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The History of Gaines Ferry

Updated on March 30, 2010

If you drive east from the small town of San Augustine, Texas, for about 25 to 30 miles along State Highway 21, you will cross over the Sabine River into Louisiana. Probably you will do so never knowing that you are driving over (or close to) a point which was once one of the most popular entry points into Texas, at a place once known as Gaines Ferry. The ferry, probably originally known as Chabanan Ferry, had actually operated from about 1795; it was the starting point of the Old San Antonio Road or El Camino Real, which ran all the way to Paso de Francia on the Rio Grande.

In 1819 the site was bought by James Gaines, who had served as a commander in the Gutierrez-McGee filibustering expedition of 1812-13 and later served as an alcalde and sheriff in Nacogdoches, and in 1836 signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Gaines had operated a similar ferry service on the Sabine River as early as 1812, and in 1815 had built a house near the site of the second ferry. About 1820, he built a second house close by, evidently for his young wife's parents. Gaines ferry became a major entry point for U.S. citizens settling in Texas, reportedly bringing in a large majority of settlers in the 24 years Gaines ran the service. In 1837, he helped found the the town of Pendleton nearby, naming it for a cousin, Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a general in the U.S. Army based close to the Republic of Texas; Pendleton, along with the ferry, became a port for customs collections for the Republic.

In 1843, Gaines sold his properties, including the ferry service, and moved to Nacogdoches, where he joined the movement for annexation. Gaines Ferry continued to operate for almost a century. During the Civil War it was apparently used by the rebel army, probably to move troops and supplies. After the war, the advance of railroads in the latter half of the 19th Century led to the decline of ferry traffic in general, including that at Gaines Ferry; the building of bridges along the Sabine, and the advent of automobiles, caused further losses. Gaines Ferry stayed open, however, until 1937, when the Gaines-Pendleton Bridge (Highway 21) was built, and the ferry was closed. This bridge is now called the Gaines Memorial Bridge, and is identified as such by a historical marker erected by the Texas Historical Commission.

The rest of the site of Gaines Ferry has not fared well. The original house built by James Gaines in 1815, known as the Gaines-McGown House, was submerged in 1969, along with the remains of the ferry itself, by the newly constructed Toledo Bend Reservoir. The second house, sold in 1843 to Martha Oliphant along with 61 acres of land and known today as the Oliphant House, is the only structure of the original settlement that still survives. Even the town of Pendleton, having declined dramatically after the closing of the ferry, ceased to exist in the 1970s.

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