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Hidden Chambers

Destination: Anahuac

By Larry Bozka

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 3.75 hours /
  • Brownsville - 6 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • El Paso - 13.25 hours /
  • Houston - 1 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.5 hours
  • Lubbock - 9.75 hours

Only an hour east of Houston, Chambers County and the historic town of Anahuac hold on tightly to Texas’ deepest roots.

To the tens of thousands of distracted travelers who motor past here every day, heading east toward Beaumont or west back to Houston, it’s just another bridge.

Those of us who have stopped to look around know better. The Trinity River Bridge at I-10 East is a virtual gateway to Texas’ colorful past.

Mixed-breed cattle, feral hogs and white-tailed deer all wander freely beneath the billowing green canopy of oaks and willows that sharply traces the Trinity’s water-carved slopes. It’s hard to believe, looking out the window, that we’re only half an hour away from the fourth largest city in the nation.

The river below this bridge and, in fact, the entire stretch of hardwood bottoms, bays and estuaries from here on east to the Sabine River bottom and the Louisiana border, remain a mystery to preoccupied drivers who haven’t a clue as to what they’re passing on their hurried journeys to more distant locales.

They’d be amazed.

The contrast only increases as we roll past Wallisville, and soon thereafter, take the sharp right turn that leads us down FM 563 to the tiny town of Anahuac and, just beyond it, Oak Island Lodge on Trinity Bay.

An early-season cold front has swept the sky clean. High above us, a gurgling flock of white-fronted geese wings an instinctive path toward the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Tonight, the exhausted “specklebellies” will pause to rest. At sunrise they’ll keep on riding the wind’s coattails south. But first, like us, they’re taking a much-needed break near the diminutive but deeply historic East Texas burg of Anahuac.

Anahuac is the Aztec name for Mexico City. Explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to come here (see related article, The Accidental Samaritan, March 2005). He arrived in November, 1528, shipwrecked, and with a small band of survivors spent six years among the region’s Karankawa Indians.

Fast-forward a mere three centuries to 1830, when the Mexican government established a military post at Perry’s Point, later renamed “Fort Anahuac.” Efforts to collect duties, and, above all, contain Anglo-American colonization, were mostly in vain.

Given the choice to relive history, it’s fairly safe to say that Colonel Juan Davis Bradburn, commander of the Anahuac garrison, would have reconsidered before briefly imprisoning William B. Travis and comrades in 1832. The colonel’s brash decision, his failure to pay colonists for fort-building supplies and labor and his apparent inability to control his disorderly troops, ultimately triggered the first open revolt against Mexican rule.

With land absorbed from the fringes of Liberty and Jefferson Counties, Chambers County was established in 1858. The coastal prairie and river woodlands were quickly settled by a dynamic entourage of pioneers, privateers and politicians.

Their audacious spirit remains. It’s apparent everywhere you go, swirling around the twisted brown knees of the Texas coast’s sole remaining cypress stand, cautiously peering from the red clay bluffs of Trinity Bay’s easternmost shore and dancing without a care in the black, flickering shadows of Fort Anahuac Park’s ancient live oaks.

Oak Island Lodge owner Artie Presley and fishing and hunting guide James “Frenchie” France are waiting on the outside deck when we enter the gate. Frenchie has boiled up a gargantuan pile of blue crabs, new potatoes and corn on the cob, drained off the water and poured the whole steaming works onto a dense mat of newspaper.

The Marks and I dig in.

Mark Hall is my hunting buddy, a determined road warrior and avid sportsman who never hesitates to take the wheel, no matter how far or how long, when the course is set for a promising bayshore or blind.

Mark Mantell is a close friend of more than 20 years, a nationally recognized contemporary and sporting artist who is here to gather images for future work.

That’s his excuse, he says, and he’s sticking with it.

He gets no argument from me. Trinity Bay in October is a splashy watercolor painting waiting to happen.

We make our introductions, and decide that for simplicity’s sake, Hall will be called “H” and Mantell will go by “M.” This distinction will serve us well in the two days to come.

Inside the lodge, Sarah Cerrone has already assembled a collection of historic information that could, and does, fill several substantial books. One of them, Chambers County: A Pictorial History, is number 1,270 out of a limited edition of 2,000 copies. Inside the slip cover is a letter from former Texas governor William P. “Bill” Clements.

Signed by hand, Clements’ correspondence celebrates Anahuac’s priceless value as a unique gem of Texas history. This book, and others, will keep me up late tonight.

