Hurricane season of 1886 was tough on the Texas coast and two that year struck near the Sabine River. The first was on June 14 and described as either a strong tropical storm or a weak hurricane. But it was the second Sabine River storm on October 12-13, 1886, that had a major affect on Orange. The storm leveled the Catholic Church here and downed trees, according to the Texas Hurricane History by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Local damage wasn't what changed the local history. It was the rescue effort for nearby Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, and Sabine Pass. The storm surge and winds wiped the towns from the map, killed an estimated 200 people and swept hundreds more into Sabine Lake or the marshes. Orange became the center of rescue operations and drew the attention of national media. 'The Great Disaster at Johnson's Bayou' was the headline in The New York Times story with the dateline of 'Orange, Texas, Oct. 16.' The Orange Tribune, the local weekly paper wrote in the October 22 edition 'On the first trip of our steamers to the storm-stricken district, men, women and children were picked up and found presenting the most distressing sight probably ever witnessed before by mortal men. Their eyes were blood-shot, faces bloated and tongues so badly swollen that many of them could hardly speak. They were famished for water and something to eat.'
Johnson’s Bayou had close ties to Orange at the time. The little community on the Gulf of Mexico had no roads or railroads. They came to Orange by boat to shop and get supplies. Schooners, a vessel with multiple sails, had regular routes between the villages. Members of the Peveto, or Pevoto, family had branches in Orange and Johnson’s Bayou. Many of them, along with other families, moved back permanently to Orange after the storm. NOAA’s Louisiana Hurricane History reports that a between 175 to 200 people died in the storm with about 110 from Johnson’s Bayou.
R.E. Russell, who moved to Orange as a boy in 1854, wrote a memoir in 1911. The document can be found in a 1975 edition of the Orange County Historical Society’s ‘Las Sabinas’ historical quarterly. Russell recalled that people in Orange didn’t know about the devastation in Johnson’s Bayou until the third day after the storm. Captain Will Woolford in the vessel Andrew Bocless rode out the storm in Orange and waited until the waters settled before sailing. In Sabine Lake, the captain came across two or three people floating on an old house roof. They told him what had happened. He took them in and immediately came back to Orange. Rescue parties went out.
‘It is impossible to get at the exact amount of Orange’s contributions to the storm sufferers. When the news reached us of the conditions of affairs at Sabine Pass and Johnson’s Bayou, our people did not stop to think,’ The Orange Tribune wrote. ‘They secured and manned the steamers Lamar and Emily P., lying at the wharfs at once and the merchants flung open their doors, as it were, and by the dray load hastened all manner of provisions and supplies about and in the fewest instances, if any, was any note or record kept of the articles and amounts carted out.’ This effort ‘did not stop with one trip’ but kept going day and night.
Various reports have the storm beginning about 2 p.m. in the afternoon with people likely not knowing at first that it was a hurricane. Warnings of tropical cyclones in those days depended on reports from vessels in the Gulf of Mexico or other lands where the storms had passed. No warnings were issued for this one. The water and winds increased. ‘A 4 o’clock that afternoon the storm set in and everybody took to their homes and waited with bated breath the fate which they foresaw as doomed to be theirs,’ The New York Times reporter wrote. By 10 that night, water was over the high points of the village and flooding lower stories of houses. ‘House after house fell in or was swept away, either burying the doomed people in the debris or hurling them into the hissing water,’ The Times had. The dispatch continued ‘It was a night of terror, described by the survivors as appalling. The people could only cling to each other and pray for mercy and for the souls of those whose despairing shrieks ran in their ears. For 12 hours, the storm ranged over the settlements and then came to a lull.’
Stories were dramatic. The Orange Tribune reported several. ‘Mrs. Ott Brown crossed Sabine Lake clinging to a featherbed, and was picked up some twenty-five miles from Sabine Pass. She was drenched and completely exhausted, and when found accidentally by Wakefield Johns’ rescuing party, put out from the steamer Lamar at the mouth of Sabine River, had been without (???) for nearly forty hours. Added to this terrible suffering was the knowledge that her three little babies had found a watery grave, the youngest being dashed from her arm by a furious wave,’ The Orange Tribune wrote.
Another story had the two-year-old son of Mr. Luke of Johnson’s Bayou was found clinging to a floating drift in the lake. ‘It is impossible that this child could have clung throughout that dreadful night. It must be that a dying mother placed the little hands upon the drift, and sank into eternity just before the discovery.’
More reports from The Tribune:
‘Capt. W.H. Junker has a large New Foundland. The faithful dog crossed Sabine Lake and was picked up where Mr. Junker’s body was found.’
‘We hear it stated upon good authority that a young lady, perfectly nude and bereft of reason, was found in the marshes near Johnson’s Bayou the next morning after the storm.’
‘When the tidal wave reached Johnson’s Bayou, all the people took to their house and many escaped by cutting their way out through the roofing.’
‘Mrs. Junker’s piano, in a ruined condition, was picked up on the lake shore, near the mouth of the Neches River, having been driven a distance of 20 miles by the furious wind and waves.’
‘Words cannot exaggerate the havoc of the storm. Hundreds of people who were formerly wealthy and lived in affluence are now reduced to the most abject poverty.’
‘Among the many contributions that came for the sufferers from the city of Houston was a doll, dressed by a child, and having pinned to its clothing the following note: Please give this to some little girl that has no mamma nor papa. Mary’ The paper added ‘Unfortunately, there are many.’
The Tribune reported the Beach Hotel is totally wrecked, but all the family of proprietor J.B. Peveto escaped with their lives. NOAA’s History of Louisiana Hurricanes ‘the Peveto beach hotel might have been washed away if a large number of cattle had not taken refuge in the building.’
The Fort Worth Gazette had a reporter file a story with the dateline from Galveston. ‘Mr. M. Laskers gave graphic details and declares that the devastation and suffering is greater than anyone can imagine.’ Also, buzzards were all around the marshes of Sabine Lake ‘drawn by the dreadful stench of decomposing bodies and the countless carcasses of cattle, horses and hogs.’ The Catholic bishop in Fort Worth sent word to Orange offering the Sisters of Charity to take care of any orphans from the storm.
Scientific American magazine had report of infestation of snakes on high land after the storm. The magazine said Captain F.H. Hyatt and William Guy were members of a rescue party to Sabine Pass. The train stopped on a dump five miles from the town. The track was on a higher piece of ground and was surrounded by water. Thousands of water moccasins, many as big as a man’s arm, covered the higher ground. ‘The hands of Messrs. Hyatt and Guy are blistered from fighting snakes with literally covered the dump for a distance of five miles.’ Hyatt killed at least 150 snakes alone. In addition, ‘wild cats, frenzied at the water’s fury, rushed pell-mell upon pedestrians, while raccoons and every variety of animal snapped at passers-by with hydrophobic rage.’ The two men sometimes chose to swim around the crazed animals rather than try to walk around them. ‘Mr. Guy says that no money could tempt him to make his trip over again.’ Similar stories were made 71 years later, in June 1957, when Hurricane Audrey went through Orange and surprised Cameron, Louisiana, in the night.
No one is left now, 127 years after the Johnson’s Bayou Disaster to recall the horrors. For years, the evidence remained. R.E. Russell in his 1911 memoir wrote ‘for years after, hunters while hunting in the marshes would find skeletons.’
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-