ORANGE — The Port of Orange makes her bow to the world with the advent of the completion of her twenty five foot channel to tide water, adding her to the roster of Deep Water Ports of the Gulf of Mexico. -Orange Leader, 1916
By the turn of the 20th Century Orange had been a river port for over 50 years. The town had grown both in population and industry. The sawmills at Orange were increasing production, there was cotton still coming down the river from East Texas, and it would not be many more years before the production of rice would become a major crop in the area.
Around this time Sabine Pass, located at the mouth of Sabine Lake , was the entrance to Southeast Texas from the Gulf of Mexico. Port Arthur on the upper end of Sabine Lake was becoming a tourist destination for the millionaires of the Mid-West regions. Palatial vacation homes were being built on Sabine Lake at Port Arthur. Arthur Stilwell had originally developed the town named after him. After John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates brought his Kansas City Southern Railroad into Port Arthur, a power struggle developed and Stilwell left Port Arthur forever.
Gates went into competition with Sabine Pass in an effort to be named a Port of Entry. No tactics were held back in the competition. In one submission to the government, Gates published a brochure that showed the main street of Sabine Pass in a very unkempt, muddy condition with two large hogs in the middle of the street. His portrayal of Port Arthur was to show the main street, Proctor, paved and lined with business. Eventually both towns would be named as Sub Ports of Entry.
Water depth was not sufficient through Sabine Pass and across Sabine Lake for deep water ships. There was a shoal in the channel at Sabine Pass that limited ships trying to sail to Port Arthur and Orange. Often a ship drawing only five feet of water would drag when attempting to cross the shoal.
The lumber mills at Orange attempted to solve the problem by loading ships outside the Sabine Pass bar, but this became too expensive and too much at the mercy of the Gulf weather.
As early as 1885 sawmill owners at Orange including, Henry J. Lutcher, Samuel T. Swinford, the Bancrofts, Judge D.R.Wingate had been joined by John Henry Kirby, a Tyler, Texas sawmill owner in a mutual effort to establish a port at Sabine Pass. They constructed a huge underwater plow and tried to pull it with tugs to deepen the channel. That did not work. The next thing they tried was to build mattresses of branches and use them to line both sides of the channel in hopes that they would channel the flow and the pass would deepen on its own. This worked slightly better, over time there was a deepening of the channel. Eventually government dredges were brought in and the shoal was dredged deeper.
The mills at Orange were now able to send large shipments of lumber across Sabine Lake, but they were subject to sudden squalls that could damage shipments. A channel across Sabine Lake was needed.
In about 1899 or early 1900, Orange businessmen Dr. E.W. Brown, George Holland, and F.H. Farwell met with Beaumont businessmen at the old Pleasure Pier in Port Arthur and discussed forming an alliance against all opposition to the cities of Beaumont and Orange becoming deep water ports.
The opposition came from Port Arthur. John W. Gates and his Kansas City Railroad had made a gift to Prot Arthur of a channel from Sabine Pass to Port Arthur. This channel had made Port Arthur a Sub Port of Entry.
To eliminate further opposition to their ports, Beaumont and Orange helped Port Arthur become a full Port of Entry.
By 1901Comgress appropriated $325,000 for the dredging of a 10 ? foot channel. Even though this was a benefit to Orange and Beaumont, traffic was limited to heavy barges and large tugs. The lumbermen needed a deeper channel.
In a meeting at the Orange Elks Hall, interests from Orange and Beaumont met and combined to create navigation districts in each county and ask the Texas legislature for authority to issue bonds for the development of the waterways. The Legislature gave its approval for the levying of a navigation tax in each county and the voters approved the tax.
H.J. Lutcher, J.W. Link, W. H. Stark and Dr. E.W. Brown went to Washington with Colonel W.S. Davidson of Beaumont to confer with congressmen and the U.S. Corps of Engineers about a proposal to pay half of the cost of dredging a channel to Orange and Beaumont. The government representatives accepted the proposal and work began in 1911. By 1916, the work was completed.
That same year, Stark and Brown deeded to the city a tract of land about two miles below the city. A 3,000 foot long 26 foot deep channel 200 feet across the bottom was dredged. City owned warehouses and wharves were built on the lower side of the slip and equipped with the most modern equipment available for the loading of ships.
The upper side of the channel was occupied by the privately owned wharves and warehouses of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company. They built an electric monorail system that could deliver 400,000 board feet of lumber daily form their mill to the docks. They could then load several vessels at the time.
Years later these channels would become part of the Intracoastal Canal System, a protected channel that runs slightly inland of the Gulf of Mexico inside the borders of the Gulf States from Florida to Brownsville, Texas. The harbor at Orange was finally opened to the world, via the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the years, there were improvements to the channel and more dredging. By 1972 the channel had been dredged to 40 feet deep and 400 feet wide. At these times as ships have become larger more widening and deepening of the channel is needed.
The Port of Orange has also seen many changes. Cargoes of rice, bananas, plastic pellets, and anything else that could be brought into Orange by rail or truck to be loaded onto ships have ceased. Cargoes of lumber have long been a thing of the past.
The Port has found a niche in the shipping business as a layberth facility. Its location on the intersection of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Sabine Neches Ship Channel give it easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. The ICW and the Sabine Neches channels merge practically at the mouth of the Port. Just past Port Arthur the ICW continues westward and the Sabine Neches channel turns south to the Gulf of Mexico. The location of the Port and its facilities for both berthing ships and container barges have brought the Port to the attention of shippers worldwide.
In addition to the Alabama Street docks the Port also owns the old Orange Naval Base and has a pier there that is used for layberthing and also for ships to dock and restock supplies.
For nearly a century the Port of Orange has been on the scene at the same location, growing and changing with the times. The ability of the Port to change to meet the needs of the shipping industry has seen it go from men handling bags of rice and loading the ships by hand to a modern port where cargo is shifted from vessel to vessel by modern machinery.
The Port of Orange has the distinction of being the only business/industry in Orange that has operated in the same business at the same location for nearly a century.