Wrecks of Conway Bayou
Texas Archeological Studies Association
P.O. Box 905
Vidor, Texas 77662
Phone 409-769-9055 - Fax 409-783-9970
Director - Bruce M. Lockett
Preserving the Past for the Future
Wrecks of Conway Bayou
Table of Contents
2. Shipbuilding Orange
3. WW I The Conflict Begins
4. City of Orange Answers the Call
5. The War Comes to and End
6. Conway Bayou becomes a Graveyard
7. Pictorial Presentation
8. Davy Jones Locker (What is Inside)
9. Conclusion on Conway Bayou Wrecks
The study of the Conway Bayou and wrecks that lie in her waters is an interesting one. While every fact of this report can not be substaniated it is a mixture of historical records, ledgen and folk lore that make up the story of this the largest graveyard on the Sabine River. The time period of this story centers arround the events of World War I when the desperation and need for supplies overseas was prevelent. Ships were needed to transfer the men and supplies and the East Texas area was rich in lumber.
While the sail vessel was coming to its end and the wooden vessel was also deminishing it was still an enexpensive way to ship large amounts of supplies and men. Texas with its access to the Gulf of Mexico and less than 40 miles from the open water could build as many vessels as the Navy needed to supply the war effort in Europe. The city of Orange geared up for the action and Saw Mills hummed with production as beams for ships were cut and laid out. While shipyards like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia would supply the muscle for steel, Orange Texas would provide the Merchant Fleet that would sustain them.
Texas would again supply her natural resources (Timber) to keep the spirit of Democracy alive. The citizens of Orange, Texas would provide their part of the contribution to the Dough Boys.
While shipyards to some degree were established on the Sabine River very few records of those before the Civil War still exsist.
We know that some small and local yards provided service for building as well as repair.
With the outbreak of the war in Europe the demand for
shipping increased. The first initial ship builder in Orange was the Weaver Shipyard which produced many vessels. Others that joined the profession of shipbuilding included the Southern Drydock and Shipbuilding Co., Orange Maritime Corporation, National Shipbuilding Co, and Levingston Shipyard. While each of these shipyards would require further study this will give the reader a launching spot with which to start.
While some of the shipyards suffered from the fate of a war quickly removed, others merged in order to stay alive in the shipbuilding business. It would take the Oil Industry and World War II to bring back the heyday of shipbuilding. While todays industry is not as thriving as its past, millions of dollars are spent in the shipbuilding areas of Orange. Tugs, Barges and small vessels are all that remain of the once glorious days of the Orange Shipbuilding era.
World War I Conflict Begins.
The turn of the century brought with it prosperity for the American people. While growth was pushing at all boarders the American people did not notice the events that were taking place across the sea. Their last conflict had been the Spanish American War and they won that soundly. The threats of German hostility were growing day by day. When the German U-Boat sank the Luxury Liner Lusitania Americans knew it would not be long before they would be envolved in the war.
The conflict of the war itself set the wheels of production in motion for the shipyards to respond to the new Navy of the United States. Arts of wooden shipbuilding almost lost were revived to there fullest. The skill of the craftsman would abound as they worked their trade to it fullest potential. The creative nature of the shipbuilders,who brought the virgin trees of East Texas to the classic designs of ships of war. The workers of Orange shipyards under some of the most difficult conditions would produce some of the finest ships to sail or steam the oceans.
It would be the events of World War I that would set the stage for ships to be built in Orange, Texas through the turn of the century. In some form or fashion ships of some nature would continue to be produced in this East Texas community. She would continue her efforts past 3 Wars and several conflicts of National Defense. When ever the need would arise the plant whistles would blow, the workers would come, and the ships would be built.
City of Orange Answers the Call
While the City of Orange was the focal point for shipbuilding in East Texas, it would be the surrounding communities that would provide many of the workers. Communities like Beaumont, Vidor, Bridge City, Jasper, Woodville, Newton and others would provide the labor force for the shipyards. Traditions of shipbuilding have been passed down in this area for several generations. Levingston and Weaver families have worked this area as far back as the Civil War.
Each generation passing on to the one before it the skills that would be needed to accomplish the task. No maritime schools were set up for the advanced learning of this art, it was simply passed down from father to son. While steel has replaced most of the wood in vessels used today, one can still occasionally see the wooden vessels that were built in that time period. The sleek beauty of each of these vessels is a reminder of the craftmanship that men applied to their trade.
