General Memucan Hunt, who headed up the Boundary Line Commission that surveyed the boundary line between the United States and the Republic of Texas in 1840. Around this time a dispute arose between Texas and Louisiana as to whether the old river or the Narrows was the boundary between Louisiana and Texas and whether the island formed between the old river and the Narrows belongs to Texas or Louisiana.

Russell gave a complete list of the members of the commission that surveyed the boundary line. The group proceeded up the Sabine River and ran the survey line through the old river, not the Narrows, giving the island to Louisiana. Of the survey of the international boundary line done in 1840, only one of the international boundary line markers remains, located near Logansport, Louisiana. It has the distinction of being the only international boundary marker located within the United States.

Russell wrote that he arrived in Orange on the 20th day of January 1854. He stated that he had lived in Orange for 58 years, and that he had traveled to some extent and had never seen any place he preferred over Orange.

“To me it is the dearest spot on earth. I have lived here since childhood and have seen it grow from a small hamlet to a beautiful, thriving and modern city of five or six thousand inhabitants.”

He wrote that the country had changed a lot, the country was all settled, and railroads and sawmills could be found every few miles and timber was ‘all cut.’

“Where once I could travel all day under the shade of the pines, now you only see a tree now and then and they are not marketable. At one time I could have bought millions of acres for twenty five, fifty, or seventy five cents per acre. At that time no one wanted to buy land that was over one-half to three-quarters mile from the river. Very few people could see the advent of the sawmills and railroads. Those that did now have land worth over $75 to $100 per acre.”

In 1854, when Russell came to Orange, no one lived more than three blocks from the river. Everyone carried water from the river. There were very few wells and not more than two or three cisterns, Wooden cisterns were unknown in those days. Cisterns are a tank for storing water, especially one supplying taps or as part of a flushing toilet.

The principal industry in those days was making wooden shingles by hand from cypress logs. There were two or three small sawmills on the river that cut five or six thousand feet of lumber per day. The mills used old upright rip saws before circular saws came into use.

The early mills in Orange that Russell listed were the Bob Jackson Mill, Russell Shingle Mill, Smith and Merriman Mill, and the Buckley Mill.

Shingles and lumber were carried by sailing vessels to Galveston, Port Lavaca, Indianola, Powder Horn, Corpus Christi, Rockport, Port Isabel, Matamoros, and other ports on the western Gulf Coast.

At the time the Southern Pacific Railroad was completed to Orange, there were 12 to 15 sailing ships that carried lumber and shingles out of Orange and brought in merchandise.

Cotton came through Orange from upriver on steamboats.  Four or five ran the river from fall to late spring, depending on the level of the river until about 1854 when they were replaced by the railroad.

Some of the boats went as far up the river as Belgrade. Some boats may bring as many as 1,000 bales per load. Their destination was Sabine Pass where they would be reloaded onto steamships and carried to Galveston or New Orleans.

The first steamboat to make the trip up the Sabine River was the Velocipede, which made two trips in1838. In 1839, the Ceres went as far up as Sabinetown where she sank. The third steamboat was the Wisconsin in 1839. On her third voyage to Sabinetown she hit a snag and sank about one half mile above Belgrade. In 1840 the fourth boat, the Rufus Putnam, made one run and sank forty miles below Belgrade, The Albert Gallatin was the fifth boat to travel up the Sabine and made a voyage to Pendleton.

The Russell family lived in a large two story house on the corner of First and Front streets. The house was built in 1856. Robert lived there until he married in 1872.

At one time, the dining room in the house was the largest in Orange. It was often used for the traveling shows that came to Orange. It was also used as dancing schools and once or twice a week, dances were held there.

Before the railroad came to Orange people came to Orange or left Orange by horseback or the river.  Ten miles below Orange on the river was the Shell Bank. It was a busy trading place with two or three stores. People from Orange would go there by boat to shop in the stores.

At Shell Bank there were several small shingle yards. The largest trading post was owned by Augustus “Gus” Pavell. Pavell’s property became known as Pavell Island.

During the Civil War, thousands of soldiers passed through Orange on steamboats bound for Niblett’s Bluff. From there they then went east to join the main army. During the four years of the war there was very little activity in Orange. Many men went away to join the army and morale was low. The women and children were left to make a living as best they could.

After the war ended, on September 13, 1865, a storm nearly wiped Orange off the face of the earth. As the sun rose in the morning the wind began to blow, by noon it had formed into a gale, and by two or three o’clock in the afternoon small houses had begun to blow away.

The storm stripped leaves off of all the trees and grass and weeds were blown up out of the ground. Many trees were uprooted and trees two or three feet in diameter had snapped off two or three feet above ground level.

About twenty skiffs, sailboats, and steamboats were sunk in the river near the Ochiltree house, leaving the sailing vessel Waterwitch the only survivor. The steamboat Florilda struck the bank in front of the Ochiltree house and sank. The upper parts were blown away and ended up in the cove. The water in the river was stirred up from the bottom and turned black and stank. Many fish were killed and added to the mess.

There were only three residences left standing, the Ochiltree home, the D. Call house standing on the corner of Third and Main Streets, and a house that stood on property owned by the T. & N.O. Railroad.

Bolts of dry goods from the H. Thompson store were found hanging in the tops of trees near the upper bridge on the Beaumont Road, two and one half miles out of town.

According to Russell, even though Orange was nearly destroyed by the massive hurricane, the people went to work treating the injured, burying the dead and rebuilding the town.

After the storm and the period of rebuilding, Orange became a very prosperous sawmill town with at one time seven sawmills and 17 shingle mills in operation.

Robert E. Russell was the son of Robert R. Russell who came to Orange after years of living in East Texas. The elder Russell had fought with Sam Houston at San Jacinto. Both men are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.