Cerrone, I soon discover, is a bona fide local expert. Officially, her title is director of special projects and economic development for Chambers County. To area residents, the personable, red-headed emissary is better known as “The Chambers County ambassador.”

While working as a graphic artist, Cerrone got involved with Chambers County tourism in 1989. “The longer I worked, the more I realized just how much this area has to offer,” Cerrone says. “If there is a problem, it’s that we’re so close to Houston that people take us for granted.”

Unfortunately, she’s right.

Early Tuesday morning, we follow Frenchie to meet his friend Mark Porter (another Mark?). Porter owns Porter’s Processing and Alligator Farm. His studio, essentially a subtle extension of his house, is an alligator enthusiast’s nirvana.

There are mounts of alligator heads large and small, some that integrate “escaping” ducks just above the reptiles’ wide-open jaws. Porter proudly displays full-length tanned alligator hides in coal black and chocolate brown, a high-end alligator purse and, of course, alligator cowboy boots.

The latter are reminiscent of the tenderized gator meat Porter also sells. Be it barbecued ’gator tail or a shining pair of honey-colored boots, the crossover from Texas to Louisiana is as natural as Porter’s products.

He points out the perimeter of his large backyard and indicates a nearby fence. “The breeder gators are back there,” he tells us.

We take his word for it.

Porter also helps the state and county by removing “nuisance ’gators.” As populations expand and habitat shrinks, such “problem” animals are becoming increasingly prevalent in parks, housing additions and golf courses. Though the animals aren’t usually aggressive toward humans, they nonetheless think nothing of killing small pets.

“To a mature alligator,” Porter matter-of-factly says, “a puppy looks just like any other meal.”

He shows us his gator-tooth necklaces, and then ducks out the door. He returns with a live 4-foot-long specimen firmly in his grasp, unable to hide his amusement at the reaction he gets from my friend “M.”

“Don’t worry,” Porter says. “It’s too cool for him to be very frisky.”

He sets the reptile free on his lawn, where, after soaking up sunshine for several minutes, it begins to crawl across the yard. Porter allows the alligator momentary freedom and then abruptly takes it back to a holding pen.

After a final look at Porter’s shed, where heavily salted, rolled-up hides are stacked up high, we shake hands, thank him for his time and head back to the lodge for some trout fishing with Frenchie.

Trinity Bay can be a spectacular angling venue, particularly during spring and fall. Today is no exception.

The specks are cooperative, hitting lures and live bait with line-stretching enthusiasm. The sky is a vibrant blue, radiant and devoid of clouds. The wind is barely a breeze. Wheeling flocks of laughing gulls move from one surfaced school of trout to the next, and catching fish is as simple as following the birds.

Once the tackle is stowed and all the 20-inch-class trout are boxed and iced, we head in to eat fresh-grilled ribeyes while a fast-sinking sun spills liquid amber on the water just beyond the deck and nearby fishing pier.

Shortly after 10, Frenchie brings around the lodge’s camouflaged airboat. Sharp-pronged flounder gigs rest by the aluminum gunnels. Each of The Marks grabs one.

I secure my camera and join the veteran guide on the elevated bench seat, where he operates the craft’s controls. With a push of the floor pedal, we’re (almost) flying across the bay.

In just over two hours, The Marks gig and box well over a dozen fat flounder. It could easily have been more. However, we agreed up-front to let the smaller, barely-legal flatfish rest.

Perhaps they’ll still be here next time.

Viewed after dark from a lit-up airboat, Texas bays become surreal. We wear dense foam earplugs to counter the constant roar of the 502-cc engine, its three-blade prop slashing the moistened air with a nonstop, weird-pitched whine. A soft, non-reflective bank of 12-volt fluorescent “green lights” illuminates the shallows and clearly exposes a continuous parade of marine life large and small.

Needle-nosed gar, mullet, menhaden and glass minnows, blue crabs, shrimp and even the occasional speckled trout and redfish pass through the emerald-tinted glow until just after midnight, when Frenchie turns the rig back toward Oak Island.

The sun is well up when we awaken, enjoy a quick breakfast, pack our gear, extend our thanks to Presley and France and start the brief journey home. As “H” maps an extended travel route, we concur that Fort Anahuac Park is an essential stop.

The historical markers alone justify the side trip.

A very old anchor, snagged by a bay shrimper in 1967 and refurbished by a local shipyard before going on display, begs to tell its story. Sadly, its origin remains a mystery.

Yet, like the hardy people and places of Chambers County and Anahuac, it can only speak to those who stop to visit.

I, for one, am very glad we pulled over.

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