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Sabine Pass

by Stan Weeber, Ph.D.

Even if people forget that Hurricane Rita made landfall near Sabine Pass, Texas in September of 2005 – and they probably will – history still provides much to remember about this small town that is the southeastern most place in the state of Texas.

Historical markers in the town note that the first settlers in the area arrived in 1832. The next year, Sam Houston assisted Nachogdoches politician Manuel de los Santos Coy in acquiring a land grant. On January 19, 1839, General Houston signed the charter that established the city of Sabine. Houston was active in promoting the sale of 2,060 town lots, and the city soon flourished, developing into a major port. In 1860 the State Legislature approved a new charter for the city and changed its name to Sabine Pass.

The town was the scene of a memorable major Civil War engagement, the Battle of Sabine Pass, in September, 1863 with Confederate forces preventing a Union attempt to capture the port and gain major inroads into Texas. It was one of the most lopsided victories in naval history. Fewer than 50 Confederate troops led by Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling repulsed a fleet seeking to land up to 15,000 Federal soldiers. Dowling’s company, mostly Irishmen from Galveston and Houston, had been comrades in arms since February 1861. Sabine Pass was a strategic center for blockade-running whereby the Confederacy exported cotton and obtained in exchange vital goods such as medicines and arms. Here Dowling’s company built Fort Griffin, named in honor of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Griffin, the Confederate commander at Sabine City. The fort was earthwork strengthened with railroad iron and ship's timbers, and amazingly it was unfinished when the Confederates learned of the approach of 22 ships. Dowling kept watch, but ordered no response to the early shelling by the Federals. When the first ships entered range of Fort Griffin's guns, however, the battle began. Dowling himself served as one of the gunners. The fort sent 137 shells toward the targets.

Several books and research monographs have been written about what transpired during the battle, each highlighting different aspects although converging on certain themes. One is that the Irish Confederates were skillful fighters, taking advantage of their knowledge of the tricky terrain in Sabine Pass. A second theme was the blundering of the Union troops, who needed to station only one ship north of the fort to begin a broadside assault that would have most likely ended in a Union victory.

The following basic facts of the battle are noted in the town’s historical markers: Dowling and his troops held off the Union gunboats advancing up the pass. The U.S.S. Clifton and the U.S.S. Arizona ran aground early in the battle. The Clifton and the U.S.S. Sachem both surrendered when disabled by cannon fire. After the battle, more than 300 Federal troops became prisoners of war. Others were killed or missing; many of those had been aboard the Sachem when its boiler exploded as a result of a direct hit on the ship.

After the war the town grew as the Federal Harbor Act of 1882 led to construction of jetties and the development of inland ports along the Neches and Sabine rivers. In October 1886, Sabine Pass was the second largest town in Jefferson County, boasting a new rail line and an optimistic outlook on continued growth as a major coastal port.

On the afternoon of October 12 that year, just two months after a hurricane had destroyed the Texas port of Indianola, a fierce storm ravaged the town of Sabine Pass. The hurricane's 100 mile-per-hour winds and the swiftly rising water swept homes off their foundations and carried people and animals as far as 25 miles away. Eighty-six people, including entire families, were killed, and only two of 77 houses remained intact after the waters subsided. Stories of survival have been documented by historians, signifying the determination of residents to endure the storm. Rescue and cleanup efforts began promptly, with the citizens of Beaumont, Orange, Galveston and Houston providing boats, rescue teams and financial assistance. Special legislative action provided tax relief for the storm-ravaged area, exempting citizens from payment of state and county taxes in 1886. As one of several difficulties Sabine Pass faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 1886 hurricane contributed significantly to the town's decline in the years to come as railway maintenance proved difficult.

The strategic Sabine Pass emerged once again as an important defense base during the Spanish-American War. As tension mounted between the United States and Spain during the late 1890s, U. S. Representative Samuel Bronson Cooper of Texas recommended the War Department begin plans for the defense of the Pass. Major James B. Quinn of the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans was authorized to direct construction of two forts on land granted by Augustus F. Kountze. Work on the batteries was under way by May 1898, one month after the formal war declaration. Military efforts were coordinated with area residents by government engineer J. L. Brownlee. Although the emplacements were soon completed, the shore guns were never part of military action at the Pass.

