THE SABINE RIVER
Ignored, but essential
Its reputation is foul and dirty, but some people who know it well believe the river that snakes through East Texas is a natural treasure and vital to life
By WES FERGUSON, Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
THE SABINE RIVER slinks ignored and unloved through the swamps and bottomlands of East Texas.
It is home to alligators that lurk in backwater sloughs, clouds of mosquitoes and snakes — lots of snakes — that writhe across the water. They sun in the low, hanging branches of hardwood trees, and can drop into the boats of unsuspecting fishermen.
In old days, the river bottom was a no man's land where bandits hid from the law. Its reputation lingers today as a dump for dead bodies. Every few years or so, deputies pull a corpse from some out-of-the-way place where civilization meets the Sabine.
"There are people in Longview that go over it every day and don't even look at it," said Tom Gallenbach, a game warden who lives on the river.
From the highway bridge at Texas 31 or Interstate 20, there's not much to see — tangles of brush and a few downed trees; a ribbon of brown water that disappears around a bend.
Photographer Jacob Croft Botter and I set out to look around the bend. We figured we'd camp on sandbars and fish for our dinner, just roughing it, and we'd go as far as we could in four days. We had camping gear, food, fishing poles, bug spray and a flat-bottom boat on loan from Shipp's Marine in Gladewater. We also had a shotgun, just in case.
We left on the last Tuesday in June.
How bad could it be?
Floods on the Sabine wash the banks out from under trees. The trees cave into the water, where they snarl debris in a current that can run from lethargic to raging in a matter of hours. Where the river is narrow, the logjams make navigation tricky, and often impossible.
"It can get dangerous. If the river's high and you don't know what you're doing, you can get in a pickle real quick," said Shaun Crook, a state wildlife biologist. "I've almost flipped several boats when you get out in that fast current."
Crook is a tall man with a grizzly beard. He wears a denim shirt, tucked into denim jeans, tucked into knee-high rubber boots.
It gets muddy where he works.
Crook is the biologist for two of the state's 51 wildlife management areas, Tawakoni and the Old Sabine Bottom, a 5,700-acre reserve northeast of his hometown of Lindale.
Crook has explored the river along the Old Sabine, and he didn't think we stood much of a chance boating through it. Spring floods had receded, and the water was full of downed trees.
"You're probably gonna come into contact with logjams you can't get around when it's that low," he said. "Sometimes you can go through them if they're real loose, but it's gonna be tough getting up and down that river right now. You probably won't be able to run the whole length of the WMA."
Crook had been spending much of his time doing paperwork, or counting birds and analyzing trees in the forest. He was itching to get back on the river. He didn't think we could handle it by ourselves, but he didn't mind taking us for a ride in his boat, courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Draining nature's kidneys
It was a cloudy summer Tuesday on the Sabine. The motor hummed as Crook sped around the many logjams that cluttered our path. Occasionally, low tree branches smacked us in the face.
"Watch out," Crook shouted. "Sometimes you're just gonna have to duck down and take it."
We had put into the river at a public boat ramp of mud and dirt at the end of a truck trail on the Old Sabine Bottom, about 10 miles northeast of Lindale. We cruised toward our destination south of Hawkins, a journey that could take 30 minutes or four hours, depending on water levels that had been falling about a foot a day.
The river was about 6 feet deep, but it can drop to less than a couple of feet by late summer, Crook said. During flood times, the water can climb to above 30 feet.
When the river rises high enough, usually in the winter or spring, it surges over the banks. The floodwaters spill into the surrounding bottomlands, creating wetlands and triggering an important cycle in the health of the river, Crook said.
"The wetlands act like kidneys to filter out pollution, heavy metals and effluence" – think sewage – "that come from up above us," he said.
The wetlands trap and break down the harmful bits that have churned in the current. They also filter the silt that makes the water cloudy.
Floodwater trapped in the wetlands soaks into the ground. Eventually, it seeps back into streams, lakes and rivers — and eventually our drinking water — cleaned of much of the harmful sediment.
That's how it has worked for thousands of years, but it's happening less, Crook said. He said Texas has lost three-fourths of its bottomland hardwoods in the past two centuries. And for the past four decades, water flow and floods along the upper Sabine have depended on water levels in Lake Tawakoni, a reservoir built at the head of the river.
"Before Tawakoni, we had larger and longer floods," Crook said.
Until heavy rains in 2007, he said, the Old Sabine Bottom hadn't flooded in about five years. After the drought, many ducks and other wetland creatures are only starting to return.
"There's always a threat to bottomland hardwood habitat, but the biggest threat right now is reservoirs, because everybody needs water," he said.
So how does one strike a balance between conservation and our growing thirst for water?
Crook laughed and shook his head.
"I don't know," he said. "It's a very, very sticky situation."
Scaring turtles, skirting logjams
Crook nosed the boat through loose debris. He eased off the gas.
A fallen log straddled the water like a small bridge, just a few feet above the surface. We crawled into the bottom of the boat and coasted underneath it, clearing the log by inches.
"All right, we're good," Crook said. "Till the next logjam."
Snowy egrets and little blue herons glided alongside our boat before veering over the trees. Turtles plopped into the water, and palmetto plants waved like spiky green fans on the tall banks. It was hard to fathom that less than 25 years earlier, this place had almost been submerged in the bottom of a reservoir known as Waters Bluff.
It would have been an excellent reservoir, said Jack Tatum, water resources manager for the Sabine River Authority, the state agency that oversees the river and its watershed area. The reservoir would have supplied the water needs of the region for years to come, he said.
"In Texas, our rivers are ephemeral in nature. There is a lot of flow at times and no flow at other times. Unless you have a storage project, how do you plan for future water needs?" he said. "Even with conservation, if you're gonna double the population of the state, you're gonna have to meet those needs."
Conservation groups fought the construction of Waters Bluff. In 1986, an 84-year-old hunting club on the north bank of the Sabine — the Little Sandy Hunting and Fishing Club — turned over its 3,800 acres to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The river authority sued, but a judge's order effectively killed plans for the reservoir.
The boat goes airborne
Two decades later, Little Sandy club members still hunt and fish with exclusive rights to the federal refuge. Many of them camp in covered barges that float on the river.
