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Fredonia Rooted In River History

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 13, 2004, p. A14.

Fredonia was once a thriving riverport on Sabine River, located 609 river miles north of Sabine Pass, and only a short distance south of Longview. Its townsite was platted in 1843 at Edwards Ferry, later to become Moore’s Ferry.

I remember crossing Sabine River near Longview in 1973 at a point where the river was no more than 35 feet wide. I recall wondering how a cotton steamboat ever made it that far inland; but oldtimers swore that a sternwheel riverboat “could navigate in heavy dew...” At the head of Sabine navigation was Belzora in Smith County, which was 250 miles farther inland than Fredonia.

The secret was the torrential rains, which kept the East Texas rivers at flood stage between 1845 and 1865. There are many microfilm records when the Brazos River was five miles wide at West Columbia during the 1850s, or when the Trinity River was three miles wide at Crockett in 1865. In November 1848, a Galveston newspaper chided East Texans for their low voter turnout, but conceded that the lost and sunken ferries on the swollen rivers were primarily to blame.

Although swollen rivers hampered voters, they were a Godsend for the river steamers, each of which dashed inland to load cotton before the water level fell. Nevertheless it defies belief that the steamship Liberty, a 200-foot, iron-hull ship with three masts and square-rig sails, could reach Fredonia, load 1,200 bales of cotton, and escape back to the Gulf, even though its square sails and spars were damaged (Marshall Texas Republican, April 12, 1851).

By 1850, Fredonia had a number of business houses—cotton gins, blacksmith shops, a sawmill and brick kiln, and two cotton commission merchants, James F. Thorne Co. and J. M. Waide, Wilson and Co. Dr. Norman Black of Longview has old ledger sheets from the Waide and Wilson firm that list nine steamboats as docking there in 1851, 11 more in 1852 and 11 more in 1853-54.

In 1849 Capt. George Bondies of Bondies-Roehte Co. owned cotton commission firms at Sabine Pass, Bevilport and Pattonia on the Neches-Angelina waterways; and also owned a half-interest in the J. F. Thorne Co. of Fredonia. Bondies also owned the sidewheel steamer Kate, which carried out several 1,000-bale loads of cotton from Fredonia to Galveston.

In 1851, Capt. R. S. Patton of Belzora, near Tyler, owned the sidewheel steamer General Rusk, which sometimes sailed all the way to Smith County to load cotton. When Sabine River water level was too low, Patton barged his cotton on keelboats to Fredonia, from whence the General Rusk carried out 1,200-bale loads of cotton to the gulf. Nevertheless the Rusk was too large for travel on the upper Sabine, so Patton sold the sidewheeler and purchased the steamboat Uncle Ben.

One entry in Dr. Black’s ledger sheets noted that the cotton merchant of Fredonia, J. M. Waide, had sent $1,291 in “gold, silver and paper money...” aboard the steamship Liberty to New Orleans to buy new merchandise.

Often the steamboats carried rails and crossties to build railroads that put them out of business. By 1873, three railroads were building through Longview, and Fredonia, like many of the old East Texas sawmill towns that succeeded it, gave up the ghost and died.

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