Once upon a time in a place not so far away and a time not so long ago, there stood an idyllic vessel of worship high on a hilltop in a real life forest which skirted the shoreline of a magnificent body of water
That place was on Toledo Bend Lake in Sabine Parisb, Louisiana. That time was in the 1970s and some of the 1980s as well. I’m not sure how long the run lasted, but by all accounts it was a good one.
The vessel was a sort of paddle wheel boat which was named Tom Sawyer, and was fashioned after the boats which paddled the Mississippi River in the books of the great author Mark Twain. The Tom Sawyer was not an actual boat and it did not ever actually touch the waters of nearby Toledo Bend… Or any other body of water for that matter.
Rather, the Tom Sawyer “boat”, made of some 60 thousand pounds of steel and gosh only knows how much glass, was built on land and to be precise it was built on the exact same land on which it remains today. All of its luster may be mostly gone, but the massive structure still hints at glimpses of its not-so-long-ago days of glory.
In writing about this, I digress just a bit to tell of my first encounter with this Tom Sawyer. In the 1990s, shortly after I moved to Sabine Parish, I was on a date with a guy who said he wanted to show me something really neat. We had recently watched a documentary on the Titanic and he knew I found that great ship very interesting, and he said he was going to show me something like the Titanic. Wow, I thought. A sunken ship, maybe? Along the old Sabine River where pirates may have once retreated? A ship that had legend and lore behind it… And maybe some hidden treasure to boot? This sounded like fun.
We drove down a neglected road (rather up it, as it was in fact up) and my date led me up a hill into piney woods through part trail but mostly thick brush and stickers and sticks and burrs and ant piles and lots more stickers.
At some point, I gave up on the hopes of finding a sunken ship and I kind of started to figure this guy who I didn’t yet know all that well was possibly going to kill me. So I did what any person who feels they might be killed should do… I asked him, “Are you planning to kill me?” He laughed and said he could if he wanted to… it was pretty deserted out there. He was right. It was. His answer did little to relieve me.
Thankfully, he then coughed up more details. We were close. Just a few more yards. No, he had not ever killed anyone and he probably never would, he said. He promised I would see a huge ship any moment now out here in the woods. This dude is plain nuts, I thought. But at this point I figured I might as well see this through.
So I kept walking… following his lead apprehensively. After 47 more steps (I counted them), he said, “Look, there it is.” I looked up and I have to say, I was quite amazed at the sight I saw.
It was indeed some type of a boat… with the words “Tom Sawyer” across the side of the vessel.
Okay, so it wasn’t the Titanic. It wasn’t even close. It wasn’t even a ship. Not the way I knew ships to be, anyway.
But what this sight was did have an eerie beauty to it. I wanted its story. My very short-on-details non-murderous date “explained” simply that this boat was built by the guy who built Toledo Bend and people went to church there and “did religious stuff there” when he was a kid. That was all he knew. Oh, and that it looked better then than it did now. He just thought I might think it was neat. I tried to drag more out of him but he had clearly exhausted all of his knowledge on it in no more than one brief sentence and a couple of partials.
Of course, I wanted to know more.
I asked around a bit over the next days. I found that pretty much every one in Sabine Parish had heard of this boat but me. I do think, however, that my date was the only one in Sabine Parish who thought it was a ship of Titanic proportions.
I found many people had stories about the Tom Sawyer… some details… most just said it was neat, or it was a fun place to go, or beautiful, a site to behold, beautiful and serene. Most said they wished it was still there. Many were surprised when I told them it was in fact still there. But then again, they would reason… all that steel! How could it not still be there.
So basically what I found out about this Tom Sawyer boat all tucked away in the woods was this:
The Tom Sawyer was a church chapel. It was a three-story accurate replica of a paddle wheel boat.
The main deck served as the chapel and seated over 200 people. It was surrounded by 120 feet of glass walls, offering a magnificent view of the piney forest and all the splendor and wonderment of the great outdoors.
The second deck featured two fireplaces complete with smoke stacks. This deck was used for group events, banquets, recreation and parties.
The third deck housed a large elegant steering wheel which was majestically glassed In at the tippy top of the boat. There was an actual steamboat whistle like one would have heard echoing up and down the Mississippi in the glory days of passenger paddle wheel boats.
There was a basement as well but I am not sure what its purpose was or what was in it.
Religious music was provided on the Tom Sawyer Chapel through a coin operated music box. As records played, the boat’s paddle wheel turned, I have been told.
The area surrounding the Tom Sawyer Chapel had many years prior been labeled Merritt Mountain. By way of information, Merritt Mountain had been named after a pioneer family who lived on the Sabine River at the base of this high hill.
In 1971, a 27-acre park was developed on “Merritt Mountain” in conjunction with the chapel. The park was founded by the Matherne family (I think this is the correct spelling) and the Cliff Ammons family (Cliff Ammons was a State Representative who pushed through legislation in the 1950s that would allow Toledo Bend to be built by damming the Sabine River).
At Merritt Mountain Park, along with the Tom Sawyer Chapel, there was also a swimming beach, a bike trail, and a horseback riding trail.
Also on the “mountain” was an amphitheater, built high above along the natural bluff and over looking the lake. My date and I found this amphitheater when I first went, in the 1990s, and it was incredible. I could just imagine how awesome it would be to sit up high on one of these steps made of the Earth and watch a play or some event on the stage below, with the sparkling waters of Toledo Bend Lake serving as a backdrop.
From what I found, the primary purpose for the Tom Sawyer Chapel was to give visitors and residents of the Toledo Bend area a place to worship coming dressed casually or as they were. The chapel was non-denominational and anyone was welcome. The park was opened twenty four hours a day seven days a week so anyone could come to relax, reflect, pray, and / or worship as they wished.
The chapel was built by donations of money, material, and labor.
On my trip to the chapel in the 1990s, most of the glass was broken on the boat. But you could still see the skeleton of the boat very well. There was a fire tower nearby.
Today, the fire tower has been completely taken down. And the skeleton is barely visible as it has been tightly shielded by trees and brush which have grown tightly around it. A large pine tree crashed on the top of the boat within the last year or so and makes it difficult to even see what’s left from above. Or from the ground.
The Tom Sawyer that was once a place of worship will probably never fully fade. It belongs to the Earth around it now…
NOTE: I read somewhere that the Tom Sawyer chapel was specifically replica for the “Merry Edna,” a paddle boat which traveled the Mississippi and inland waterways for 40 years before being retired. I searched for anything on this boat that I could find, but my search did not turn up anything.