“Jefferson County, on Interstate Highway 10 in the Coastal Plain or Gulf Prairie region of extreme southeastern Texas, is bounded by Orange County on the northeast, by Hardin County on the north, by Liberty and Chambers counties on the west, and by the Gulf of Mexico on the south. To the east the county line is formed by the Neches River, Sabine Lake, and Sabine Pass, and to the north by Pine Island Bayou. A series of lakes extends across the southern part of the county, and beaches overlook the Gulf.”
“The Port Arthur ship canal, on the west shore of Sabine Lake, connects with the Neches and Sabine rivers to provide deepwater ports at Beaumont, Port Arthur, Nederland, and Port Neches. Deepwater transportation and petrochemical industries are among the county’s economic mainstays. Beef cattle and rice yield major farm income, and the majority of wage earners are employed in the petrochemical, shipbuilding, and rubber industries. The county comprises 937 square miles, mainly of grassy plains, though a dense forest belt crosses the northwest part. The southern third of the county consists of marshy saltgrass terrain good for cattle raising, the middle third is coastal prairie used for grazing and rice culture, and the northern third is heavily forested with hardwoods and southern yellow pine.”
“Geologically, the county is noted for its Beaumont Clay formation and the Spindletop and Big Hill salt domes, which contain sulfur and petroleum.”
“The county seat, Beaumont, an important shipping point, petrochemical producer, and hospital and nursing home center, is located on the Neches River at the county’s approximate midpoint. Incorporated towns include Beaumont, Bevil Oaks, China, Groves, Nederland, Nome, Port Arthur, and Port Neches. Beaumont, Port Arthur, and neighboring Orange, cities of the “Golden Triangle,” have been the principal cities of the Sabine area and major manufacturing centers.”
“Atakapas lived on the Lower Neches and Sabine rivers. They occupied two villages on opposite sides of the Neches near the site of present Beaumont in 1746. Orcoquiza Indians occupied the area from the Neches River to halfway between the Trinity and the Brazos.”
“Disappearance of the Indians has been attributed to migration or smallpox epidemics; Most were gone by the 1820s, when the first white settlers arrived.”
“By 1803, when the United States acquired Louisiana, the area of Jefferson County was under Spanish control as part of the Atascosito District. In conjunction with filibustering efforts to discourage Spanish shipping after 1816, the area provided a path for slave smuggling between Louisiana, Point Bolivar, Jefferson County, and the Sabine River until the 1830s. Pirate Jean Laffite maintained a slave barracks on the Sabine River ten miles north of the site of present Orange to house blacks in transit. In 1821 filibustering efforts ceased when the Treaty of Córdova ended Spanish ownership in the region and made it part of Mexico.”
“The first settlement within the confines of the present county, made at Tevis Bluff in 1824, became Beaumont. The area that became Jefferson County was included in the Mexican Department of Nacogdoches as part of Liberty Municipality in Lorenzo de Zavala‘s empresario grant of 1831. It later became part of Jefferson Municipality. The Cow Bayou settlement in this municipality, organized in 1835 and later known as Old Jefferson, became the first county seat and the place through which the county grew. Local volunteers took part in the Texas Revolution, and other residents provided troop support.”
“Jefferson County, formed in 1836 and organized in 1837, was one of the original counties in the Republic of Texas. It was named for the municipality that preceded it, which was in turn named for Thomas Jefferson. The county boundaries, as delineated on December 21, 1837, included all of the future Orange County, a part of what later became Hardin County, and the extreme eastern part of the future Chambers County. The first county seat, Jefferson, or Old Jefferson, on the east bank of Cow Bayou, was replaced by Beaumont in 1838 and had disappeared by 1845, when the site of Orange was surveyed. Orange was first called Jefferson or New Jefferson.”
“By the 1840s shingle manufacture and timber exports supplemented a domestic economy based on spinning, leatherwork, and soap and candle making. Shipbuilding, which grew from the lumber industry before 1850, took place next to the lumber mills in Sabine Pass and Beaumont. Steam-driven industry developed in 1846, and the first steam sawmill in Beaumont operated in 1856. Jefferson County land was better suited to livestock than to a cotton-based plantation economy; livestock importing, in fact, had begun in the eighteenth century.”