More importantly, the refuge is home to what many people consider the last substantial forest of old growth bottomland hardwoods in Texas.
"There are some trees over there that us three holding out hand to hand couldn't reach around them," Crook said.
Across the river from Little Sandy at the Old Sabine Bottom, state wildlife managers are allowing younger trees to grow. The forest will reach old growth status in about half a century, Crook said.
The biologist rounded a bend in the river. He came to another obstacle — a downed log that peeked two or three inches from the water's surface.
"OK, hang on," Crook said. "I'm gonna jump it."
He mashed the accelerator and hit the log dead-on, seesawing his boat across it. He popped the propeller out of the water right before it crushed against the wood, and we fell with a thud back into the river.
Soon we reached our destination — the FM 14 bridge south of Hawkins.
We had completed our first day on the river. Tomorrow, though, would be different. We'd be steering our own boat, without Crook to guide us. Tatum said we could expect more logjams and little concrete dams, called weirs, that might snag our boat as we floated toward Longview.
"Once you leave that bridge and you're heading downstream, you've got to be prepared," he said. "It's a slow-moving river, but it's misleading. You have to be careful because you can get into all kinds of things out there."
* * *
Today: Getting started
Friday: The first test
Saturday: Unwelcome guests
Sunday: Redneck heaven
* * *
John "Wes" Ferguson is a 1998 graduate of Sabine High School. He attended Kilgore College and graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. Wes worked as an intern for the News-Journal off and on from 1999 to 2003. He was a full-time writer from 2004 to 2005 before leaving to travel and write. Wes lives part time in Colorado, where he teaches skiing. From time to time, he returns to East Texas, where he's always welcomed at the News-Journal.
Jacob Croft Botter
The Sabine River trip marked Jacob Croft Botter's last full-time assignment with the News-Journal. The Hallsville native has returned to Louisiana, where he earned a master of fine arts degree from the Louisiana State University. Jacob has been a photo instructor in the past and continues to pursue fine arts photography. His work has been published and displayed in various books and exhibits, including the Longview Museum of Fine Art's "Coming Home" show, which opens Saturday.
* * *
History and facts about the Sabine River
- The Sabine River flows for 555 miles, from Hunt County in northeast Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The headwaters of the Sabine are about two miles west of Celeste at a fork called Cowleach Fork. The fork is named for an early Indian chief who lived in the area.
- The name Sabine comes from the Spanish word for cypress. The original name was Rio de Sabinas, or "River of Cypress." That's because of the tremendous growth of cypress trees along the lower Sabine River.
- Alger "Texas" Alexander, the early Texas blues musician, wrote a song called the "Sabine River Blues." The lyrics go like this: "Sabine River, mama, so deep and wide, oh Lordy. Sabine River, mama, so deep and wide, I can see my baby on the other side."
- Writer Jack Kerouac also mentions the Sabine River (he called it an "evil old river") in his 1957 novel, "On the Road."
- There have been inhabitants along the Sabine River for thousands of years. It's been thought the Caddos lived beside the Sabine as early as 780 A.D. Early Caddo mounds have been found along the river.
- The early Spanish considered the area west of the Sabine River to be Spanish territory. French traders also used the Sabine, and Spain and France each claimed the area.
- After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States and Spain create in 1806 what was called the Neutral Ground. That area was from the Arroyo Hondo in Louisiana west to the Sabine River, which covered a large portion of East Texas. For more than a dozen years, there was no law there, which attracted hundreds of bandits and ruffians who knew they wouldn't have to answer for their actions.
- Van Craddock, East Texas historian
By Herman Adams Jr.
Jul 21, 2008 4:06 PM Link to this
The swinging bridge, as i remember it from the 1960's, was a 30" pipeline that crossed the river. It had two 2"x12" boards running it's length and a large rope tied from the center of the span. We used to swing from one side of the river to the other, and those who did not make it, well, they got wet. One of these crossings was just west of HWY 42 off river road, and another one was back in the bottoms east of Gladewater, in the area of the old Sinclare oil camp on the Fishburn lease. This area is now off limits due to the actions of others shooting or stealing oilfield equipment. As for the structures at Gladewater, someone at the Oil Museum in Kilgore, with detailed knowledge of the East Texas oil boom could help. Do any of you remember Merrill's lake and the oil derrick out in the middle of the lake? A lot of people used to make that 40' dive from the platform into the lake. Some of them dove off the derrick itself, but NEVER from the top, people climbed it just for the view! We were just young in those days, and nobody seemed to mind as long as nobody got hurt...
By Herman Adams Jr.
Jul 21, 2008 3:33 PM Link to this
My grandparents lived in the area west of HWY 42 between Longview and Gladewater in the oil field along the river. That area has provided some of the best outdoor life anyone could ever find in Texas. Back in the late 1950's thru the mid 1970's that area was like a state park, fishing, camping, hunting and just exploring the old oil field was just some of the things one could do there. It seemes one went back in time anytime you went in there, other than the old gas-fired boilers that ran the pump jacks, there was only the wildlife sounds. And then there was the old lease roads all over the bottoms, one could get lost back there real easy and some did. The area along the river has a lot of history and should be a public wildlife area, but over the years, people have done the kind of things that made private owners and companies that lease the area lock it from public access. Lost is an area along the Sabine that would make the best state park in Texas, it would only need the state to rebuild one of the old oil boom camps as an attraction, complete with some of the equipment used in the late 1930's (some of that is still in the area) and let the river bottoms do the rest. That area would be the most popular area in east texas in years, and may draw some of the people going to the casinos to come here too. Ask around to people who grew up here, about the swinging bridge over the river, some of the good times they had back in the bottoms, and about some of the stories that came out of there and you will have an idea of just what that area was and still could be if someone had the connections and the money. Now it's just closed to the public because of a few bad people...
By Bobby Marks, Jr.
Jul 21, 2008 2:13 PM Link to this
In reading John Graves seminal ýGoodbye to a Riverý, the author spoke of his three weeks of camping, fishing, and ruminating about a river he loved. Learning of a proposed dam site prompted the authorýs three weeks on the river that ýprogressý would alter forever.
