Best rivers in Texas: Lower Sabine River

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The Lower Sabine River, which divides the states of Texas and Louisiana, takes on three characters. The southern third around Lake Sabine is industrialized on a scale found in few other places in the world. The northern third consists of the broad, breezy, pine-flanked Toledo Bend Reservoir. In between, one finds a clear, swift river lined with calm, sandy beaches. Watch out, though, because along with the beaches comes quicksand, which explains local place names like Quicksand (the town) and Quicksand Creek.

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Our most recent previous river tracing — more than a year ago — took us from the source of the Sabine northwest of Greenville to the upper reaches of Toledo Bend at Logansville, La. The Upper Sabine passes through open prairie, hardwood bottomlands and rolling piney woods. Longview is the biggest city along its banks, but we visited many a small town and some small lakes spun out from the Sabine’s tributaries.

This time, college buddy Joe Starr and I started at the very end of the river, along a marshy spit of land just south of the village of Sabine Pass. Here, the river has been dredged to created a channel for ocean-going vessels and canal barges that visit the ports of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange.

Heading down a broken-up, ditch-lined road, the visitor can get quite close to the true mouth of the river — the Sabine is joined by the Neches River to form the oval Sabine Lake above this pass — and fishermen wade out into steady current of the Gulf of Mexico.

We spent time at the historical park dedicated to Dick Dowling (imagined in statuary above) and the Battle of Sabine Pass. Dowling was an Irish American bartender from Houston who, with a band of 50 or so men turned back some 5,000 Union troops on Sept. 8, 1863 during the Civil War.

Dowling and his men cleverly set up their fort and cannons where an oyster bed splits the narrow channel, then staked the two watery passages with white gunner targets. As with Civil War river battles to the east, the defensive position was almost unassailable and Dowling was considered a great hero (though one must add that the victory may have contributed to a longer war and extended the institution of slavery).

The strategic fort remained in play well into World War II and the current park is built around latter-day concrete bunkers, with the requisite explanatory signage and slab monuments. One fresh marker is dedicated to the Union dead, with a footnote about the unrecorded African Americans who died with that naval force.

“This is the ugliest spot in Texas,” Joe said about the refineries and chemical plants that hugged the road north into Port Arthur, a city that has looks sadder and more abandoned each time we visit it. The thrilling bridge over the Neches and into Bridge City didn’t promise anything more tantalizing, nor did the entry into Orange, lined with a dozen or so industrial plants.

Downtown Orange is hard to describe. It has clearly been scrubbed to welcome tourists: Open square, modern art museum, large modern theater, carefully tended Victorian home and grounds that belonged lumber magnates, the Stark family. Yet we saw not one tourist during our explorations there. Instead, we startled a tour guide and a security guard at the Stark mansion with our request to walk around the grounds.

(H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas benefited from this family’s beneficence. Named for the late UT regent, it contains, among other things, a vast library of muscle magazines.)

Just above Orange, the terrain turns intensely rural and wooded. Tiny towns pop out of the trees. We touched base with the Sabine here — it was bordered by rusty warehouses in Orange — and discovered holiday tribes boating or sunning on the riverside beaches. Along the way, we spotted a white ibis, a red-headed woodpecker and flocks of rusty blackbirds. Magnolias, sweet gum, water oaks and willows join the pines of various sizes and species.

Arriving past midday at the Toledo Bend Dam, we ascended a high point to view hundreds of families frolicking on the lake’s sandy shore. A lookout point at the Texas headquarters of the Lower Sabine River Authority allowed us to guess at the lake’s expanse and to see the stream below the impoundment.

We crossed into Louisiana. This rather remote area is lightly developed and the winding roads through woods turn hypnotic. We exited the forest long enough to survey Toledo Bend at its mid-point, then headed inland to Many (man-ee), La. Here we stayed at the tidy Starlite Motel and ate hillocks of fried food at the Country Boy counter cafe across the highway.

Here, ancient social customs are observed. The older white patrons, dressed as if for religious services, sat in a semi-circle around us, while the black customers ordered take-out only. From the look of both sets, they like their spicy, hot, fried seafood and hushpuppies. A lot.

While the trend in big cities and suburbs may be the mega-church, in rural East Texas and Louisiana, the smaller, the better. Every variety of American splinter faith is represented here, including tiny non-demoninational Bible churches. On the Louisiana side, however, those places of intense worship share the roads with pop-up casinos and drive-through daiquiri joints.

On Sunday, we visited 4,700-acre Hodges Garden. Devised by Shreveport oil-and-gas man A.J. Hodges inside an old quarry, these gardens rival the palaces of the acien régime in scale, the Romantic period in atmosphere and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright for Asian-inspired modernism.

Lightning had disabled the hilltop gardens’ artificial waterfalls temporarily and the primary blooming season was long over. Yet we spent a good two hours exploring this little paradise which I had not visited in at least 50 years (when my family lived in Shreveport). There are not many reasons to travel on Louisiana Highway 171, but if you do at the right time of year, stop.

Even this shrine to refined tastes, however, exists within a local cultural context. The thin, prim caretaker of the gift shop waved us away, since we arrived 10 minutes before opening. (For almost our entire time in the park, we were the only guests in sight.) When we returned, loud gospel music jangled through the shop and the clerk refused to greet us beyond a chilly stare. There were no maps or related printed material to be found. Exactly one book was for sale: It dealt with the state agricultural extension service.

All other items could have purchased at a roadside shop offering kitsch objects stamped with uplifting phrases. As we wound our way out of the gorgeous park, we chuckled about how travel sometimes reinforces, rather than erases our prejudices, no matter how hard we try to suppress them.


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