Wiess Bluff
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A Brief History of Wiess Bluff, Texas

By W. T. Block

{ Originally published in the booklet "HISTORIC SITES IN JASPER COUNTY", rev. 1979, Jasper County Historical Comm, Dr. Thurman G. Smith, Chairman.
Thanks to Mr. Tom Cloud for his efforts in scanning and converting the article to web format.}

     To the romantically-inclined, perhaps no other spot better exemplifies the nostalgia of the steamboat era than does Wiess Bluff.  It is located along a gentle bend of the Neches River in Southwest Jasper County, about 15 miles north of Beaumont, Texas.  Prior to 1840, this bend was known as Grant's Bluff, from some little-known, early-day figure.(1)  However the earliest available deed records there involve John S. Roberts and Dr. Niles F. Smith, both key figures in early East Texas history and original proprietors in General Sam Houston's and Colonel Philip Sublett's Sabine City Company.  In January, 1840, at the time Simon Wiess settled at Wiess Bluff, Roberts transferred 2,200 acres of the Patsy Liney league to Dr. Smith, reserving 116 acres as part of the future townsite.(2)  During a part of the years 1840-1841, Smith was residing at the site, but returned to Sabine Pass, where his principal business interests were concentrated.(3)*

     The site's history is principally that of Simon Wiess, who was born on New Year's Day of 1800, a son of middle-class, German parents who lived at Lublin, Poland.  Knowledge of his early life is minute, but he was widely traveled as a mariner, was trained in law, and spoke seven languages.(4)  At one time he was deputy-collector for the short-lived Port of Camp Sabine, at old Sabinetown, for the Republic of Texas.(5)

     Following his marriage to Margaret Sturrock, Wiess merchandised for two years, beginning in 1836, at Old Stone Fort in Nacogdoches, followed by two more at Beaumont and Grigsby's Bluff (present-day Port Neches), Texas.  Being economically ill-suited at all three places, Wiess' astute business acumen caused him to re-establish his store in January, 1840, at Wiess Bluff, the point on the Neches River where year-round tidewater navigation ends, and to which cotton would have to be freighted overland by oxcart during low-water seasons.(6)

     Wiess established his business at Wiess Bluff in partnership with Dr. John A. Veatch, pioneer Jasper County surveyor, landholder, and scientist, purchasing an initial $10,000 inventory in December, 1839, from Ira Peck of Georgia.(7)  Thereafter, Wiess imported all of the necessities expedient to frontier living, and, in turn, exported the cotton, corn, hides, wool, tobacco, pelts, and other products of East Texas to the markets at New Orleans and Galveston.

     Wiess speculated considerably in land, increasing his holdings from $3,000 in 1840, to $10,000 in 1850, and to $15,000 in 1860.(8)

     However, a period of Civil War and Reconstruction crippled him financially and physically, and he died at Wiess Bluff in 1868.  His business prospered a few years longer under the proprietorship of his widow and younger sons, but, for all practical purposes, had ended by 1881, with the death of his widow and the passing of the riverboat epoch.(9)

     Between the years 1840 and 1900, Wiess Bluff also acquired a position in East Texas lumbering history, principally as a log concentration and shipping point between 1880-1900.  Simon Wiess was the first in this field, operating a “peck" mill at Wiess Bluff during the 1840's and 1850's.  A principal characteristic of this type of milling was that the noise of the peck hammer could be heard for more than a mile through the forest.(10)  Following the Civil War, H. C. Pedigo of Tyler County built the first single-circular steam saw mill at Wiess Bluff.  This mill was purchased by Samuel Remley (of Port Neches) on June 23, 1870, then dismantled and moved to Grigsby's Bluff in Jefferson County.(11)

     Wiess Bluff reached its zenith as a timber center after 1885 when J. G. Smyth and Company began logging operations there.  In 1888, this firm sold out its interests, including tram roads and locomotives, to Beaumont Lumber Company, which remained in operation there until around 1900.  Wiess Bluff acquired its maximum population during this period.(12)

     While the strategic importance of Wiess Bluff as a mercantile center ended around 1880, its business traditions were carried on in the Simon Wiess progeny, three of whom became Southeast Texas industrialists and millionaires.

     Three (probably four) of Wiess' sons, namely Napoleon, William, and Mark, entered the Confederate army in Company A, Spaight's 11th Texas Cavalry Battalion, which saw action during Louisiana's Atchafalaya River campaign of 1863.(13)  Wiess' only daughter Pauline married Abel Coffin (also a Confederate veteran), engineer on the Neches River steamboat "Sunflower."  While all five of Wiess' sons were merchant traders, one, Captain William Wiess, wore out two steamboats, one being the "Adrianne", whose unsightly posture on the water won for it the appellation of "the sitting goose".