I grew up on the south edge of Longview in the 60ýs, and the Sabine River bottom is forever etched in my fabric. We hunted and fished Talley Bottom, about a 10-minute drive from our house. Talley Bottom is the river bottom on the Harrison County side of the river from Estes Junction to south of Hallsville. From the time I was small, my father took my brothers and I down there to learn and experience the incredible duck hunting and fishing found in the Sabine River bottom. Spring flooding would trap bass, crappie and catfish in creeks and sloughs and we wore them out. The amazing thing about it was we practically had this area to ourselves.
Needless to say, the series on the Sabine River is quite enjoyable, and it is my hope there more generations will have the opportunity to explore and experience this great slice of Godýs creation. Thanks for the series.
Bobby Marks, Jr.- Sugar Land, Tx.
By Susan Vetrano
Jul 20, 2008 11:26 PM Link to this
Vickie told me that you had this story coming out and I've read it with great interest. I loved it and the pictures made it that much better. Maybe you and Jacob should consider a letting the folks in East Texas know about the Mighty Mississippi?
Take care. Great story! I
By Cliff Woods
Jul 20, 2008 10:50 PM Link to this
Enjoyed all you shared about your trip on the Sabine. There is nothing quite like catfishing on a Texas river like the Sabine. Also, sounds like there are plenty of folks who still enjoy the Sabine. It's good to know a place like Yellow Dog Campground exists for people to safely enjoy the river and its surroundings.
You took me back to times my family has enjoyed fishing and camping on the Sabine, the red clay, the cypress, the sandbars, and the log jams. AND, you really made me hungry for some fried river catfish!!! They are the best.
Thanks again for sharing the trip.
Jul 19, 2008 1:42 AM Link to this
When I hear of the Sabine river, I think of all the copper that was stolen along it by people in a flat bottom boat a few months ago from an oilfield service company. Never read anything about it in the paper. But it cost a local company tens of thousands of dollars. They went down the river on a boat and stole copper all along a pipeline.
This should of been reported as a theft and not a criminal mischief.
Jul 18, 2008 12:09 PM Link to this
I have fond memories catfishing with my father down on the Sabine when I was a boy. We used to stay out there all night and fish. We used to catch some pretty nice size fish. I agree with Kay's comments about access to the river in light of other towns in the area having waterways for the public. It sure would be a positive way to spend the taxpayers monies. Just take a look at Jefferson and how they have access to their waterways.
Jul 18, 2008 11:02 AM Link to this
Hey, I just wanted to let y'all know that this is a great piece so far with beautiful pictures. Jacob and Wes, we are glad that y'all spend your last day at camp with us and hope you had a good time. You are both welcome at Yellowdog anytime day or night! Keep up the good work. :o)
From the rednecks at Yellowdog!
By Wes Ferguson
Jul 18, 2008 10:09 AM Link to this
We weren't sure what to make of those big concrete things on the river near Gladewater. There was one across the water at the other bank, too. Does anybody know someone who might have an idea? Also, we'd heard about the swinging bridge from Mr. Woodall, but it's long gone. Thanks for reading!
Jul 18, 2008 9:25 AM Link to this
Back in the 50's there was a swinging bridge over the Sabine...don't know if this structure was part of the bridge or not, but we would dive off and in to the water ... we were idiots back then
'Born and raised'
What's to be found on the river? Fish, snakes, abandoned structures and oil rigs, and sometimes people. And often, you'll find a good story.
By WES FERGUSON, Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
TOWERING CONCRETE pillars have crumbled into ruins littering the river. The encroaching forest has wrapped its vines around what is left standing, swallowing the ancient and abandoned structures.
Our little flatbottom boat motored past abandoned pillars that rose from either bank of the Sabine River like monuments to a vanished people. The boat skirted wooden platforms that rotted on the river's edge. Rusting pipes swayed in the current.
It was the second morning of a four-day trip down the Sabine River. The water was wide and calm and brown as we boated downstream from U.S. 271 just south of Gladewater headed toward Longview. Concrete blocks squatted like little pyramids on the banks, while others lay like broken tombstones.
A snake slithered in the water. Though the wide majority of snakes on the Sabine River are harmless, one must watch for the venomous ones that are known to bite, advised Ricky Maxey, a state wildlife biologist in Marshall.
"I wouldn't be overly concerned. They're just trying to make a living, looking for things to eat, and most of the time they're looking to get away from humans," he said.
The morning passed with an easy calm. At lunch time, we tied our boat to a wide tree limb that shaded the water. Tall oaks and elms crowded the other bank.
"It's so beautiful down here," said photographer Jake Botter. "It's so much prettier than I think about it."
East Texas also is hillier than many people realize. Pressing on, we passed bluffs that tower 30 or 40 feet above the river. On one, cows rested under pine trees, watching us as they chewed.
Approaching Texas 42, a few miles south of White Oak, houses began to appear on the southwestern bank. A black dog swam in the water. Maybe his owner was nearby.
The Indians left their fish traps
Sure enough, the dog belonged to Don McClendon, a man who wore a handlebar mustache, Red Wing boots and a pair of short pants. He was spending his afternoon on an old John Deere tractor, leveling dirt at his future home site about 40 feet above the river.
McClendon said he grew up nearby, exploring ancient Indian hunting and fishing grounds.
"I've found a zillion arrowheads down here," he said. "Down about 20 feet from where your boat's parked, there's an old Indian fish trap."
Up and down the river, he said, you can see Indian fish traps late in summer when the water's low.
Indians built U-shaped walls of river stone that looked like jetties, he said. The walls blocked the fish's passage through the channel, leaving them easy prey for an Indian's spear.
The fish traps might have belonged to the Caddo Indians, he said, who had been living in the Sabine River basin for around 800 years when the Spanish reached the area in the 16th century.
Long before the Caddos, the basin was home to the 12,000-year-old Clovis culture, whose chiseled spear points McClendon and others still find on banks and riverbeds.
McClendon looked across the river, admiring the view. He said it's a peaceful place to sit and drink coffee in the morning.
