Adventure on the Trinity Reveals Fading & Forgotten ETX History
Our team loves adventure, so when we got a call this week to take a trip down to the Trinity River to see some amazing architecture with long-time Anderson County residents Bo and Jodi Harding, we jumped at the opportunity. We grabbed our rubber boots and camera, then headed west of Palestine to Long Lake.
Long Lake is a rural community approximately 11 miles southwest of Palestine on the Missouri Pacific line and the combined U.S. highways 84 and 79 by the Trinity River in southwestern Anderson County. The townsite was originally part of a 4,200-acre plantation purchased by Hugo Monnig in 1911. While the Long Lake plantation was developed for cotton production, the site grew into the trading and shipping center for the surrounding agricultural area because of its location on what was then the International-Great Northern Railroad.
As soon as we arrived on the location we realized the area was water soaked and we would have to walk. That’s what rubber boots are for! We trekked through a marsh until we reached the tracks overhead. Along the way Bo Harding showed us the area where the men who built the railroad and the bridge camped. Spikes, bolts, and other discarded railroad objects were scattered all over the area.
We walked beneath the tracks until we reached the river and the swing bridge, which was constructed in the early 1870’s. The federal government and private investors spent millions of dollars in the early part of the last century to turn the Trinity into a navigable waterway. The proof of that is still standing above the river today.
Harding pointed out the gears on top of the enormous, stone pier and explained that the gears would have been used to swing the bridge away from the water for steamboats to pass through.
“The stones they used to construct the pier came from the Fairfield area. They were so heavy that only three at a time could be hauled by wagon. The wagons would bring three stones over at a time and set them down in threes near the area they were planning to build the bridge,” Harding said.
The prospect of a Trinity River navigable from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico to Dallas was a cherished dream in Texas. The Trinity flows 423 miles from the confluence of the Elm and West forks to the coast, making it the longest river having its entire course in Texas.
Beginning around 1836 numerous packet boats steamed up the Trinity River, bringing groceries and dry goods and carrying down cotton, sugar, cowhides, and deerskins.
Steamers often made it as far up river as Magnolia, located ten miles west of Palestine; in 1854 one reached Porter’s Bluff, forty miles below Dallas. All too often, however, their movements were impeded by snags, sandbars, low water, and other hazards.
After the 1852 convention on Trinity improvement in 1849 at Huntsville, Congress authorized $3,000 “for the survey of the Trinity River, including the bar at the mouth.” That year, United States Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. William H. C. Whiting surveyed the Trinity. According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), Whiting referred to the river as “the deepest and least obstructed river in the State of Texas” and reported that the river could be improved for $31,800. Although Congress failed to act on Whiting’s recommendation, by the 1850s numerous boats were operating on the river. Between 1852 and 1874 some fifty boats plied the Trinity, going as far north as Trinidad in Henderson County and Porter’s Bluff in Navarro County.
Navigation fell off during the Civil War, but in 1868 a boat reached Dallas with a cargo, after a voyage of a year and four days from Galveston. In the peak season of 1868–69, boats carried thousands of cotton bales down the Trinity. Competition from the Houston and Texas Central and the Texas and Pacific railroads, which reached Dallas in 1872 and 1873, effectively ended the reign of the riverboats.
According to Harding, the swing bridge never actually had the opportunity to do its job for steamers.
“The lock and dam never worked properly, which caused steamers to run aground,” Harding said.
Eventually steamers would abandon the Trinity. Some of the steamers who met a watery grave are still in the Trinity. Every now and then, when the river gets low pieces of the sunken steamers peer through the rushing waters.
After we checked out the swing bridge, Harding showed us where Monning’s plantation was located. Little remains, other than a portion of an iron-ore rock walkway, which can still be seen in places, along with two old wells. One can imagine the magnificent plantation home standing proudly near the crepe myrtles that are still growing. Harding also showed us where the slave quarters were located behind the plantation as well.
“Back in the day, anyone could come out here and pick cotton for the plantation,” Harding said.
Harding then took us to the area where the local post office once stood. All that remains of the post office is a pile of bricks and a slab.
Just down the road, Harding pointed out an oil well, which is known to be one of the oldest in the area. The oil well, which is still pumping today, was founded in 1926.
In 1913 A. L. Bowers drilled several unsuccessful wells in the area, but by 1932 there were several profitable oil and gas wells in the Long Lake oilfield. At one point in the 1930s the Long Lake field was claimed to be the largest in East Texas.
Having grown up in the area, Harding has seen a lot of change. The Long Lake area has been in constant change since it came into existence, and certain aspects have disappeared completely. Thanks to Harding MYETX had the opportunity to document and photograph some more of East Texas’ fading and forgotten history.
Do you know where some fading or forgotten history is? Contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in taking us on an adventure to discover more of East Texas’ history.