     Another son, Captain Napoleon Wiess, was master of the steamboats "J. H. Graham" and "Albert Gallatin" until his death in 1872.  Volume III of Texana carries the story of Captain Wiess and the "Gallatin" "Coming to get the cotton" at Boone's Ferry in Tyler County in 1870, and of the subsequent two-night grand ball aboard "with the best fiddlers available."(14)

     By 1876, the brothers Mark, William and Valentine Wiess had all entered into business at Beaumont, Texas, where, in the same year, they organized Reliance Lumber Company, one of the great yellow pine mills during the heyday of East Texas lumbering.  In 1876, this mill made Southern sawmill history when Mark Wiess perfected "shot gun feed", a method which doubled that mill's capacity, and resulted in two-way movement of the log carriage through direct steam pressure.

     The Wiess brothers were also instrumental in acceptance and standardization of the present system of lumber grading throughout the Southland.  By 1882, Reliance mill was cutting 50,000 board feet of timber each day.  Later, it became a major exporter to Europe, where it maintained offices in London.  This company sold out to John Henry Kirby in 1902.(15)

     However, it was Beaumont's Spindletop oil gusher (which blew in on land belonging to Valentine Wiess and his partners), which carried the Wiess brothers into the petroleum field and drastically altered their financial assets.  William Wiess organized and became the chief owner of Reliance Oil Company and Paraffine Oil Company and, in 1903, brought in the Batson, Texas, oil field.  In 1917, his son, Harry Carothers Wiess, took his father's oil interests (along with Ross Sterling's Humble Oil Company) into the founding coalition which constituted Humble Oil and Refining Company.  Thereafter, Harry Wiess remained one of the chief executives of that giant firm and its president from 1935 until his death in 1948.(16)

     In brief, this is the amazing story of Wiess Bluff and of the Simon Wiess offspring, who rose from Old World immigrant status to Southwestern industrial leadership in two generations.  In December, 1930, at the age of 93, Pauline Wiess Coffin, the oldest child and sole survivor of the old generation, died in the family home at Wiess Bluff, drawing the curtain for all time on the Wiess Bluff story.  In her youth, she had known Gen. Sam Houston and other notables of Texas history, who had frequently visited at Wiess Bluff while using the Neches River as a travel artery during the steamboat era.(17)

     At the present time, 80-year-old Arthur W. Coffin, a great grandson and the site's lone link with its founder, lives less than a stone's throw away from where Simon Wiess' store, wharf, and warehouses once stood.  Even today, a visitor under Wiess Bluff's towering pines must guard himself with care lest a lapse into antebellum nostalgia devour him.  Such can still conjure up the false echoes of steamboat whistles and visions of cotton bales.  (Arthur Coffin died in 1978 at the age of 86.)

Endnotes

   1. Vol. D. p 109, Jefferson County Deed Record; Vol. E., pp. 536-538, Jasper County Deed Record.

   2. Vol. A, pp. 90-91, Jasper County Deed Record.

   3. Vol. D, p. 275, Jefferson County Deed Record; G. White (ed.), The 1840 Census of the Republic of Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1966), p. 91, Jasper County. Roberts is intimately associated with the histories of both Nacogdoches and San Augustine, where, in 1831, he was the Mexican alcalde.  He signed both the Texas Declaration of Independence and the first Constitution of the new-born Republic of Texas.  Dr. Smith flits over early Texas history with the agility of an antelope, and his business and land dealings with Simon Wiess spanned the whole of East Texas. From 1839 until 1858, Smith was "Mr. Sabine Pass."
     By 1834, Smith had become a large landholder at Milam municipality in Robertson's colony, fought in the Texas Corps of Engineers during the revolution against Mexico, and in December, 1836, was appointed by his intimate friend President Houston as Texas’ first bank examiner (for McKinney-Williams and Co.’s Bank of Agriculture and Commerce).  In 1837, he was a partner with the Allen brothers in the Houston Townsite Company.  Until his death in 1858, he was physician, druggist, Texas collector of customs, shipbuilder, speculator, chief agent for Sabine City Company, steam sawmiller, and merchant-partner of John Sealy and John H. Hutchings, all at Sabine Pass. Because of him, the fortunes of that community rose or waned in conformity with Sam Houston's political fortunes.  See also Vols. A, pp,189-90, and D, pp. 154-55, Jefferson County Deed Record; Flanagan, Sam Houston’s Texas, p. 53; Writings of Sam Houston, I, p. 507, and II, pp. 312-13; Gamel, Laws of Texas, I, p. 1135; Webb and Carroll, Handbook of Texas, II, p. 625, Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers, III, p. 1344; Winkler, Secret Journals of the Senate, Republic of Texas, 1836-1845, pp. 32, 220, 282, 298 307; Telegraph and Texas Register, February 6, 13, 1839 and July 24, 1839; Civilian and Galveston Gazette, June 2, 1848; and Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, VII (May, 1972), p. 71.

   4. John Henry Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: L.E. Daniel, 189-?), pp. 474-76; T. J. Russell, "Pioneers Reminiscenses of Jefferson County," Beaumont Journal, February 17 and March 3, 1907.

   5. R. E. L. Crane, "The History of the Revenue Service and The Commerce of the Republic of Texas" (Ph.D. dissertation; Austin: The University of Texas, 1950), p. 313. See also pp. 284-289 for Doctor Smith's service as Customs Collector, Port of Sabine Pass.

