First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday January 22, 2000.
In 1970, while a man was walking in a Sabine River palmetto thicket near Joaquin, Texas, he stumbled upon a tombstone-like object in the ground, which read: “Official Marker, Texas-United States Boundary Commission, 1840.” In May 1840, the cotton steamer Albert Gallatin brought 2 such markers to the Sabine River, one of which was erected at Texas Point at Sabine Pass, and the other which was erected near Joaquin.
When the boundary was surveyed from Joaquin to the Red River north of Texarkana, it was discovered that the correct longitudinal boundary was eight miles farther east than it was generally believed to be, and that one hundred families who thought they lived in Louisiana actually lived in Texas.
The Albert Gallatin had taken half of the boundary commission up the river in April 1840, while the remainder left Huntley (now Orange, Texas) on the same steamboat on May 22nd.
The joint boundary commission consisted of 6 staff members and several subordinates. The United States surveyors, two from the U. S. Army, included Major J. D. Graham, Lieutenant Thomas Lee, and a civilian civil engineer named G. G. Meade. The Texas surveyors included Captain P. J. Pillans, Lieutenant A. B. Gray, and a civilian named Daniel C. Wilbur.
The constant meanders in the stream made the river mileage about double the airline mileage, and the boat had to work its way around many logjams. At the end of each day, the engineers took celestial bearings and recorded them in the commission journal. Fortunately the entire journal was published in the Beaumont Journal of December 24, 1905.
The boundary commission stopped at several river ports to buy supplies, among them Salem, Belgrade, Hamilton, Sabinetown, Pendleton, and Logansport, all of which, except Logansport, are now ghost towns.
Near Salem the Albert Gallatin passed the wreckage of the cotton steamer Rufus Putnam, which had struck a snag and foundered the previous January.
Near Hamilton, the boundary commission observed an unusual sight. For a distance one-quarter mile wide on each side of the river, the huge cypress and long leaf pine trees lay prostrate on the ground, the work of a killer tornado. It was believed to have been the same tornado, which had destroyed Natchez, Mississippi with great loss of life three weeks earlier.
After reaching Joaquin, the commission members erected the northern boundary marker adjacent to the river. Then they continued surveying and taking celestial bearings until they reached a point on Red River north of Texarkana.
Eighteen months later, the steamer Albert Gallatin blew up in Galveston Bay on December 23, 1841, killing 15 persons, while it was racing another steamer. The fireman threw rosiny pine knots into the furnace until it was a cauldron of flames, and the boiler could not withstand the mounting steam pressure.
If the Gallatin had exploded in Sabine River, it might have affected the course of history. While nothing else is known of five members of the commission, Meade, the civilian engineer, had graduated from West Point, but he had resigned his commission to found an engineering firm. In 1842 he re-entered the army, and on July 1, 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac when it fought General Lee and the Confederate Army at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.