"You'll talk to people who just think the Sabine River is an old, nasty, muddy river, but we swam in it all our lives, skied in it," he said. "It's just like a lake, but it changes every year. When it floods and goes back down there's always something different."
McClendon said no one is more of a Sabine River expert than his down-river neighbor, Elton P. Woodall. We found him on a high bank above the river at the sprawling shack he's been building since he moved in 10 years ago.
"I've lived on the river a pretty good while," Woodall said. "I was born and raised here, and I've been as far as you can go both ways."
Clean water and fine-tasting fish
Woodall is a trapper. Before he got sick a few months ago, he snared beavers, raccoons, bobcats and river otters along the Sabine River.
After he caught a critter he skinned and stretched it in a shop he built on an island in a wide pond that sits in his front yard, a stone's throw from the river.
A wooden bridge gets him from his yard to the island every day. The island gives him privacy when he works, he said.
Woodall sells the pelts to a distributor in Canada. He also catches and sells catfish to the public.
"Just show up and ask for them," he said.
"I've got them in the freezer. Don't know how many I have left, since I've been sick two or three months."
Woodall figures the nature of his illness is nobody's business but his own. It is serious, though.On the last Wednesday afternoon in June, he rested in a leather recliner under the tin-roof carport next to his house. An industrial-sized box fan blew cool air on his face.
He said his father ran trotlines on the Sabine when he was a child, and he and his friends used to float down the river on inner tubes.
The Sabine has changed dramatically since those days, he said, especially in regard to the oilfield equipment that has been left to decay along the river banks.
"When I was growing up, you couldn't even eat the fish in this river it was so polluted," he said. "(Oilfield companies) just dumped saltwater into the river, and the fish tasted bad. We had to fish above Gladewater to get fish we could eat. But it's been cleaned up, and there's good fishing now. The fish taste fine."
Some East Texans might think their river is dirty, but that's just not the case anymore, said Jack Tatum, water resources manager for the Sabine River Authority.
In the 1970s and '80s, the state government began cleaning the Sabine and other rivers of wastewater contaminants.
Regulators streamlined the standards for water that pours into the river from industries and sewage treatment facilities, and the river authority and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality continue to monitor the Sabine and its tributaries.
Especially downstream from Longview, the Sabine's watershed sometimes has low levels of dissolved oxygen, which can harm fish.
A couple of monitoring sites occasionally show high levels of bacteria after heavy rainfalls, but the river water is generally safe, according to river authority reports.
Tatum said there are no restrictions on fish consumption or bodily contact with the Sabine River water.
"The river's in better shape than it's been in many, many years as far as water quality," Tatum said.
"We've come a long way in protecting our water. Generally speaking, the water quality is excellent throughout the Sabine watershed."
Frog legs are good eating
Woodall said the Sabine River is home to more game now than at any other time in his 60 years. The previous weekend, he said, his grandchildren caught more than 30 frogs.
"They go up and down the river catching bullfrogs with their hands. They're really good eating," he said. "We fry most of them, just like fried chicken."
The afternoon was getting late. It was time to move on, but not before a warning from Woodall:
"Y'all be careful. You can turn a boat over in that river," he said. "I've done it a hundred times."
He said to watch for a concrete barrier, called a weir, just beneath the water between Texas 42 and Texas 31.
"It's bad dangerous," he said. "I sunk my boat there in January and nearly drowned. Make sure you get out and have a look around before you do anything."
First test of nautical skill
Old oil derricks stretch up from platforms on the water around Texas 42. Some of them are still in use. The river seemed to narrow, and we dodged frequent trees that clogged the channel.
A few miles downstream from Texas 42, we had to stop.
A pair of trees had fallen from opposite bluffs. They formed a wall where they met in the middle of the river, snagging logs and limbs in a massive tangle of woody debris. A thick, gray snake slithered among the branches.
There was no way around.
The smaller of the two trees lay mostly submerged, peeking two or three inches above the water's surface. Only the day before, our river guide had jumped a similar log in his flat-bottom boat.
"Oh, we got this," I said.
Jake wasn't so sure. The logjam diverted the swift current under and around itself. He feared that if the boat struck high center, we would be sucked into the water's path and spun sideways, quickly capsizing.
To make matters worse, a sharp knob jutted from the smaller tree in the only place we thought we could cross. What if we gashed the bottom of our borrowed boat?
We docked to have a look around.
Clinging to exposed pine tree roots, we scrambled up a steep bank of red clay. If we unloaded our gear and somehow hoisted the 16-foot-long boat over the bank, we thought we could walk it about a hundred yards along a game trail and put in just downstream of the logjam. It was an hours-long prospect.
On cue, storm clouds rolled in dark and ominous.
We had to go for it. We gunned the boat toward the lower log to hit it full-speed and jump it, hoping we wouldn't crush the propeller. We were about to hit the log. At the last second, we veered away. We raced for it a second time: We got closer. We were almost upon it. We turned off.
"I just can't do it," Jake said. "I've never gone over anything like that."
Defeated, we called my brother to pick us up. As we backtracked to the highway crossing, the first of the raindrops stung our faces and rippled on the river.
Call us dismal failures
Back at Texas 42, Ronnie King Jr. was loading his tank of a boat at a private ramp just west of the highway.
King, from White Oak, had spent the afternoon riding the river. He said our logjam was pretty easy to cross when heading downstream.
It was only a little trickier on the way back up, he added. That didn't make us feel any better.
"When you're about to jump a log, run it like it's stolen," driving as fast as possible, he advised.
King gave us his phone number.
"We run the river pretty hard," he said of himself and a few buddies. "If, God forbid, you lock a motor up, you give us a call and we'll get you drug out of there."
It was only our second day on the river — our first by ourselves — and already the trip was in peril.What if we had gotten over that logjam only to face another, meaner one just a few miles downstream?
"I hope this isn't a sign of what's to come," my brother said.
* * *
Thursday: Getting started
Today: The first test
Saturday: Unwelcome guests
Sunday: Redneck heaven
* * *
The Sabine's path to the Gulf of Mexico
- Three forks of the Sabine River merge in Lake Tawakoni, just south of Greenville, to form the Sabine River proper.