   6. Brown, op cit., p. 475; Beaumont Enterprise, May 28 and June 11, 1881; December 14, 1930; January 1, 1946; Beaumont Journal, February 7 and March 10, 1907.

   7. Vol. C , pp. 347-349, Jefferson County Deed Record.

   8. Vol. D, p. 109, Jefferson County Deed Record (1840) lists $3,090 (including 4,200 acres of land) of Wiess' holdings held in trust by his brother-in-law William Sturrock as a marriage bond. However, Wiess owned other land not held in trust, including a 1,475 acre tract of the Gahagan league on Sabine Lake (see Ibid., Vol. D, p. 54). See also 1840 Census, pp. 92, 97; U.S. manuscript census schedules, Jasper County, Texas: for 1850, Sched. I, p. 462, and Sched. IV, p. 441; for 1860, Sched. I, p. 17, and Sched. IV, p. 19.  Wiess appears to have prospered maximally during the decade of the 1850's when he increased his Jasper County holdings alone from 2,500 to 10,000 acres.

   9. U.S. manuscript census list (Schedule I), Jasper County, Texas, residences 213, 216, and 219.

   10. Beaumont Journal, June 12, 1914. This was probably the same mill operated by Joseph Grigsby at Grigsby's Bluff prior to 1841. Little is known of peck mills today since they pre-dated the advent of single-circular steam mills. It appears that such was a horse-driven method, with the motive power activating a multiple swinging-adze mechanism, which chipped off the bark and roughly squared the timber.

   11. Vol. P, p. 246, Jefferson County Deed Record; Beaumont Enterprise, June 11, 1881. Remley operated steam mills at Grigsby's Bluff for 20 years. His second mill (Pedigo's) burned in 1876 and was never rebuilt.

   12. Vols. 0, pp. 624, 635 and Y, p. 110, Jasper County Deed Record; Jasper Newsboy for May 28, 1936, states that Wiess Bluff acquired a population of 2,000 during the 1870's and 1880's. This figure is doubted, however, unless born out by the 1880 and 1890 census lists. The 1870 census indicates that only a few families resided there.

   13. 1863 muster roll, Company A, Spaight's 11th Texas Cavalry Bn., Confederate States Army, in National Archives. See C.K. Ragan (ed.), Diary of Captain George W. O'Brien, pp. 47-53, for role of Co. A at Battle of Bayou Bourbeau, a Confederate victory in Louisiana.  Beaumont Enterprise for December 14, 1930, states that all five of the Wiess brothers were Confederate veterans, but this is doubted in the case of the youngest, Massena, who was only 15-1/2 years old at the close of the war.
   The case for Valentine Wiess is not confirmed on any muster role which the writer has examined. However, muster role of a Jasper County militia company, the "Red Star Guard Rifles of Texas", dated March 25, 1861, lists him as drummer. See Kirbyville (Texas) Banner, September 15, 1961, Standard Blue Book of Texas, 1908-1909, p. 71, states that "Valentine Wiess was a lad of sixteen years of age, but he enlisted and served throughout the war . . . in Spaight's Battalion." Muster rolls of 1863 do not verify this, but, published at a time when scores of Beaumont Confederate veterans were still alive and when Wiess was one of the wealthiest men in Southeast Texas, it would have meant social ostracism for him if that statement were untrue.

   14. Beaumont Enterprise, September 21, 1910; T. C. Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1940), III, 941; J. P. Landers, "Valentine Burch," Texana, III (Summer, 1965), p. 109; see also Abel Coffin's original account of an offshore Civil War Battle, fought on January 21, 1863 near Sabine Pass, Texas, as is penned on a flyleaf of a copy of MacCauley's "Essays," found aboard the captured USS "Morning Light," and still owned by a grandson, A. W. Coffin, of Wiess Bluff.

   15. See "Letterbook of the East Texas and Louisiana Lumbermen's Association For The Years 1886-1888" (Valentine Wiess, president), 600ff, owned by Mrs. Lois Parker, reference librarian, Lamar University, for a very complete record of the Southeast Texas sawmills of that period. See also Beaumont Enterprise, November 6, 1880; March 12, 19, 1881; June 13, 1914, July 30, 1913, and July 1, 1910; also Volumes S, pp. 191-195, 417-423, and U, p. 213, Jefferson County Deed Record. Valentine Wiess was less associated with Reliance mill than his brothers. He was principally merchant, real estate holder and banker the latter privately at first, and later as the first president of First National (now First Security) Bank of Beaumont. He was the largest taxpayer on that city's property rolls.

   16. H. M. Larsen and W. W. Porter, History of Humble Oil and Refining Company (New York: Harper and Brother, 1959), 769ff.  For Simon and William Wiess, see pp. 26-28.  For Harry Carother Wiess, see pp. 100-06, 203-18, 222-34, 240-,43, 330-342, 361-72, 411-12, 526-563, 569-72, and 662-682.

   17. Beaumont Enterprise, December 14, 1930.

   * Statement on first page should indicate that 116 acres of an undivided tract were laid out as a townsite.

   Also, studies indicate that Simon Wiess could have been a Polish Jew, rather than a German Christian. Older family traditions of the Wiess history support this evidence.

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