Orange was a boom town in the early 1940s as surely as Beaumont had been with the discovery of oil.
The difference was that in Orange the boom came with building ships for the WWII war effort.
Sleepy Orange was trying to recover from the Great Depression when in 1940 contracts were awarded to start building ships for the US Navy. People started coming to Orange to work in the shipyards and started making money, lots of money.
Some workers made more money in a month than they made in a year before.
When there are people making money, there are people around to help them spend it. Across the Sabine River in Louisiana was a strip of disreputable nightclubs, beer halls, gambling establishments and houses. They were all there to separate the worker from his money.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, there were as many as 22 such locations on Highway 90 from Orange to Vinton. There were small places, and there were a few cool clubs with dress codes and behavior codes. The most unique of the gambling and drinking clubs was the Show Boat.
It was a true sternwheel riverboat, built by Phil A. Rohan Boat, Boiler, and Tank Works in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1915. It was the second boat to be called “The Harry Lee”.
It belonged to the Valley Line of Memphis and ran the river between Memphis, Helena and Friar’s Point. In June 1924, she was sold to the Sherburne Transportation Company. After more years of river service, she began to be used as barracks for soldiers in Alexandria, Louisiana, and was moored on the Red River.
In 1941, the Lee was taken to Orange to be used to house shipyard workers while the housing was being built. In May 1942, a fire burned part of the boat. By this time Orange was booming and there was money being spent, so the Lee was converted into a gaming boat.
She was 175 feet long and 36 feet wide with a shallow draft of 6.7 feet, so she was ideal for mooring off Highway 90 and becoming one of the overnight spots on “East Orange”.
The area called East Orange was about as lawless as it could get. This was in Louisiana, across the river from Orange, so Texas law did not apply and Orange law enforcement had no jurisdiction. It was far enough from Vinton and Lake Charles that Louisiana law enforcement didn’t take much interest in what was going on at the clubs.
The new “Show Boat” has become the most rugged of places along the highway.
The Show Boat was flashy with lots of exterior lights and located close enough to the steel bridge at the foot of Green Avenue for shipyard workers to cross the river after their shifts were over to party and burn some cash. silver. The Show Boat management’s goal was to get people drunk enough to spend their money on lots of drinks and gamble enough to lose all the money they came in with.
The late Murray Spector said in an interview that “The Showboat was the roughest of all the places there. If people wanted to get in trouble, you could in the Show Boat. There were even rough women. There was one they called ‘Show Boat Ruby’ and it was a terror.
The Show Boat had slot machines, blackjack, a restaurant, and a dance floor with a live band. There were also women who helped men spend money.
A story has been told of a professional player from Shelby County who watched the way the games were going at the Show Boat and decided he could beat them. He recruited six of his friends to accompany him one night and when he won $60,000, he beckoned his friends over to see him. They surrounded him and handed him a pistol, the six already had pistols.
The player then told the dealer that he was leaving. The dealer said, “Not with our money.” The player and his friends pulled out their guns and said they were leaving. They then walked backwards with a man in front, looking ahead.
The Show Boat bouncers walked behind them to the door. The men with the money continued to walk backwards all the way across the bridge with the lead man facing forward to watch the cars.
Other players weren’t so lucky. Some winners would have been eliminated and their pockets emptied. It is said that when the water cleared up, from the walkway from the dock to the boat, there were hundreds of billfolds lying on the bottom. Men would be hit on the head and money would be taken from wallets. The wallets were then thrown into the water.
When the new bridge over the Sabine River was built and traffic began to use the new Interstate Highway, clubs in East Orange closed.
The Show Boat was towed to Mississippi and used for a few years as a restaurant. The final fate of the Harry Lee/Show Boat is unknown, but the legend of the Show Boat is part of Orange’s “war years” history.
“And Now You Know”
— Written by Mike Louviere