- Southeast of Lake Tawakoni, the river forms the boundary lines between Rains and Van Zandt, Van Zandt and Wood, Wood and Smith, and Smith and Upshur counties.
- The river continues into Gregg County, flowing just south of Gladewater, Clarksville City, White Oak and Longview and on to Lakeport and Easton.
- Originally, the Sabine River was the southern boundary of Gregg County when it was created in 1873. In April 1874, another 141 square miles south of the Sabine River in Rusk County were added to Gregg County.
- From Gregg County, the Sabine River forms part of the Rusk-Harrison county boundary, then turns south into Panola County where the river continues east of Carthage.
- The river empties into Toledo Bend Reservoir in extreme southeast Panola County. From there, it forms the border between Texas and Louisiana.
- At the end of its 555-mile journey, the Sabine discharges more water into the Gulf of Mexico than any other Texas river.
Van Craddock and Wes Ferguson
Lost towns: Ghost communities sit along Sabine River
Once thriving towns in the 1800s that fed on the Sabine became extinct as the Civil War began
By WES FERGUSON, Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008
LIGHTNING FLASHED in the western sky. A thunderstorm rolled toward the river. And here were two guys climbing into a metal boat on an open body of water. Smart.
A rainy night approached on the second day of our journey down the Sabine River. We sat underneath a bridge in Lakeport, feeling like a couple of bums, as we waited for the downpour to subside.
This trip was not going according to plan.
A few hours earlier, photographer Jacob Croft Botter and I had come to a logjam we couldn't get over or around. We backtracked to a highway crossing south of White Oak and hauled our borrowed boat to the next public boat ramp at Texas 149 in Lakeport.
The maneuver bypassed most of the Sabine around Longview and Gregg County, a narrow, winding stretch that several people said was worth seeing.
"When you get to that part of the river, it seems like you're lost in the middle of nowhere," said Ronnie King Jr., a resident of White Oak who often fishes on the Sabine.
"It's quiet, and you don't see civilization. It's just you and your boat and your rod and your reel, enjoying life."
We missed the chance to look for any signs of Fredonia, a riverport that once bustled on the southern banks of the Sabine River, long before anyone ever heard of a younger town miles to the north — Longview.
Fredonia, a town that vanished
In the years between Texas Independence and the Civil War, little towns sprang up at ferry crossings along the Sabine in East Texas. The cotton trade was thriving, and plantation owners loaded their crops onto barges that steamed down the Sabine to New Orleans and Galveston.
Haden Edwards, a pioneer and entrepreneur in Nacogdoches, had been run out of Texas in 1827 for leading a failed revolt against the Mexican government. He returned during the Texas Revolution, and in 1839, he founded the town of Fredonia where Interstate 20 and FM 2087 meet south of Longview.
By the 1850s, the ferry crossing and riverport had three warehouses and 40 to 50 buildings, including a brick kiln and a post office.
During the Civil War, men left the town to fight, and the ones who stayed couldn't find a market for their cotton. The town disappeared. In the years that followed, freed black people established a settlement a couple of miles to the south. They also called their community Fredonia, and it's still there today.
But we missed all that. The rain and a ticking clock kept us from heading upstream on a search for a town that's no longer there.
Careening over alligator gar
The storm passed after an hour and a half. We left the shelter of the Texas 149 bridge, and the river was dark and green in the shadows. We were left with just enough twilight to set up camp on a muddy spot a mile or so downriver, beside a tree with gnarled limbs that stretched down to the water.
We split a can of beef stew, and slept like rocks.
In the morning, the previous night's rain dripped from saturated bluffs and fell in droplets to the river. Red clay bled down the banks. Jake let me steer the boat, and I promptly ran over two alligator gar and drove sideways onto the bank. The back end of the boat dipped below the river's surface, filling our vessel with water that Jake scooped out with a plastic water bottle. He resumed control of the motor.
We looked for signs of the ferry that once moved people to and from the rowdy river port of Camden, where you could drink in saloons and stay at a two-story hotel in the 1850s, as long as you didn't mind sharing your bed with a stranger.
Where's this thriving river port?
Camden grew in the 1800s at the river crossing of the Trammel Trace, a path that was first used by Indians and later became one of the main routes for Americans who were settling in Texas. A stagecoach line connected the town to Shreveport and Henderson.
Jerry Don Watt, an amateur historian from Tatum, calls Camden the former "hub of East Texas" and the "queen city of the upper Sabine."
Like Fredonia, Camden declined during the Civil War. When the Southern Pacific Railroad chose to bypass the town in 1871, the remaining white residents moved to Tatum and the newly formed town of Longview, Watt said.
Many of the black residents stayed. In 1949, they changed the name to Easton, and about 550 people still live there.
"It's hard to imagine today that Camden was such a thriving community," Watt said. "It is my belief that if the railroad had followed the old stagecoach line, then Camden would have been what Longview is now, the largest town in this part of East Texas."
The Sabine's raging rapids
We heard churning water in the distance. Upstream from Texas 43, a couple of hours past Easton, we came to the first of the lignite shoals; seams of craggy black coal that snag boats in the water.
They are the same deposits miners dig from sites around East Texas.
We had been warned about the many shoals that appear throughout northern Panola County. When the water's not high, they create rapids and even a 2-foot waterfall on the wide, shallow river.
"There's a pretty strong hydraulic current behind that thing," state wildlife biologist Ricky Maxey had advised. "Be safe and look for where the most water passes."
The current pulled us toward the churning water as we searched for the safest place to enter. The propeller scraped the lignite, and Jake killed the motor and lifted the prop from the water.
We would have to paddle. The boat plunged into the rapids, and we slipped into a whirlpool, spinning backward. The boat stuck against the sharp lignite. Jake leaped into the knee-high current to right the boat; I used our one paddle to push off against the rocks.
We jerked free. Jake hopped in, and we again were on our way in water that rushed from the rapids.
Spoiled chicken livers might not do much for you or me, but they drive the catfish wild, according to the men and women who were casting lines into a more calm flow at the U.S. 59 bridge south of Marshall, less than an hour's ride from the rapids.