“The Texas and New Orleans Railroad from Houston to Orange and the Eastern Texas Railroad from Sabine Pass to Beaumont were completed by 1861, but insufficient rail transportation and high freight rates limited antebellum growth. Sabine Pass became a boomtown, stimulated by the Morgan Lines, which established operations there before the Civil War. Four firms at Sabine shipped 20,000 bales of cotton annually, and 300 vessels cleared the Sabine customhouse in 1859.”
“Jefferson County residents voted 256 for and 15 against secession. During the Civil War, the county court voted to garrison a fort at Sabine Pass, Beaumont became a concentration point for Confederate troops, a cantonment was established at Spindletop Springs, and the county courthouse served as a hospital. Among the county’s several volunteer groups, the Sabine Pass Guard was organized at Sabine Pass in April 1861, under the Texas legislative act of 1858 that authorized the state militia. Beginning in 1862 federal troops burned cavalry barracks near Sabine Pass, along with a railroad depot, sawmills, a planing mill, a sash and door factory, and the palatial homes of D. R. Wingate and John Stamps. They also shelled Sabine City, then suffering an epidemic of yellow fever. The Confederates reoccupied Sabine Pass in January 1863, and the battle of Sabine Pass in September of that year ended federal efforts to penetrate the interior via the Sabine. The war caused considerable losses, as farm acreage and value declined, cotton exports fell, and the number of cattle in the county dropped from 51,600 in 1862 to 40,000 in 1865.”
“Recovery from the war was slow. Jefferson County exports in 1867 of cotton, cattle, beef hides, lumber, cypress shingles, and lumber products including resin and turpentine constituted only about one-fourth of their prewar total. Sugar production between 1860 and 1880 was limited, and significant agriculture did not develop again until after 1890. By 1876, however, the county was once again a lumber and shipping center, as loggers used the Neches and Sabine rivers to float logs to mills at Orange and Beaumont, where mills manufactured 82,000,000 shingles and 75,000,000 board feet of timber by 1880.”
“The Sabine-Neches or Port Arthur Ship Canal was dug in 1897 and 1898 from Sabine Pass to Port Arthur. It opened in 1899 and was gradually extended to the mouths of the Neches and Sabine Rivers by around 1905. The first oceangoing vessel to call at Beaumont and Orange was the Nicaragua, which arrived in 1906. River depths were increased to around twenty-five feet by 1920, by which time the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway had crossed the southern part of the county.”
“Between 1900 and 1910 the population grew from 14,329 to 38,182. A major influx followed the Spindletop oilfield opening in 1901, and the growth in the decade came almost exclusively from the white population of Hardin, Tyler, Jasper, and Newton counties. Significant Cajun French movement to Jefferson County began in 1910, when the boll weevil destroyed cotton crops in parishes adjacent to Lafayette, Louisiana. In addition, a small influx of Mexicans reached Jefferson County beginning in 1917 and 1918 as refinery workers were drafted in World War I. By 1920 the county population reached 73,120, nearly double the 1910 figure.”
“Spindletop transformed Beaumont into a major industrial center. Refineries, including the Texas Company (Texaco) refinery of Joseph S. Cullinan and Arnold Schlaet (1902) and the Gulf Oil Corporation (now Chevron) refinery, were built at Port Arthur, Port Neches, and Beaumont. During World War I shipbuilding increased, and the Magnolia Petroleum Company (now Mobil) refinery on the Neches at Beaumont played an active role as a supplier for the war. Between 1955 and 1960 the Texaco and Gulf refineries employed 5,000 to 6,000 workers, and by World War II the Gulf refinery was the fourteenth largest refinery in the world.”
“In the 1930s, however, despite the hardships many places experienced, Jefferson County was one among several Texas counties that continued to prosper. The county shipped 29,022,201 tons of materials through Beaumont, Sabine Pass, and Port Arthur in 1934 and in the next year produced 1,304,495 barrels of crude petroleum, crops valued at $1,866,873, and livestock valued at $1,511,061.”
“The Rainbow Bridge over the Neches River from Port Arthur to Orange bridge was completed in 1938; with a vertical clearance of 176 feet over the water, it was the South’s tallest highway bridge.”
