Hometown News For Orange County, Texas

Historic May 1953 flood stopped by hundreds of volunteers

River flooding has become so common in Orange County that the "Great Flood of 1953" isn't so great now. But the rising Sabine on May 22, 1953, 71 years ago, brought thousands of volunteers together build sand levees and sandbags along the Sabine in the Simmons Drive area.

The emergency was so bad the Orange Independent School District to let the white high school out of classes so the boys could make the sandbags and the girls could make and serve sandwiches. Hundreds of sailors based at the Orange Naval Station assisted and Ellington Air Force Base sent men.

The community and volunteers from all over fought back with heavy equipment, sand, sweat, and cigarettes. Women and girl volunteers were not only serving the sandwiches, they were taking the men cigarettes.

Mayor Pro Tem Howard Peterson was helping lead the protection effort along with the city's civil defense director, Martin K. Thomen, who later became mayor and whose son and grandson in later years served on the city council.

"Flood Fighters Optimistic About Whipping Mad Sabine," was the 60-point headline on Page One of the daily afternoon newspaper on May 22, 1953.

The biggest thing they were protecting was the vast Riverside housing complex, which was built by the federal government in World War II and later sold to private interests, which then rented to hundreds of local residents with families.

The newspaper reported 1,542 homes were occupied in Riverside at the time. The complex was where Orange now has the Boat Ramp and Riverside Pavilion area, along with many more acres along the edges of the Sabine.

Riverside was so large it had its own elementary schools and its own shopping area. Weingarten's had a grocery store on Second Street in Riverside and the corporation sent 1,000 sandbags to protect the store.

Newspapers around the country were reporting on the local flood, with the Associated Press also covering it. The Orange Naval Base sent 600 sailors based there, along with Naval Reserves, to work with the sandbags. Ellington Air Force Base had 500 men travel to Orange for the protection effort.

The naval base plus the shipyards had three draglines pulling up sand from the river to make levees. Bulldozers and amphibious vehicles were used to turn the dredged sand into make-shift levees.

The shipyards included U.S. Steel Corporation (later American Bridge), which had 1,500 "men" employed, according to the newspaper. Levingston Shipbuilding had 500 employees.

The shipyards brought thousands of residents to work and live in Riverside during World War II. Though the number of employees were drastically cut after the war, many workers stayed. Men released from military service after the war moved to Orange for jobs in the shipyards and the burgeoning petrochemical industry.

The city of Orange, which had a smaller land footprint at the time compared to 2024, had a 1950 population of 21,174. In 1940, before World War II, the population was 7,421. No official census was made during the war, but historical references estimate the population as high as 60,000.

The 1953 flood, according to the weather bureau, was caused by a tropical wave off the Gulf of Mexico, which brought days of heavy rain across East Texas. A lot of the rain was draining into the Sabine north of Orange and then flowing downstream to the gulf. At the time, Toledo Bend dam and reservoir had not been built.

Also, Interstate 10 had not been built and Simmons Drive ended at the Brownwood subdivision, west of Simmons.

Brownwood, the Cove area, and land north of the city of Orange still had open pit toilets and septic tanks at the time of the flood. Dr. H.H. Key, who served as the city-county health officer, told reporters he was watching to make sure there was no "outbreak of typhoid and intestinal disorders" from the "waste matters in ditches."

Bridge City also had a health problem at the time, though it didn't have to do with the rising river. The town had its second rabid dog of the year reported.

Snakes were also a problem as the rising water forced them out of their holes onto higher ground. Reporter Ralph Ramos wrote about various snake encounters in Orange and Deweyville.

Luckily, only one serious snake bite was reported. It came after Mrs. Maurine Linscomb stepped out of the car she was traveling in to help her husband adjust the headlights. She stepped on a rattlesnake, which bit her three times, news accounts said.

Areas along West Bluff were evacuated with about 200 people leaving, except for "stubborn old 'Uncle Jim' Weaver and Eddie Forrest," "stubborn old 'Uncle Jim' Weaver and Eddie Forrest."

Heavy equipment was moved in to the Brownwood area to build a levee along Bilbo Road. About 50 families were evacuated from the neighborhood.

News reports referred to the 1953 flood at the time as the worst in local history. However, local officials and reporters did not have easy access to the National Weather Service records. The 1953 flood crested in Orange at 5.67 feet above sea level, according to current NWS records online. Orange's river flood stage is 4 feet above sea level.

The 1953 level was close in May, 1935, the time of the infamous local shooting when the First Baptist Church minister in Orange shot and killed the police chief in the afternoon outside a cafe in downtown. Another serious river flood occurred in 1913.

Now, the 1953 flood is down in the list of local Sabine records. The worst flood was from the storm surge of Hurricane Ike in 2008 , when the Sabine registered at 9.86 feet at the location of the old Navy base. The level was 7.83 feet above sea level after Tropical Storm Harvey in 2017, and 7.62 feet in the March 2016 Sabine River Flood.

The volunteers not only included students from Stark High, but also the principal, Paul Pearson. He rescheduled final exams and let the boys out to make sandbags and the girls to make sandwiches. He worked with the Red Cross in the preparation and delivery of food, soft drinks, coffee, cigarettes, cookies, and candy to the workers on the front lines.

The food crews worked four days to provide hot meals and an estimated 100,000 sandwiches.

The sandbag piles and sand levees helped keep the flooding away from Riverside, even though a few places had leaks that needed to be fixed. No catastrophic flooding was reported in the city limits.

The river was beginning to go down by May 24, 1953, and the town was left with an estimated 500,000 sandbags, many of them wet. Orange also had a lot of community pride for stemming back Mother Nature and saving homes.

 

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