Sandra Hodge lined nine fishing rods along the wide, flat bank. She and her sister, Sissy Bishop, were hoping to lure a catfish on their Thursday afternoon away from work.
"If you've got a lot of stress, come down here and watch that water, and it just washes away your concerns," Hodge said. "But I do wish we'd catch something."
Hodge lives nearby in Carthage. She said she enjoys cool evenings at this spot, listening to the water lap against the banks. Hodge fishes whenever she can, and she's the owner of 19 fishing rods. Each has a name scribbled on it in permanent marker. As we visited, "Bumble Bee" and the others stood with no pulls from the water.
"I'm not warped," she said. "I just like to name my rod and reel."
Hodge said her husband taught her to appreciate the river and its bounty. He built and sold minnow traps for spending money when he was a child. The community of Hodge Slough in north central Panola County is named for her father-in-law, who ran trotlines there.
"My husband will not eat a catfish out of a lake," she said. "He says you can taste the mud. River water is running and clean. The fish are a lighter color blue, and they just look cleaner to me. I love the Sabine River."
She loves the river, she said, but she remains careful around it.
"The water may look calm and safe, but the current and undertow are what get you," she said.
Beaches of startlingly white sand mound up on river bends through Panola County. Cypress swamps line the mouths of the many streams and sloughs that merge with the river along this isolated stretch. We saw a doe, more turtles than we could hope to count, and a pack of wild hogs.
The sun was falling behind willow trees that swayed in the breeze.
We found a sloping sandbar tucked behind a sharp bend, and we pitched the tent. We peeled off our rubber boots, dug our toes into the sand, and set out to put our nameless fishing rods to work. Unfortunately, we'd picked the wrong kind of bait. When we cast the line, the hook sailed in one direction and the bait flew to the other. There would be no fried catfish with our dinner of yellow squash and mashed potatoes.
We sat in camping chairs on our beach in the middle of nowhere, and we had the place to ourselves.
Or so we thought.
A rumbling came from the edge of the forest at the river's bend. A woman was watching us from her ATV. Without word or sign, she backed into the woods and was gone.
Ten minutes later, we heard a boat motor approaching from upriver. A man and a boy nosed around the bend. Like the woman, they took a quick look and reversed out of sight.
Then all three boated by. The man had short, red hair and overalls. He kept his eyes locked on the opposite bank.
This was clearly their sandbar.
But we had a right to it as well, according to Tom Gallenbach, a game warden who patrols the Sabine.
"As long as you're below the permanent vegetation line, you can camp there," he said. "Some people will try to run you off, but most people know you can camp there."
Did these people know that?
River fellowship: Hidden community exists on the Sabine
By WES FERGUSON, Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008
WE WERE BEING WATCHED as the sun set over the river.
It was the end of our third day boating down the Sabine, and we had settled in for the evening on a white sandbar on what we thought was a secluded bend in Panola County. Then we noticed the woman at the forest's edge. She stared at us for a moment, then backed into the woods.
A man and boy in a flat-bottom boat peeked around the bend. They quickly retreated. When all three boated by half an hour later, we knew we had pitched our tent on their sandbar.
It was getting too dark to search for another campsite. Anyway, state law says people can camp along rivers, as long as they don't venture beyond the banks.
"If there's trees, you're trespassing," game warden Tom Gallenbach had said.
There were no trees on this sandbar. Photographer Jacob Croft Botter and I weren't budging.
After dark, two hoot owls called to each other, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" The shadowy thicket surrounded our camp on three sides. Something rustled in the brush.
"Did you hear that?" I said.
The noises seemed to be getting louder.
"It sounds like people talking in the woods," Jake said.
He fetched his shotgun from the tent and laid it across his lap. We sat in our chairs at the water's edge, and waited. Twigs and branches crackled in the forest. There was a loud crash. Whatever it was, it was nearby, and it was getting closer.
Then came the squeals and grunts.
"Oh, hogs," Jake said.
They rooted around for a while before returning to the forest.
We left early the next morning. We didn't see the people again.
Slippery otter slides
East Texans who have only seen the Sabine from bridges around Longview might be surprised by a glimpse of the river as it winds toward the Louisiana border.
Above Longview, the Sabine is muddy and narrow, with banks of slick, red clay. Young oaks, elms and other hardwoods crowd the water below tall bluffs where skinny pine trees stand.
As the river travels southeast, the brown water takes on a greenish hue. Drooping willows line wide, gentle banks and sandbars.
On a few of the steeper banks we thought we saw "otter slides," places where playful river otters slip on their bellies, face-first, into the water. Once killed for being predators, the sleek, web-footed mammals are on the return, said state wildlife biologist Ricky Maxey.
"They're very curious animals," he said. "On my encounter with them, I was deer hunting, leaning against a tree being very quiet, when one popped its head up and looked at me. Then five more popped up their heads, and they took off."
What's in the sausage?
Only a few miles downstream from our campsite, a tall bluff of layered gray rock rose from the bank, wrapping around a long river bend. It stretched on for several minutes before descending into the water.
Later, Slim Barber, an 81-year-old man from De Berry, told us we had seen a seam of lignite coal that is famous among people who run the river. It's the Pulaski bluff, he said, the site of an old town that served as the seat for Harrison County in 1841 and Panola County in 1846.
By midmorning, we were getting hungry. We cruised under FM 2517, the last highway crossing before Toledo Bend, where several men fished from boats in shady spots along the banks.
We planned our next stop to coincide with lunch time, and it paid off: river guide Jane Gallenbach greeted us with slices of homemade pizza, topped with spicy sausage ground from wild hogs — hogs that had been shot on her property.
"We don't buy a lot of meat," she said. "Every once in a while you need real beef, but most of what we eat is wild."
A Sabine queen
Gallenbach, the "queen of the Sabine," grew up hustling bait for her fisherman father. She said the river has gotten wider and shallower in the years since then, after construction of Toledo Bend in the late 1960s.
"It wasn't anything to just wade across the river," in the summertime when she was a child, she said. Now her section of the Sabine can stretch a mile wide during the flood season.
"The river's getting wider, but it's getting shallower," she said. "It's changing every time the river comes up, and I think a lot of that has to do with trees that are being cut up closer to the banks. It's just washing away."
