Tom Sawyer Chapel: Once upon a time in a Sabine Parish forest

 

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.

The Tom Sawyer as I saw it in the 1990s
The Tom Sawyer as I saw it in the 1990s

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.

Tom Sawyer in its glory days
Tom Sawyer when it was in its glory. This photo is from a late 1970s newspaper clipping

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.

Map
Map showing location of Merritt Mountain

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.

Tom Sawyer in the 1990s
Tom Sawyer a few years after it had been abandoned
Later years
Photos taken after the 2000, before 2016

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.

Above
Taken from above, December 2015
Main deck
Second level deck, with fireplaces
Remnants
Remnants- a fireplace and stairwell… parts of the Tom Sawyer falling victim to time and neglect

ats ts newAbandoned

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39 thoughts on “Tom Sawyer Chapel: Once upon a time in a Sabine Parish forest”

  1. Remember going to a service once here and then years later going back and poking around with a group of friends after it had closed. Did not know about the amphitheater.

  2. You are definitely the best writer and photographer and are so appreciated for bringing the stories back to life for all of us who had family that grew up in the area. Like hearing stories from my Grandparents.

  3. Both my parents and grandparents were born in Sabine Patish. Grandparents in 1880 something and parents 1914 and 1918. Since ‘all things Sabine’ is your enjoyment you might seek out the Old Pilcher Cemetery off the road toward Zwolle from Toledo Bend on another road on the left before crossing the LaNan Creek bridge. About 30 years ago we took charcoal and freezer paper to get rubbings of the markers of my ancestors. If I ever get back there I will find it again.

    1. The Cemetery is still there, Its off of Pilcher rd and the old Pilcher house is still there too but really hard to see. I have family that live down there and I pass it almost every morning.

      1. I am a Pilcher, those are my relatives. It’s nice to see other people interested in this history as I have always enjoyed learning about it.

    2. I was there several years ago and cannot remember much about it, but I thought I remembered an amphitheater. I did not see the boat. July 9, 2016 I went to Merritt Mountain specifically looking for what I had seen years ago but could not find anything I recognized. I was told it had been torn down. Now, after reading this I feel sure the boat remains must still be there. I will be in the area several times this summer and plan to go again and look, and maybe ask some local residents about the location. I have no idea of your location but if you are in the area you can email me to see if I have found further information on it. Email mfandbk@gmail.com

    3. As a kid I remember seeing the boat in the 70’s. I remember how beautiful the church was and amazed at the glass and the boat. Never knew the story behind the chapel. Thanks for sharing.

  4. How could the area residents and governmental agencies allow this to deteriorate like this? What a wonderful place this could be for generations to come.

  5. I often thought about that chapel took my kids to fire tower when it was still open tried to climb the mountain from water only getting in bull nettle

  6. I lived on Toledo Bend Lake for several years and had heard of this church,
    Wish I could have been able to go up in the woods and see it, thanks for
    Sharing this

  7. I went to church here in the 80’s when my children were small. We had Sunday School in the basement for the children, young adults in the second story, worship on the ground floor. It was a beautiful place to worship, with the outdoors all around. We have some great memories there, so sorry to see it like this.

  8. I went too this church as a child, the basement was Sunday school class rooms, I went there with my family until 1983 when we moved too Natchitoches, the pastors name was Hoy Leach, I was baptized here but we had too use another baptismal because we didn’t have one. There is a crematory up there too, that’s where mr.cliff ammonds is buried, we went up there last summer and I couldn’t believe how much it has grown up, all the glass broken our, it made me real sad too see it, but I will always have my memories and pics of that once beautiful church

    1. Please check carefully. I do not think Mr Cliff Ammons is buried there. I am a descendant of the Merritt Family mentioned. I was born in a little cabin my Daddy built beside the “neglected road” on the way up. Daddy was born May 12, 1912. Much of his childhood was spent with his Mother’s parents Edmond and Alice Merritt.
      So many of the wonderful places I spent summer vacations with his parents are now covered by Toledo Bend Lake. Thank God my Mother loved to make and keep pictures, so we have “a lot” of old black and white photos, and I have the wonderful memories in my heart.
      My Grandparents Acie and Alba Merritt Stroud are buried in the cemetery at Beulah Baptist Church. I am sure you are familiar with the location.
      By the way, those graves on the “mountain” were of my ancestors!!

      1. They were my ancestors also ☺. I just earlier today went up to see the Tom Sawyer. I did have to walk a ways, the road was all pot holes, but I’m glad I went. My grandaddy often told me about our family and Merritt Mountain. I miss him and the stories, being there made me feel close to him again.

      2. I am so glad to know about you Nancy. I am Nelson Merritt, son of Cicero Merritt who use to live at the foot of this mountain in a log cabin. Alba Stroud was my aunt. I use to spend summer days at their house by the 2 ponds. I believe my brother Paul went to college at northwestern with your mom or aunt. We use to visit A J and family. I would eat the mulberries on the tree in front of their house across the road.

      3. Thanks Nancy. I will be having another adventure soon.
        Remember going there growing up. Sad to see it is no longer useable.

