Wild and Wide Open… The showboat Harry Lee was once “one of the roughest spots” on the Sabine River

Photograph of the Steamboat Harry Lee - later to be the Showboat - docked across the Sabine River on old Highway 90. Used as a gambling establishment in the late 1920s. Photo from Portal to Texas History, crediting Heritage House Museum, Orange, Texas.
Photograph of the Steamboat Harry Lee – later to be the Showboat – docked across the Sabine River on old Highway 90. Used as a gambling establishment in the late 1920s. Photo from Portal to Texas History, crediting Heritage House Museum, Orange, Texas.

Some people know of it.  Most do not.  It was the Steamboat Harry Lee, a steamboat which once was docked on the Sabine River and was used as a gambling establishment.

The Harry Lee was built in St. Louis, Missouri in 1915, at the Phil A. Rohan Boat, Boiler and Tank Works.  During World War II, she served as barracks for soldiers at Alexandria, Louisiana, on the Red River.  From there, she was moved to Orange, Texas and was used to quarter shipyard workmen.  In May 1942, she partially burned, and was converted into a showboat.

 

The Showboat was the roughest of the spots ‘Across the River’. There was a tendency of the management to do anything to keep the customers drinking and gambling until they were out of money.  – Mike Louviere, The Record Live

 

There are some discrepancies in time frames in the very sparse information about the Harry Lee I was able to find online.  Portal To Texas History suggests the Harry Lee was a gambling establishment in the 1920s, while information from the University of Wisconsin suggest the steamboat was actually a showboat in the 1940s and was still there as of 1951.

A sternwheel packet with steel hull, the Harry Lee (which started as “The City of Wheeling”) was 175 feet length x 36 feet wide x 6.7 foot draft. Engines 16’s x 6 foot. Three boilers set on her backwards and fired from deck room.

 

(The Showboat) was also a spot known for rough treatment of anyone leaving with money in their pockets. It was said that when the water was clear at low tide you could see numerous billfolds laying on the bottom as you crossed the gangway to the ship.  – Mike Louviere

 

As far as its days as a show boat, or gaming boat, or whatever you want to call it, the inconsistency in the time frames may not actually be an inconsistency… in that perhaps it was a gaming boat in the 20s and a showboat in the 40s and 50s.  Whatever the case, the Harry Lee became known as the “Wild and Wide Open” by some.

When the bridge across the Sabine River at Orange, Texas (connecting Louisiana and Texas via the Sabine River where only a ferry had before), many Southeast Texans ventured across the river for wild times with out many boundaries, due to the more relaxed alcohol and gambling laws in the Pelican State.

A stretch of nightclubs emerged on the east bank of the Sabine River.  To at least an intriguing extent, these were wide open businesses. They were exempt from Texas laws and far away enough from municipalities (namely Lake Charles and Vinton) that the Calcasieu Parish laws were not stringently enforced.

In 1940, when the U. S. Navy contracted to bring wartime shipbuilding to Orange, Texas, the population of the City increased ten-fold, from 7,000 to 70,000 in just five years.  People were working hard, making good money, and when they had time off, they were ready plus willing plus able to party.

Orange, Texas was not much more than a sawmill town. Even though there were some large sawmills that produced millions of board feet of lumber and shingles and there were a number of very wealthy timber barons, the average citizen was what would now be of a low middle class. That would change in 1940 when the U.S. Navy announced that  they would be signing a contract to bring wartime shipbuilding to Orange. Orange would grow from a small town of about 7,000 in 1940 to over 70,000 by the time the war ended in 1945.

People were coming into Orange from rural areas in East Texas, South Louisiana and other regions. People who had never had money were suddenly making as much money in one month as they had formerly made in one year. They were working hard, making money and when they had time off, and were away from the job, they wanted to party.

Writes Mike Louviere in The Record Live (therecordlive.com), “The night club operators were ready and willing to take all the money anyone wanted to spend, anytime. There were nice night clubs, cheap beer joints and several that defied classification.

“Crossing the river from Orange, the first place on the right was Felix DeMary’s Dinner Club. The Flamingo Club was next. They were nice places with dinner meals, bands and dancing.

“Across the highway at the foot of the bridge was the Night Owl, Club Irving , and Buster’s, owned by Buster Johnson and billed as “The Spot You Should Not Miss”. Johnson once booked the Guy Lumbardo Orchestra for a one night stand.

“In the middle of these clubs on the left side of the highway was the Showboat,” Louviere continued. “(The Showboat) was a club with drinking, dancing, slot machines, and nearly everything designed to empty the pockets of the customers. The Showboat was an actual real paddle wheel river boat that had formerly been named “Harry Lee”.

“The Showboat was the roughest of the spots ‘Across the River’. There was a tendency of the management to do anything to keep the customers drinking and gambling until they were out of money. It was also a spot known for rough treatment of anyone leaving with money in their pockets. It was said that when the water was clear at low tide you could see numerous billfolds laying on the bottom as you crossed the gangway to the ship. Several times Orange boat. Even though they had no authority, Orange police would often go to the area and try to help with identification of bodies. Law from Calcasieu Parish seldom went due to the extreme distance.

“The places by the bridge never closed. Doors were open and lights were turned on around the clock. Groups of people who were ending their shifts at Levingston and Consolidated shipyards would often walk across the bridge and go to the clubs and not come back until they were out of money or it was time to go back to work. As there were men with money, there were also women to help them spend their dollars. It was like a “forever party” with hundreds of party goers.”

“All of the clubs were profitable for all the club owners. Most of the clubs operated for several years after the profitable war years ended. The beginning of the end was when Highway 90 was relocated and a new bridge was built upstream from Orange. 

“One by one the businesses began to close as traffic shifted to the new highway and ceased to flow past their businesses.”

Louviere explained in his article that The Showboat was towed to Mississippi and turned into a restaurant.

Here is the entire article by Louviere on The Record Live

From University of Wisconsin- LaCrosse
From University of Wisconsin- LaCrosse
The Harry Lee docked and carrying many passengers on all three decks. Photo from University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse
Photo From Lee Line Steamers website
Photo From Lee Line Steamers website
Inside the Harry Lee, men sitting around a table eating. Photo from University of Wisconsin-LeCrosse
Inside the Harry Lee, men sitting around a table eating. Photo from University of Wisconsin-LeCrosse
From University of Wisconsin – Lacross digital files
From Lee Line Steamers' website
From Lee Line Steamers’ website
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