Gallenbach said logging companies own much of the land along the Sabine River in her county, and some of them clear-cut their timber to the riverbank.
When those trees are gone, she said, the force of the rising current eats away the banks, and the sediment fills in the riverbed. When the water drops after a big storm, sometimes sandbars have shifted from one side of the river to the other.
Too high, or too low?
On the Sabine River, expect to get muddy, and expect to get wet.
"That's just the way it is," said Gallenbach's husband, Tom. A game warden who patrols the Sabine, he said the river can rise or fall 6 feet in a day.
"A lot of people say when it's too high, it's too dangerous, when it's low it's too dangerous," he said. "It's never just right."
The changing conditions keep the river guide on her toes, especially when she's leading people to prime fishing spots, she said. The Gallenbachs own the River Ridge campground and guide service south of Carthage.
Every spring, thousands of people from across the United States descend on the spot upriver from Toledo Bend to fish for white bass. The fish, which were introduced to the reservoir a few decades back, swim upstream to spawn in river tributaries.
"I can remember in my late teens my dad just having a fit because the white bass were getting on his trotlines," she said. "We do much more white bass than we do catfishing now."
Catfish is still king
River rat Bill Dennis was running his trotlines on a Friday afternoon when we bumped into him down river from the Gallenbachs' place.
"I'm catching fish," he said. "That's why everybody keeps coming down here, because they want some fish."
Dennis steered the boat while Jeffrey Anderson fished the hooks from the water. Anderson, of Carthage, felt something tugging on the line, and he pulled from the water a catfish about as long as his arm. Dinner.
"We're gonna have a fish fry," Dennis said. "Y'all stick around; we'll feed you."
First wild hog sausage, and now catfish. Who could say no?
Living at Yellow Dog
We motored the 10 or 20 minutes to Dennis' home at the Yellow Dog campground near Louisiana, and we pulled our boat onto the bank.
Dennis had been living in a travel trailer by the public boat ramp for the past couple of months, and jugs of water and camping and cooking supplies were conveniently strewn on and around the picnic table.
"It's like a community down here," he said. "You've got a lot of good people, and a few that are not so good. Everybody keeps an eye on each other's equipment. The majority of people respect my stuff."
Dennis wore patched blue jeans and a T-shirt that might have been white at some earlier time. He's from Laneville, and he used to drive a truck for a living. Now that he's retired, he said, he's a river rat.
"A river rat just sits here and enjoys the river, loves the river," he said. "You hang out, and a bunch of people infiltrate the place. They love to be around people who live down here."
Anderson hung the catfish from a large hook and pulled away the skin, and Dennis filleted the fish and dropped the pieces into a bucket for later. He said he checks his trotlines throughout the day, but he rarely tastes what he catches.
"I eat fish maybe three or four times a year. I just love to fish. I give enough away to sink a battleship," he said.
It was a Friday. He figured he'd be giving away plenty that night.
Some kind of heaven
As the lazy afternoon wore on, more and more people showed up. Children leaped from a tall bank into a cove in the river, and the women splashed mud on each other.
Anderson tended the fish fryer. His girlfriend, Ginger Williams, went off to find an old car hood. She chained it to the back of her four-wheeler and offered sled rides through the mud puddles.
"I grew up here," Williams said. "I was actually born on the Sabine River, because Mama and Daddy had a flat on the (FM) 2517 bridge."
Texas country music blared from Anderson's pickup. By nightfall, nearly 30 children were swimming in the moonlight, as their parents relaxed around Dennis' camp.
"Redneck heaven," they called this place.
From Yellow Dog, the Sabine River flows into Toledo Bend. It fills the massive reservoir and heads south, marking the boundary between Texas and Louisiana. It reaches the Gulf of Mexico after a journey of 555 miles.
Some people, like the trapper Elton Woodall, have gone as far as a person can get, from the headwaters south of Greenville to Sabine Lake in Port Arthur.
But our journey was over. We said goodbye to the people at Yellow Dog, and we drove back to Longview.
We crossed the river at Interstate 20. From the bridge, we couldn't see a thing.
* * *
Thursday: Getting started
Friday: The first test
Saturday: Unwelcome guests
Today: "Redneck heaven"
* * *
About our journey
Day 1, June 24: The Old Sabine Bottom Wildlife Management Area, northeast of Lindale, to FM 14, south of Hawkins.
Day 2, June 25: U.S. 271 in Gladewater to Texas 42, south of White Oak (not a public boat ramp).
Day 3, June 26: Texas 149 in Lakeport to U.S. 79, about 10 miles northeast of Carthage.
Day 4, June 27: U.S. 79 to the Yellow Dog campsite in southeastern Panola County.
About our boat: Shipp's Marine in Gladewater supplied a 16-foot aluminum boat. The two-stroke, 25 hp Yamaha motor ran the river like a champion. We used about five gallons of fuel a day.
When to go: The river is higher and faster in winter and spring, but the water is murkier. In late summer and early fall, the Sabine is much lower and slower. The sediment settles and the water is clearer. A greater variety of topography is exposed, but it can be much harder to navigate.
Camping on the river: The public may legally camp on the banks of navigable rivers in Texas, as long as they stay below the permanent vegetation line. That means you can't venture from banks and sandbars without a good reason.
What about mosquitoes?: We took lots of bug spray, and they weren't much of a nuisance.
Was it trashy?: Nope. Logjams occasionally snagged plastic bottles downstream from highway crossings, but that was about it.
Why is the river brown?: When acorns and leaves decompose, they leach yellow-brown tannin into the water. Biologists say tannin is healthy for fish.
Who uses Sabine River water?: Longview, Henderson and Kilgore are among the cities that pipe water from the river. Eastman Chemical Co.-Texas Operations and Luminant are two local operations that also use river water.
Panola County Courthouse: Design changes accommodate county's growth
By Jamaal E. O'Neal
Monday, July 14, 2008
CARTHAGE — Standing in the middle of the Panola County clerk's office, Clara Jones watched attentively as dozens of people carrying laptops and large county books with deed records whisked by.
