Remembering Riverside and a Population Boom –
“My parents came here (to Orange) right after WW2 II,” said Dorraine Babcock. “My Mom described it this way; – tents all the way into Orange down Highway 90, no places for people to live. Mosquitoes as big as horseflies. People everywhere because there was lots of work.”
Susan Willeford remembered: “My parents came here at that same time. Lived in Navy housing off of 10th street until we moved to Ruby Lane. My dad was a bricklayer.”
There was an influx of sailors and workers moving to the Orange area during World War II. Major shipbuilders were in Orange at that time – like Levingston, Consolidated, and Weaver – and shipbuilders were constructing all types of warships. Orange’s population boomed from a little over 7,000 in 1940 to 60,000 before the war was over, and housing didn’t exist to accommodate that many workers.
In 1941, the US Navy authorized construction of 500 sturdy housing units for workers and Navy officers, called Navy Addition. The government condemned land so it could be bought at a lower cost, and brought in 200 demountable houses and 300 trailers, and built a Navy barracks.
Still many workers and their families lived in small travel trailers or camped in dirt-floor tents throughout the city.
So not only did people make due, but land- and lot-owners capitalized on this by renting rooms out, or allowing people to set up camp on their lots, charging for a bathhouse, restroom and running water.
In 1942, a hastily-built community called Riverside was built, and at the time it was the largest public housing complex ever built in the US. More than 4,500 prefab homes were erected on reclaimed marshland. The site was selected for its proximity to shipyards, and due to war rationing – most people could not drive to work because of lack of gasoline and good tires, so it allowed them to walk to work.
The marsh between Mill Street and the Sabine River was covered with five feet of river sand and mud, and the homes went up before the mud had settled. The community had stores, a fire station, schools and a rec center.
Drainage was non-existent in the neighborhood and it was called “one monstrous sandpile” by locals. Riverside was even immortalized in poems written in 1944 by ninth grade students at Carr Junior High School:
Shelter for workmen and their families,
Gray houses, frail houses,
Like rows of matchboxes on a grocer’s shelf.
Streets filled with water
Whether the sun shines or it rains.
Tiny yards of river sand,
Tufts of sickly grass struggling for life.
Cars parked endlessly on one-way streets,
The give and take of rushing cars,
Wrecked cars, rusty cars
Naked-looking tireless cars.
This was before Simmons Drive existed. By the 1970s, Riverside addition was showing signs of neglect, and eventually Riverside was sold to a company out of Houston. The addition was empty by the mid-1980s, after the structures left standing were moved or demolished. Only traces of the roads can be seen for those who venture into the dense brush where Riverside once stood. Some of the houses were moved elsewhere in Orange, to new neighborhoods.
But many people, like Dorraine Babcock, have nothing but fond memories of Riverside.
“My parents were lucky to get a place to live in Riverside,” she recalled. “Hot and humid just like it is now. Both of them got jobs at Levingston Shipbuilding. Lots of young couples settled in Orange, raised their children in this growing community with wonderful schools and churches.”
(This article is the first in the new “Picture It-” series)
(WW II info courtesy of Dr. Howard C. Williams’ wonderful books about Orange County, “Gateway to Texas” and “Picturing Orange”)