        Gay Corley

      4. I was told today that Cliff Ammons was buried there and later his wife had his body moved elsewhere. I also have been told that Cliff requested a commitment from a friend to keep the chapel open but that his wife would not allow it. I don’t know the source of that.
        My mothers family (Sibleys) lived near there and one of the girls married a merritt. I stayed half of my 1st grade year with my grandparents and rode Mr. Acie Strouds bus to Alliance school. Email mfandbk@gmail.com

      5. Hi, my name is Jamie Pilcher Ard. I believe we are probably related, I’ll have to look it up, but I know I’ve seen the Stroud name in our genealogy, and my family is related to the Merritt’s of Merritt Mountain. Alot of my relatives are buried in the Pilcher cemetery. I would be very interested in seeing any photos you have.

  9. The basement was were the restrooms and Sunday school rooms were. I miss that old chappel. I went to church there as a child. The very first time I ever sang in front of people was in the front of that church.

  10. Truly sad this was not kept maintained. Surely the Sabine River Auyhority or someone would have thought it worth the effort. I wish I could visit this place. Who knows, I might.

  11. As a kid this was literally in my back yard ,my dad was married in the church….by the late 80s it was no longer used as a church and was abandoned. There was also a fire tower just before the boat and you see the whole lake from it ….by 90 the fire tower was tore down and some of the local kids had knocked all the windows out of it,then hurricane rita finished it off…..by the way under the boat was 3 rooms used for sunday school and a rest room . There is also a small hiddin graveyard not for from the church that has graves marked from the early 1800s .thanks for sharing this it really is a lost peace of history to the area…I still live here near the boat.

  12. The year before we married my husband Jim Hyde, some know him as the Scrooge, took me there & it was so peaceful & beautiful. Happy memories there. Wish they would restore it!

  13. I wish some how all this could be re-stored and cleaned up so it could be a place to take your kids and grand kids to show them a piece of history that was made. Who knows maybe it would influence them into building something that will also go down in history, to many things have been neglected in history today and teaching our kids there was no history is just wrong.

  14. When I was about 10, we lived in a sub division that was a hop, skip and a jump from Merritt Mountain. We attended church at Tom Sawyer Chapel and I spent many days catching huge Bluegill off of the amphitheater. It is sad to see the chapel has been left to rot 🙁

  15. Thanks for sharing this place and story. I love places and stories like this. I’m currently very far from the Sabine, though it’s deep in my soul, having been nearby on the Texas side. This story brings me closer though, and sends me into daydreaming mode. I hope to get back near to the Sabine soon, and maybe get a chance to visit this site as well. It seems to be an enchanting spot.

    Thanks again.

  16. A beautiful story of history so sad, it has been abandoned. Thank you for amazing story of history, that I didn’t know? I have relatives that lives on
    Piltcher Road.

  17. My parents retired and bought some land from Mr. Ammons, and built a home in this area in the early 80’s. My kids and I used to hike all over the place, including exploring the old Chapel, graveyard, and amphitheater. It was a real experience to climb that fire tower and see the awesome view. The tower is gone now, probably for safety reasons. Maintaining that area must have been a full time (unpaid) job. I heard that the property has been donated to Centenary College. Over the years, with no one keeping up the place, it became something like a lover’s lane and a secret teenage party zone (judging by the vandalism and beer bottles left behind). Not everyone respects Mother Nature, but she always gets the last laugh!

  18. I went there many times as a child for different events and activities. We had a G.A. or Acteens meeting there – great place for meditation. I went searching for it a few years back but couldn’t find it. I loved the fire tower too. Great childhood memories.

  19. Wow! I just now logged on to this site…never heard of it until now. My grandparents (Edmond and Alice Merritt) were the pioneers who settled at the foot of the mountain. They had quite a farm; milk cows, sheep and goats horses for plowing, hogs and pigs, which were slaughtered in the winter. Chickens. Plum orchards, fig and peach trees. And many, many bee hives. There was a spring for fresh drinking water and a water well for washing clothes. I remember rose bushes and a wisteria vine. They truly lived off the land. Fished in Sabine River for fish. Shot down geese/ducks in the fall as they flew over. My dad kept the shotgun loaded, to be ready… And everyone hunted squirrels back then. Us kids thought they were as good as fried chicken. They never drank water from a bottle and my aunt was 95 yrs. old when she died. Mother was 92 y/o. We always had a thriving garden. When we had a visitor, they left with a gift of whatever was being harvested; greens or corn, maybe beans or potatoes. And the same favor was passed on back to us when we visited them. Every Sunday there would be sacks of potatoes, or baskets of many different vegetables, fruits or nuts… depending on the season, left on the pastor’s front porch, the parsonage. That’s how we payed our tithes. One thing more, often members of the Church would gather together on Merritt Mountain to pray for rain on their crops. I remember so much more. I should write a book? Lol.

    1. Hi, I’m a Pilcher and related to the Merritt’s, I also grew up hearing these stories. I love hearing about my family and meeting others who have stories and pictures

  20. I forgot to mention that the Merritt Mountain property was donated to Centenary College in Shreveport, La. As far as I know they still own the property and they want a million dollars or more if you want to buy it. There is no running water there, no electricity.
    The cemetery there is the Carter Cemetery. There are only a few; three or four bodies. They are Merritt relatives.

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