- Historic Sites
A journey aboard a 70-year-old steamboat through an engineering wonder that relatively few people have seen and a landscape where many of the human outposts will, sooner or later, drown.
April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
On the north bank lay the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, but except for a few birds one might come across in a city back yard east of the Rockies, I saw no creature whose presence showed I was in a vast watery world unlike any other in the country. Perhaps it was the season or the disturbance of our arrival. We went under a bridge, a thing uncommon enough along the route to cause passengers to rise to see it. Once there were more cable ferries crossing the waterway, but slowly the boats are disappearing, replaced by bridges, leaving overgrown approaches and rotting pilings, and that’s a cultural loss, since the tales and lore that gather around ferry crossings show little capacity to accumulate at steel bridges.
Then, for a couple of dozen miles, save a single negligible jog, the canal runs straight northeastward almost to Port Arthur, Texas; to those who delight in lines curved and sinuous, the route was not especially scenic, but before we could reach the end of the straightaway, darkness overtook us. My lone complaint in traveling on the Delta Queen is that one loses the territory in night passage, never mind that sleep under way is pleasant in the low thrum of the paddle wheel and the easy hum from the engine room. My demur wasn’t shared by those passengers who spent their time napping, reading, playing games, or addressing Christmas cards. (Would the messages include mention of their coming from a “heart of darkness”?).
I awoke just after sunrise to find us tied to the wharf at Port Arthur, a place remarkable for the near-total abandonment of its small downtown. Given that the city bears the name of the railroad magnate Arthur Stilwell, a man who confessed to founding the town, in 1895, on the advice of “brownies” that came to him in the night, perhaps such is the fate of pixiedriven endeavors. Now, the city, following the more terrestrial counsel of the Texas Main Street Program, is working to reinvigorate its historic center.
By early afternoon, under way again, we soon crossed the Neches River to read the northern edge of a large spread of water that I initially took for the Gulf but that proved to be Sabine (suh- BEAN ) Lake, surprisingly shallow for its size. A tall fellow could walk, if sloggingly, four miles across the upper embayment. Even on that body, though, the canal lies almost entirely behind the protection of slender islands before it again enters marsh, where there’s a distant refinery between two channelized bayous. The Texas oil boom began near there at Spindletop, something Stilwell’s brownies may have had in mind when proffering their advice.
Just below the docklands of Orange, Texas, we crossed the Sabine River as if it were simply a highway intersection and entered Louisiana. Ahead lay 21 miles of channel as straight as an engineer can draw and a dredge can dig. Taking a vessel along such a course would seem simple enough, but the captain of the Delta Queen told me otherwise. True enough, the ICW is essentially reckless, currentless, and tideless, and true also, a large boat cannot get lost, but hazards of another sort are everywhere. He said, “On the Mississippi and Ohio, big boats have room to keep clear of each other, but down here we can just about shake hands as we pass. Then there’s the bank suction the hull creates as it displaces water. A stern of a boat tries to go this way, that way. It behaves like the tail end of a dog with worms.”
Bayou, marsh , and swamp are not interchangeable terms, and along the central Gulf Coast, the distinctions between them are useful.
I was surprised to find how much barge traffic the ICW carries, but not once did I see any pleasure boats, although I heard they are not uncommon in a different season. The haulage on the canal is largely petroleum and chemical compounds like isopropyl alcohol, ethyldiamine, and caustic soda. There’s also salt, scrap metal, agricultural products, all of them moving on low, if huge, barges not built for the open sea. Beyond the ports or the passes to the Gulf, I saw no ships on the canal, and in that way it resembles a wet interstate or rail line and is more terrestrial than nautical.
Where the Calcasieu ( KAL -kah-soo) River enters its lake, the ICW makes a sharp 90-degree turn, bends a few more times, then straightens to pass through a flat world only about three feet above sea level, where shallow lakes and ponds, often surprisingly round, are sometimes hardly distinguishable from the marshes around them. Considering the thousands of miles of drainage ditches in the region, I wondered how much wetter it once must have been. Surely, before engineering, it must have seemed a place just emerging from Noah’s flood. To find one’s way here a century ago through channels that twist as if knotted, along courses that appear only to disappear into the reeds, cane, and willows, must have been a mosquitoridden nightmare.
At Gibbstown, noteworthy for its complete lack of anything you might associate with an actual town such as a house or a human, the Delta Queen entered another huge marsh with a few scattered trees. Halfway through it lies Lake Misere, a lovely thing in that late-autumn afternoon light and, under those conditions, not seeming to deserve its name. But I knew that a flatboat or a canoe would find passage quite different from ours, where the biggest challenge was to resist eating at every waking moment.