"This used to be the old courtroom," said Jones, chief deputy of clerk's office. "When they renovated the courthouse, they moved the judicial courtroom to the judicial annex giving us all this space."
Jones said Panola County has been in the midst of an oil and gas boom since 2007, and scores of people daily scour through county land records in the clerk's office. The clerk's office was crowded even before then, she said.
She said that since the renovations in 2004, the county clerk's office can accommodate more people while keeping its modern look and appeal.
"It's beautiful," she said winding her way through the slim, crowded hallways, pointing out the additional space. "Thank God we have windows to look out of and more space to help people. ... It's just wonderful."
The move is one of many ways Panola County has changed its courthouse over the years to accommodate growth.
"The courthouse has definitely changed over time," said Panola County Historical Museum historian Ruth Hunt.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, Panola County has had six courthouses, including two log cabins.
The county's fifth courthouse was completed in 1885, after Panola County commissioners decided to build a larger brick courthouse in the Carthage town square.
Designed by architect John Joseph Emmett Gibson, Panola County's 1885 courthouse was similar in design to the one he designed for Shelby County and included some of the same features — a bell tower, large windows and smokestack-like chimneys.
As Panola County entered the modern age of architecture, and space became limited, the courthouse moved into a new building in 1953. The 1885 courthouse was demolished in 1956, according to Panola County Historical Commission records.
Susan Gammage, with the Texas Historical Commission and project reviewer for the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation program, said the latest courthouse, while not rich with architecture design, still has character.
"It's a very simple building," Gammage said. "It's a building that's really hard for a lot of people to appreciate."
Gammage said the building is mid-century modern and pays tribute to industrial age architecture.
"Making the building beautiful was not important back then," she said. "Architects opted to keep the building simple by using a box design, with straight lines and simple windows all around the building."
Gammage said several design elements give the courthouse character — the cast-aluminum letters above the door at the entrance of the building, the marble slab wainscot that lines the main floor of the courthouse and the terrazzo flooring, which is a mix of concrete, finely ground marble and colorful stone used to add color. A brass outline of the county also can be found in the floor at the main entrance of the courthouse.
Gammage said people during that time changed their views on architecture.
"There wasn't much of a push to add designs and ornaments to buildings," she said. "Even though it was more clean and simple, there were still some beautiful details to the building that should be appreciated."
Timeline of the Panola County Courthouse
1846: County seat was established in Pulaski, a community nine miles east of Carthage. Panola County commissioners approved the construction of a log cabin to serve as the county courthouse.
August 1848: County seat was moved from Pulaski to Carthage. County commissioners allocated $200 for the construction of a new log cabin county courthouse on the current Carthage town square.
November 1850: A larger, wood frame courthouse was constructed.
November 1853: Contractor James L. Howard completed construction of the county's first brick courthouse for $5,400.
1885: Contractor J.M. Brown and architect J.J.E. Gibson completed construction on Panola County's new courthouse, a two-story brick castle-like building in the Carthage square.
1953: The 1885 courthouse was abandoned for a mid-century modern building two blocks west of the Carthage square. The 1885 courthouse was demolished in 1956, with a park erected in its place.
August 2003: Judicial annex added to the courthouse.
Sources: Texas Historic Commission, Panola County Historical Museum
PANOLA COUNTY HISTORICAL MARKERS
Panola County has more than 100 historical markers. They include:
Tex Ritter Museum/Texas Country Music Hall of Fame
300 W. Panola St., Carthage
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Admission: $3 for children; $5 for adults
The museum dedicated to the life and times of Panola County musician Tex Ritter and numerous other Texas-born country legends opened in 1993. In August 2004, the museum was expanded to add a Jim Reeves display which features the radio equipment Reeves used at his radio station in Henderson.
Jim Reeves Gravesite
Three miles east of Carthage on U.S. 79
Born Aug. 30, 1924 in Galloway, James Travis Reeves played professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league team, became a radio disc jockey and formed a country band. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. Known fondly as "Gentleman Jim," Reeves was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967. He died in a plane crash in 1964.
Holland Quarters Cemetery
Holland Quarters, three miles west of Carthage on U.S. 79, then go one mile north on FM 959 to CR 277 intersection
This black cemetery is on land deeded to former slaves by Spearman Holland after the Civil War. The site also included the Pine Grove Baptist Church, a school and lodge hall. Though the site contains more than 500 graves, only a fourth are marked. The oldest documented burial is that of the unnamed infant twin daughter of William and Betty Holland Rayson in 1895.
Old Panola County Jail
211 N. Shelby St., Carthage
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Wednesday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday; call for appointment for jail tour, (903) 693-3388
Designed by J.N. Carnes and completed in 1891, this structure served as the Panola County Jail for 62 years. It was used as a city jail from 1953 to 1965. A restoration project, begun in 1988, converted it to a community museum and historical center.
International Boundary Marker
Near River Hill, 8149 S. FM 31
In the early 1700s, and until the 1840s, France and Spain began disputing international boundaries in the new world. Each nation claimed what is now Texas. When Texas became a republic in 1836, it appointed a joint commission with the United States to survey and mark the established boundary between the two countries from the Gulf of Mexico up the Sabine River and onto the Red River. The granite marker was placed on the west bank of the Sabine River in 1841 marking the boundary between the United States and Texas. It is the only known marker remaining, and it is believed to be the only original international boundary marker within the contiguous U.S.
Source: Texas Historical Commission
DeBerry, Old Marshall-Mansfield Road off FM 123
The springs in this area were used by settlers before 1850 and became the center of a thriving farm community and health resort in the 1880s. The town included a cotton gin, sawmill, stores and school. A boarding house and hotel served people seeking cures through use of the mineral water. The springs exist but are much smaller than they once were.
Jonathan Anderson Memorial
Anderson Park on the Square at Business U.S. 59 and U.S. 79, Carthage
Kentucky native Jonathan "Old Shelby" Anderson, a grandson of American Revolution veteran Bailey Anderson, settled in this area when Texas was part of Mexico. He served in the Texas Revolution and fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 1848, he donated 100 acres for the formation of Carthage, the new Panola County seat, which was organized two years earlier from Shelby County.
Source: Texas Historical Commission