War Comes to and End
When November 11th 1918 came the country rejoiced that the war was over and that the troops would be coming home. A surplus of ships were under construction at that time in Orange, Texas. However with the war ending the need for the ships to be completed in production was stopped and determination had to be made on the vessels. Approximately sixteen vessels had been completed and launched and awaiting final touches when the war ended.
The problem arose of what to do with these vessels which were left over as war surplus. In an age of steel vessels no one wanted wooden vessel for transportation or otherwise. No one wanted to pay storage fees at a port facility for the vessels nor did they want to take the trouble to dismantle these vessels. The final outcome that was decided was to sink the vessels rather than sell them at a loss.
The vessels were to be sunk at a location that would not hinder traffic on the Sabine River waterway. It was decided that Conway Bayou had enough depth to submerge the vessels and obscure them from future problems. Each vessel was towed to it destination and sunk in the bayou where they still remain today.
It would be a nice undertaking to raise one of these vessels for display in the art of shipbuilding, but only technology and time will tell if this can be achieved.
The fresh water of the Sabine River has helped to maintain the preservation of the wrecks at Conway Bayou. The salt water from the Gulf of Mexico for the most part does not reach this far into the river. This has helped in some preservation of the wood.
Cypress wood of which some of the wrecks or portions of the wrecks are made of has little or no affect on this wood.
Conway Bayou becomes a Graveyard
With the events of World War I coming to a close the most cost productive measure for the ships was to simply sink them. The Conway Bayou area was the only area deep enough and out of the way as to impede Sabine River traffic. Who made this final decision for their resting place at this time is unknown. Here they came and here they were to remain as relics of a forgotten era.
This area became a favorite fishing spot for many of the local who fished the area. Little did anyone dream that they might be sitting on a historical time capsule that would someday be declared as the Lost Fleet of Orange. They were ready to do their duty they were just never called to service. Silently they were pulled to their final birth and resting place the green waters of Conway Bayou.
Davy Jones Locker (What is Inside)
Now we come to the most important part of this report. It is believed that within the confines of the wrecks of Conway Bayou lies a secret. A secret that has been hidden for some 130 years and may soon be revealed by those who undertake the historical research necessary to find this secret. It is believed that the Civil War Cotton Clad Gunboat Josiah Bell found her final resting place here at Conway Bayou.
Near the end of the Civil War the Union forces were closing in on the Confederate Naval forces of Orange. The Josiah Bell had a special spot in the hearts of those who had seen her exploits. It was perferred by those who loved her to salvage what they could and not let this vessel fall into the hands of Union forces. She was taken about four miles down river from Orange and sunk to prevent her capture and use by the Union forces.
This would be the logical spot of her sinking. Ariel photographs have shown one of the vessels to be large and fat as opposed to the rest of the vessel long and slender like the schooners would have been. Only time will reveal if the Josiah Bell or some other Civil War vessel found its resting place in the Conway Bayou Graveyard.
Conclusion on Conway Bayou wrecks.
The study of these wrecks which are located at Conway Bayou could bring tremendous information about shipbuilding of that period. Not only would we be able to study their design, we could also study the effects of the water upon these wrecks. There may also be artifacts to some extent on the wreck sites. If the Josiah Bell is present she will be one of the greatest finds in Texas Naval History.
Time and technology have now allowed us to undertake the task of research and recovery of this period as well as others that might go back to the early Spanish Explorers. What secrets do the Sabine, Neches, and Trinity Rivers hold that await discovery? While no gold or silver may be found there is untold wealth in historical preservation of these items. We must preserve the past for future generation to enjoy.
The Wrecks today at Conway Bayou
Mystical is the only word that can describe the scene at Conway Bayou. The erie glow of green water that surrounds the once majestic schooners is beautiful. Our first few of them from the air was breathtaking as we flew over the Lost Fleet of Orange .
Under the view of our eyes we beheld the remains of a whole Navy of vessels that had never been used. They were not lost in battle or from the effects of war. Their fate was seal by a pencil and a decision that they were not needed. Suicide would be their final outcome taken from the pages of history they would soon be forgotten. But what of the men and women who labored to make them? What of the spirit of Americanism that linked each timber with pride and patriotism ? This is what makes these ships special it was not that they were built but it was by whom they were built, simply Americans. The people of Orange, Texas, the people of East Texas, and the people of America must always remember that in Texas we always answer the call
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