Chapter I: A History of Jefferson County, Texas
The Geophysical Description
by W. T. Block
Jefferson County, Texas is located in the extreme southeastern part of the state. It is a metropolitan center with a population in 1970 approaching one-quarter million persons. Beaumont, the county seat, has 115,919 residents and ranks in tenth place among Texas cities. Other principal cities and their populations in 1970 are Port Arthur, 57,371; Groves, 18,067; Nederland, 16,810; and Port Neches, 10,894.1 The smaller communities in Jefferson County, some of which are incorporated, include China, Lakeview, Pear Ridge, Griffing Park, Bevil Oaks, Fannett, Sabine Pass, Nome, and Hamshire.
The county has an area of 945 square miles, ranging in altitude from sea level to fifty feet. Its mild climate, with monthly temperature averages ranging from forty-four degrees in winter to ninety-one degrees in summer, accounts for the county’s annual growing season of 250 days.2
Jefferson County is bounded by water except on its western border. Its thirty-five mile southern boundary is the Gulf of Mexico. Its forty-five mile eastern boundary lies adjacent to the Neches River, Sabine Lake, and the Sabine Pass, which in part, constitutes the common boundary between the states of Texas and Louisiana. On the north, Pine Island Bayou, a navigable stream one hundred feet wide and seventy-five miles long, separates Jefferson County from neighboring Hardin County. The western boundary is shared in common with Liberty and Chambers counties.3
Sabine Lake, the region’s distinguishing geo graphic feature, is a seven-by-fourteen-mile tidal lagoon of shallow depth, which connects with the Gulf of Mexico via the five-mile-long tidal inlet, the Sabine Pass. ‘The eastern shore of each is a part of the western boundary of Louisiana. As the confluence of three rivers, the Neches, Sabine and Angelina, Sabine Lake drains approximately 30,000 square miles of Texas and Louisiana.4 The Port Arthur ship canal, excavated along the lake’s western shore, connects with the Neches and Sabine Rivers, providing deep-water shipping facilities at Beaumont, Port Arthur, Nederland, and Port Neches. Deep water, as well as the first significant petroleum discovery at Spindletop oil field near Beaumont, has contributed immensely toward Jefferson County’s present urban and industrial status.5
Geologically, Jefferson County, Texas is composed of alluvium, a part of the Houston group, deposited during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs.6 Because of its relative youth; the county has no outcrops of rock. It is one of 116 Texas counties, which comprise the Coastal Plains, commonly called the Gulf Prairie.7
Jefferson County’s soil surface can be divided into three categories. The southern one-third of the county lying adjacent to the seacoast consists of marshy, and often inundated, salt grass terrain where cattle flourish. The middle one-third of Jefferson County is coastal prairie suitable for grazing or rice production. The northern one-third is a heavily forested region, where hardwoods and southern yellow pine grow in abundance. Beach sands and ocean sediments in the marsh sector, black clay in the prairie lands, and sandy loam in the wooded areas characterize the county’s soil texture. Rainfall in the county averages fifty inches annually.8
Other geological characteristics include a formation known as the Beaumont Clay, which outcrops extensively in Jefferson County and extends southward to Corpus Christi. Its thickness varies between four hundred and nine hundred feet, and is overlain principally by river silts and wind-blown beach alluvium. The clay’s texture is very sticky when wet, but it usually assumes a brittle hardness when dry.9
The protruding salt domes are another characteristic of Jefferson County and its adjacent offshore waters. Sometimes these are visible, as at Spindletop and Big Hill, by an abrupt increase in elevation. The Gulf Prairie salt domes usually contain petroleum and sulfur at relatively shallow depths, and were an instrument in the establishment of Jefferson County’s petrochemical industries.10
Although the county is served by four railroad systems, the principal transportation artery is still the Neches River. A large percentage of the county’s manufactured products valued in 1970 at $988,700,000 are carried to world markets via the Neches River. With a channel depth to Beaumont of forty feet, the Neches on occasion has accommodated the 100,000-ton, 1,000-foot American tanker Manhattan. The river is 416 miles long and derives its name from the Neches Indian tribe that formerly lived near its banks. Steinhagen and Sam Rayburn Dams on the Neches and its chief tributary, the Angelina, have created artificial reservoirs in Southeast Texas, which impound more than 5,000,000 acre-feet of water to feed the growing population and heavy industry of Jefferson County.11
The forty-five-mile Taylor’s Bayou watershed is another of Jefferson County’s economic resources, for it, along with Pine Island Bayou, supplies the irrigation water for the county’s extensive rice industry. In 1970, farm income, principally from rice, amounted to $17,000,000, while beef cattle sales added another $2,400,000. However, most of Jefferson County’s 70,000 wage earners are employed by the petrochemical, shipbuilding, and rubber industries, which provided payrolls totaling $522,000,000 in 1970.12
The subterranean resources of Jefferson County include fresh water, natural gas, and petroleum in abundance, but no metal ores. There are also substantial calcium deposits (clam and oyster shell), which could be utilized in the manufacture of lime and cement. The Frasch process is used to extract sulfur from Spindletop oil field, where 9.5 billion tons of salt are said to exist above the 5,000-foot level. Sand and gravel deposits are excavated by the construction industries, and there is an abundance of ceramic clays suitable for brick-making.13
An account of the geography, geology, and resources of Jefferson County is not complete without a statement concerning the close inter dependency which has always existed between that county and its neighbor to the east, Orange County, which was a part of Jefferson County prior to 1852.14 The resources of each county are identical, and, consequently, the patterns of agriculture and industry in each county have evolved in similar fashion.