“In the 1950s the Spindletop field was still active, Gulf Oil laid pipelines, oilmen developed a new field at Hillebrandt Bayou, and sulfur mining began. The nickname applied to Orange, Port Arthur, and Beaumont, “Golden Triangle,” symbolized the close relationship that had grown up among the cities. Gulf State Utilities Company supplied electric power for much of Southeast Texas and southern Louisiana. In 1956 roughly 26,000,000 tons of materials was shipped from the county’s inland ports, including rice, cotton, rubber products, steel, sugar, flour, oil, and oil products.”
“By the 1980s, though only 502 farms remained in the county, both farm acreage and value had increased as agribusiness redefined agriculture. Principal products in the 1980s were rice, soybeans, fruits and nuts (principally peaches and pecans), forest products, and cattle; businesses numbered 5,318. Almost 76,663,975,000 cubic feet of gas-well gas, 3,296,208 barrels of crude oil, 4,686,683,000 cubic feet of casinghead gas, and more than 1,000,000 barrels of condensate were produced in 1982, while county ports shipped domestic and foreign goods measured in millions of short tons.”
“In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 252,235 people living in Jefferson County; about 42.9 percent were Anglo, 34.4 percent African American, and 18.5 percent Hispanic.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Diana J. Kleiner, “Jefferson County”
I was the guest of Beaumont and Jefferson County on July 12, 2016.
Jefferson County Courthouse – 1893
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
(Photo Courtesy: rootsweb.com)
Following two other wooden, “simple” versions (1838 and 1855 variants), Jefferson County’s third courthouse entered the scene under designs of Eugene T. Heiner. J.M. Brown served as contractor.
It was a three-story, brick construction with notable stone details. Like all of Heiner’s works across Texas, this was certainly an aesthetically pleasant building. However, because it was a Heiner design, its future looked dim. Every courthouse he ever designed has been either demolished or seriously remodeled, except for one: Lavaca County.
Additionally, architectural team Babin & Beck applied some modifications to the building in 1915, but it’s not immediately clear what those were.
By 1931, it was gone.
Jefferson County Courthouse – 1931
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)
A single glance at the county’s current courthouse will surprise anyone: it’s massive.
Architects Fred C. Stone and A. Babin (presumably of Babin & Beck) are the ones responsible for this towering edifice. Designed in the ever impressive Moderne and Art Deco styles, this testament to county justice stands a whopping fourteen stories high. That makes it the tallest historical courthouse in Texas.
Key elements of its style are visible in its extensive ornamentation (stone eagles guarding certain floors, cow skull designs along the front façade, etc.) and an elaborate marble interior.
It’s assumed that Jefferson County went ahead with a design like this (while most other Texas counties do not have courthouses this large from this time period) because they had the money to afford it. Even during the Great Depression years, the aftermath of Spindletop and the booming oil industry had made this area extremely profitable.
Comparisons have also been drawn between the courthouse and the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Both buildings were constructed around the same time.
The towering main façade faces southwest on Pearl Street.
Other than its distant relative in El Paso, this courthouse is the tallest in Texas (160 feet).
Notice the unique blend of oil derricks and cattle skulls: a marked transition in the hallmarks of Jefferson County commerce over the years.
The cornerstone for the original courthouse is embedded in the granite of the present one, as if its information is still pertinent. I’ve never seen this done anywhere else.
Pearl Street (and a large parking lot) are easily visible from the front steps.
Important county business, I’m sure
The most popular public entrance is actually west of the main doors, in a more recently built courthouse (an addition big enough to be considered its own building).
You better think twice before trying anything funny here.
I arrived just in time.
The Port of Beaumont is on the Neches River.
A parking lot right next to a massive freighter: you know you’re in southeast Texas when.
The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum (in southeast Beaumont) is home to a monument of the Lucas Gusher, the famous discovery that started the Texas oil industry (in 1901).
You’ve probably heard of Spindletop. The actual site is about three fourths of a mouth south of this one, however soil subsidence and accessibility to the area made the city move the monument here (in 1978).
Before Beaumont built any skyscrapers downtown, derricks like this comprised the entire skyline.
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Next Courthouse: Hardin County