The natural topography of Sabine Pass became one of the primary points of defense along the Gulf Coast during World War II. In 1941, the U.S. Navy established a Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) at the Pass to provide defenses against potential enemy activity in the area. Soon after, the U.S. Army installed artillery emplacements at Texas Point, about 3 and one half miles to the south, that included two 155mm Howitzer guns on Panama mounts, as well as four munitions magazines at this site. The Army's lease of land at Sabine Pass resulted in the location of a temporary harbor defense unit manned by the 256th Coastal Artillery Regiment at Texas Point. Other elements of the defense system included two base end stations, an observation tower, signal stations, large coastal searchlights, a battery commander post and part of the Coast Guard lifeboat station. The munitions magazines also held other ordnance for area installations. Working together, the HECP and the Army post utilized these storage magazines to service the war effort.

Sabine Pass has suffered an unfortunate string of experiences with hurricanes that made landfall in or nearby the town. In addition to the hurricane of 1866 that greatly affected the town’s growth as a rail center, storms blew through in 1900, 1915, 1957, and 2005. Audrey, which hit nearby Cameron, Louisiana in 1957, was the final straw in breaking Sabine Pass’ quest for economic development. As a result of Audrey, development moved north to the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, which still dominate the area’s economy today.

Sabine Pass’ colorful history continued in 1959 when a native son and musician, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson died in an Iowa plane crash which became the story line for Don McLean’s 1971 classic song, American Pie.

The last of the hurricanes to hit was Hurricane Rita in 2005. Rita appeared early on to be a Category 5 monster that could totally and perhaps permanently erase the city of Sabine Pass. Fortunately for the people of the town, the hurricane weakened to Category 3 before hitting them head on. Still, ninety percent of the buildings in the town experienced some kind of damage.

My own field trip to this remarkable place was in early June, 2006, over seven months after Rita struck. I was interested in finding out if this history-rich place would be able to rise yet again from the ravages of a horrific and devastating storm.

Entering from the north on Texas 87, the scene was grim. Businesses on both sides of the road were completely destroyed and appeared to me as if the storm had just passed.

At the center of town at the intersection of highways 87 and 3322, there were signs of life. Someone had purchased a soft drink machine and placed it on his porch, and the place appeared to be an impromptu community center after the storm. A restaurant nearby had reopened. Across the street, the softball field was repaired and a crowd gathered to see a game. Further west on 87, repairs to gravesites were underway at the Confederate cemetery. Further down the road on 87, some new dwellings stood out among the others that were in various stages of repair. Sea Rim State Park was closed, a reminder of the ferocity of Rita’s winds. At the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, the occasional remnants of boats that washed ashore were the only remaining signs of the hurricane.

Turning around and heading east back into town, I returned to the major intersection. Heading right on to 3322, I went south to the historical park near Fort Griffin. The park was closed but that did not stop me from jumping over the orange fences, taking in the scene, and imagining how the Battle of Sabine Pass might have played out in real time. Much of the information about the town and the battle that was shared earlier was obtained from historical markers within the park. It appeared to me that the Pass was now wider and deeper than it had been in 1863, judging from the drawings in the historical monographs that I consulted. This means that the Battle, had it been fought today, might have had a much different outcome.

Going north back into town, I turned right at the main intersection on to Broadway. Ahead was the most impressive part of the Sabine Pass skyline, the offshore oil rig that was being built in the waters of the Pass just east of town. On the way out to look at it, the neighborhood looked much like the one on 87 headed west toward Galveston: some buildings totally repaired, others in various states of repair.

I am completely confident that the town of Sabine Pass will come back. It is a resilient place, having come back from four previous hurricanes. Rita is just another storm for the hearty souls here to conquer. There is much here worth remembering, not just about Rita but about the area’s rich past. I can only hope that future historians will tell fewer stories of conflicts with people and with nature, and more about the remarkable spirit of resiliency and triumph in this tiny place, and how it thrived despite the long odds against it.

© Stan Weeber
Associate Professor, Sociology
McNeese State U.

Jefferson County Texas 1907 postal map
Jefferson County 1907 postal map showing Sabine Pass
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

See Sabine Pass

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