Orange County is wedged between the lower Neches and Sabine Rivers, where, for half of the nineteenth century, logs were floated from the timbered counties to the north for milling at Beaumont and Orange, Texas.15 Despite a combined population of less than 4,000 persons, the two communities became the hub of a timber industry, which, in 1880, manufactured 82,000,000 wooden shingles and 75,000,000 board feet of lumber.16 In 1970, the combined petrochemical, rubber, and shipbuilding manufactures of both counties were valued at $1.165 billion.17
A century ago, slow transportation by oxcart or steamboat did not lessen this relationship, for the products of both counties and the commerce of East Texas were united at the Jefferson County seaport of Sabine Pass for trans-shipment abroad. In 1970, a modern network of highways and bridges has mushroomed this interdependency to the point that Vidor, an Orange County city, is economically linked to Beaumont, and hundreds of south Jefferson County residents commute daily to and from the industries of Orange County. In truth, this triumvirate of commercial centers, Beaumont, Orange, and Port Arthur, Texas, conform to the publicity of their respective Chambers of Commerce, who heralds the trio of cities as the “Golden Triangle of Texas.”
LATE 19th CENTURY COURTHOUSE-This brick, 3-story building, built in 1892, was the county’s seat of justice until demolished to make room for the present structure.
FIRST COUNTY COURTHOUSE The first Jefferson County courthouse built in 1854 became a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. Only one person in the foreground, John F. Pipkin, is identifiable.
PRESENT JEFFERSON COUNTY COURTHOUSE-Despite a mushrooming of population, county agencies, the volume of archives, and serious space shortages, the present courthouse, built in 1931 at a cost of $1,000,000, has proven to be the best bargain that Jefferson County ever acquired. It would entail spending 15 times the original cost to replace the structure today.
1 Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide, 1972-1973 (Dallas: A. H. Belo Corporation, 1971), pp. 158, 293.
2 Ibid. p. 293.
3 William Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (reprint; Fort Worth: The Molyneaux Craftsmen, Incorporated, 1925), p. 25; W. Kennedy, “The Geology of Jefferson County, Texas,” The American Geologist, XIII (April, 1894), p. 268; Fred W. Foster (ed.), Illustrated Atlas of Today s World (12 volumes; Chicago: Rand, McNally and Company, 1962), VIII, p. 697.
4 Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide, 1961-1965 (Dallas: A. H. Belo Corporation, 1965), pp. 306-307.
5 William P. Webb (ed.), The Handbook of Texas (2 volumes; Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1952), II, pp. 266-267, 393-394, 524-525; H. Hansen (ed.), Texas: A Guide to The Lone Star State (New York: Hastings House, 1969), pp. 187-188.
6 E. H. Sellards, W. S. Adkins, and F. B. Plummer, The University of Texas Bulletin No. 3232: The Geology of Texas, Stratigraphy (Austin: University of Texas Ness, 1947), I, p. 780.
7 Joseph L. Clark, The Texas Gulf Coast: Its History and Development (4 volumes; New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1955), p. 67.
8 Texas Almanac. 1972-1973, p. 293; Elton M. Scott, Texas Geography (Oklahoma City: Harlow Publishing Company, 1952), pp. 11-15; Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects, pp. 136-137; R. T. Milner, East Texas: Its Topography, Soils, Timber, Agricultural Products, People. Rainfall, Streams, and Climate (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones Company, 1914), p. 28.
9 Selisrds et al, The Geology of Texas, I, pt,. 787-79 1; Kennedy, “The Geology of Jefferson County, Texas,” American Geologist, pp. 269-270; Nolan G. Shaw (ed.), Transactions, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Studies, XX (22 Volumes; Shreveport: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 1970), pp. 318-320.
10 Edwm T. Dumble, “The Geology of The Beaumont Oil Field,” Houston Post, June 28, 1901; A. S. Henley, “The Big Hill Salt Dome,” American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Bulletin No. 9 (Tulsa, Oklahoma: 1925), pp. 590-593; Kennedy, “The Geology of Jefferson County,” American Geologist, p. 271; Hansen, Texas: A Guide to The Lone Star State, p. 188.
11 Texas Almanac, 1964-1965, pp. 306-307; Texas Almanac, 1972-1973, p. 293; information furnished to the writer by the Sabine Bar Pilots Association, Port Arthur, Texas.
12 Texas Almanac, 1972-1973, p. 293; Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects, pp. 25-26.
13 Texas Almanac, 1972-1973, p. 293; Kennedy, “The Geology of Jefferson County, Texas,” American Geologist, pp. 269-274; Shaw (ed.), Transactions, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Studies, XX, p. 318; Hansen, Guide to The Lone Star State, p. 1-8.
14 H. P. N. Gammel (compiler), The Laws of Texas, 1822-189 7 (10 volumes; Austin: Garnmel Book Company, 1898), III, p. 926.
15 Frank W. Johnson and Eugene C. Barker, A History of Texas and Texans (5 volumes; New York: American Historical Society, 1914), II, pp. 695-699.
16 Texas Almanac, 1972-1973, pp. 158-159; Manuscript Returns of Jefferson County and Orange County, Texas, Schedule No. V, Products of Industry, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Microfilm Reel No. 48, Texas State Archives, Austin, Texas.
17 Texas Almanac, 1972-1973, pp. 293, 317.