Stephen F. Austin State University

The Riverboat Neches Belle (December 2014)

The Riverboats of the Sabine River
By Jonnie Miller

The Sabine River is formed by three forks rising in Collin and Hunt Counties. From its sources to its mouth on Sabine Lake, it flows approximately 360 miles and drains 9,733 square miles, or it did before Toledo Bend was developed. Sabine comes from the Spanish word for cypress.

Several steamboats have traveled the Sabine over the years, the Velocipede, the Ceres, the Wisconsin, the Gallatin, the Graham, the Ida Reese, the Wren, the Fannie, the Dura, the Bonnie, the Lark, Pearl Rivers, Florida, Laura, Star, Katy, Frankie, and the Neches Belle to name a few. During the 1830s and 1840s flat-bottomed barges were used to float cotton and other agricultural produce down river to Sabine Bay to be load on larger ships bound for New Orleans, Galveston, and other ports. The first steamships began to ply the river in late 1840s when Robert and Moses L. Patton bought the steamer Angelina. Other steamboats soon followed. Some of these steamboats navigated the Neches and the Sabine.

One of these historic vessels was the Neches Belle. The Belle's captain was Samuel G. Allardyce and Capt. J.M. Liles owned a portion of the vessel. It had been built by a Beaumont shipbuilder named Capt. Bill Loving and his brother-in-law, Pearl Bunn in 1890 at a cost of $3000. Her machinery had come from another boat they had owned. For seven years she was the pride of the rivers. The second deck saloon and entertainment were something to be remembered. When the Belle tied up for the night men gathered from miles around. Not only was the Belle popular for her nights of revelry, she brought needed provisions to people living near the many river landings. Provisions were unloaded and bales of cotton were carried aboard to be taken downstream for sale. It was luxury living for the crewmen and passengers. George Harris, the cook, provided gourmet food with chicken, venison, and turkey along with fresh vegetables in season and eggs, bacon and ham.

Allerdyce bought her for $4,500 soon after she entered the river. R. D. Hines was the chief clerk. For almost two decades she rode the crests of the Sabine's seasonal changing water level. She made her last voyage laden with bridge timbers for the Houston East and West Texas Railroad used to span the Sabine with railroad tracks that would take the place of the romanticized steamboats. She was tied up near the mouth of Toro Creek after unloading at Toledo and remained there overnight to avoid the shoals at night and the river suddenly dropped overnight. With the help of residents she was soon floated into deep water the next morning. During the off-season the Belle served as an excursion boat because of her excellent cuisine and spacious accommodations. "…The First Regiment band gave a moonlight excursion on the steamer one Thursday night. The music, moonlight, and cool breeze were enjoyed by about 125 people who were loathe to leave the boat when shores were reached…"

On the vessel's last trip to Logansport in 1897 with a load of rail construction material, the packet was tied up and its title was impounded in court litigation for debts. The Belle's timbers dried out during the low water season, and its leaking hull filled on the next river freshet, leaving the once-proud steamboat berthed in it final and water grave. The hey-day of the large steamboats came to an end soon after. A few smaller steamboats still operated but never the large, luxurious boats of the riverboats like the Belle.