Belgrade was river port in early Newton County

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Journal

Of all the post-Republic settlements hewn from the East Texas forests, few had as much promise as bustling, busy Belgrade, a riverport that dwelled in the sleepy willows and stately oaks by the high-bluffed Sabine River.

An 1845 map of the Republic of Texas provides a perspective into Belgrade's promise. Just above the Texas coastline, where the Sabine curves erratically toward Sabine Lake, Belgrade is listed in bold lettering, the same prominent script identifying established Republic cities such as Galveston, Liberty and Nacogdoches.

But as its map mates grew and prospered, Belgrade perished--the victim of changing transportation habits and its own isolation from the Texas coast.

Indians who lived in the area called the place Biloxi, either in memory of a visit to the Mississippi town or in reference to their group name, which occupied the surrounding area around the Sabine River crossing of the old Coushatta Trace.

Belgrade owed its existence to developer William McFarland and his son Thomas, who in 1837 laid out the town on the Sabine's bluffs. They platted 205 blocks, eight lots to the block, plus an additional 28 blocks which were not divided into lots.

The town lots sold for $100 each. Front Street, which faced the river, was l00 feet wide and included positions for a customs house and exchange building. It was the first organized town in what would become Newton County and was named for a more famous riverport, the one in Serbia.\par }{\plain McFarland's son called the site "the most beautiful I had ever seen for a town."

The town plat also provided for two market places, a public square, a church site, an academy site, a brickyard and a millsite, probably a sawmill. Just how many of these commercial sites became reality is unknown.

Sitting astride the Coushatta Trace--the busiest mainland route into early Texas--and benefitting from the traffic of sternwheelers carrying goods into the East Texas frontier, Belgrade quickly became one of the largest and busiest towns in the Republic.

Merchandise for Jasper, Newton and Kirbyville, as well as delivery points in Louisiana, was unloaded here after being brought upriver by boats originating in Galveston, New Orleans and Sabine Pass. The presence of a large raft of logs and debris two miles above the town helped early growth by concentrating river traffic at Belgrade.

Belgrade prospered for more than a half-century as the crossroads of the new Texas frontier and only 40 miles from Sabine Bay, 65 miles from Alexandria, 85 miles to Opelousas, 65 miles to San Augustine, and 75 miles to Nacogdoches. Using the Coushatta Trace, westward travelers usually passed through Belgrade on their way to Liberty, Houston and San Antonio.

Belgrade was granted a post office in 1840, its name was changed to Biloxi in 1853 and back to Belgrade in 1860. The town made an unsuccessful bid to become the county seat in the mid-1850s.

During its latter years, Belgrade basked briefly in national glory when one of its residents, Jack Johnson, the great black heavyweight boxer, gained fame with his exploits. Most accounts say that Johnson came from Galveston, but he also lived and worked as a logger and riverboat hand in Belgrade.

Belgrade's demise began when the railroads began to inch their way into the forests of East Texas, replacing riverboats as freight and passenger haulers. The old town might have survived if it had been located on the coast, where the steamboats connected with the rail lines, but it was more than 40 miles removed from the Gulf of Mexico.

Henry Wilson's ledgers reflect that the end of steamboat traffic at Belgrade ended abruptly in 1900, six years before he died. In May of that year, the sternwheeler, Dura, paid its last call to Belgrade. Less than a month later, the Una made its final trip upriver.

About the same time, however, the timber business was booming in East Texas and Belgrade's residents saw a new form of river traffic. Timber was cut along the river, fastened together with pegs and ropes to form rafts, and floated downriver to sawmills at Orange.

Mrs. Nora Wilson remembered the rafts in her memoirs: "When the raft was formed, they (the men) would pitch a tent on the raft for living quarters, and cook and sleep when they tied the raft to trees for the night. When they tied up at our landing (at Belgrade), they would engage mother to cook bread and bake potatoes for them. This would keep them supplied until they reached another landing."

It wasn't long, however, that logging ceased along the river. Belgrade's own small sawmill was sold and moved to Call in Jasper County. The town's post office, which was closed from 1866 to 1879, reopened again from 1906 to 1901, and was permanently shut down in 1936. which, ironically, was the same year the Republic of Texas, which gave birth to Belgrade, celebrated its l00th anniversary.

Today, little is left of the old town. The original townsite is now abanoned and a small cemetery lies in the woods . A few families still live in nearby communities, now called Upper and Lower Belgrade.

Even the Sabine River, which midwived the old town's birth, has since changed its course. It now runs more than a half mile from Belgrade, almost as if there was no longer any purpose for the ghostly settlement.