Photo: Photo taken by Bob Benoit (1903-1983), son of Murphy Benoit, my grandfather’s brother.
The Borealis Rex navigated the Louisiana waters of Calcasieu River between Lake Charles and Cameron from 1905 to 1930. During the week, the paddlewheel steamer was used to transport mail, supplies and people who conducted business along the river. Nights and weekends were for pleasure — when the Rex was used for parties, moonlight dances, Sunday afternoon cruises and joy rides.
The Rex was built in 1888 to work a route on the Illinois River between Peoria and LaSalle. She also worked along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers before the Cameron Transportation Co. purchased her in Morgan City for about $14,000. There was no Intracoastal Canal back then, so the Rex was towed in the Gulf of Mexico behind a tugboat to the mouth of the Calcasieu River. From there she was piloted upstream to Lake Charles, where she began her busy schedule of three round trips a week between home port and Cameron. She carried everything from cotton and groceries to cattle and new Model-T Fords — and everyone from priests and schoolteachers to circuit judges and insurance salesmen.
Only one event in her 25 years of work along the Calcasieu interrupted the Rex’s schedule — the hurricane of 1918. With 40 passengers and six crew members aboard, the Rex left Cameron the morning of August 6th, fighting steadily rising winds as she tried to get back to port in Lake Charles. A blast of wind overpowered her when she reached the mouth of the Calcasieu River in Prien Lake, driving her against the shore. Everyone aboard got off safely and rode out the storm in a nearby home. The Rex, however, was not so lucky. The storm’s 100 mile-per-hour winds forced her a mile downstream, where she and sank in 8-10 foot waves. The Rex was soon rescued, repaired and put back to work in the Spring of 1919.
In 1930, the Borealis Rex was retired. The Cameron mail contract had been awarded to a faster, gasoline-powered boat — and a road was built across the marsh to Cameron. She was anchored at the end of Pujo Street and left to rot. Her hulk and boilers provided scrap metal in support of America’s war effort in WWII.
Speech given by Annette Norman
October 25, 1993
Civic Center, Lake Charles, LA
Honorable Mayor Willie Mount, members of the Lake Charles City Council, officials from Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, members of the Southwest Louisiana Historical Association and other honored guest and friends:
On behalf of the McCain family, it is an honor to be invited to be a part of this special and historic occasion. We would like to express our appreciation to all the members of the Southwest Louisiana.
Historical Association to make it possible. We would also like to thank the Mayor of the city of Lake Charles for taking such an interest in preserving this important part of the history of the Lake Charles area.
At the dedication of this monument, we would like to share our feelings of pride and we would also like to share a few memories from the history of the Borealis Rex as it relates to our family.
Our family memories begin with a young Irish professor named Edward McCain, who ventured out from Ireland and came to America to begin teaching in New Orleans. This young Irishman married and settled in Washington parish, Louisiana where he continued to teach. One of his 10 children Edward, Jr., was born and in 1827 grew up to be to become the Sherriff of Washington parish and also served in the civil war. Three of the children of Edward, Jr. were Tom McCain, Jim McCain, and Angus Bouie McCain born in 1861.
As young men, these three brothers made their way from Washington parish to Lake Charles. Angus Bouie McCain married Cora Peake, a great-granddaughter of Charles Sallier, the founder of the city of Lake Charles. Together, Angus Bouie, the Irishman and his French wife Cora made their home at the corner of Shell Beach Drive and Park Avenue in Lake Charles. Angus Bouie acquired a boat named the “Romeo,” but this boat soon became too small to accommodate the growing business of transporting passengers and freight. In 1905 he went to Morgan City and bought the “Borealis Rex.” The Rex as originally built in 1888 by D.W. Swain in Stillwater, Minnesota. It has been used up and down rivers in Illinois before being brought to Morgan City.
Soon the borealis Rex became the only reliable means of transporting freight, passengers, livestock and the U.S. mail from Lake Charles to Cameron. It was also used on return trips to bring produce and stock from Cameron Parish. But the Rex became more than a method of transportation. It formed a link between the people of Lake Charles and Cameron, creating better understanding and promoting progress in both areas in a crucial time in the history of our state.
When people heard the sound of the Rex arriving, it was said that everyone stopped what they were doing to come and meet the boat, to visit, and to see what the Rex had brought. On certain days, usually Sundays, the Rex would bring an orchestra and stop at certain places, such as Feagan Wharf in Big Lake, where people were waiting to come aboard and socialize.
On one of these visits to Big Lake, a young man named George Angus McCain was aboard the Rex to help his father, Angus Bouie McCain, in operating the boat. At Feagan Wharf, George met a young lady named Mima Hebert, and a few years later they were married. They were my grandparents, so this is a special memory of our family.
In commercial ventures and in social and personal contacts, the Borealis Rex was an integral part of the lives of people in Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes. The Rex was operated by Angus Bouie McCain for almost 20 years. As his health began to fail, his brother, Tom McCain, offered to buy the boat and with some other businessmen formed a company which operated the boat for several more years.
This boat was important to the commerce of this area for almost 30 years, until the highway was built from Lake Charles to Cameron. Then the post office no longer needed the Rex to carry the mail, and it was not feasible to operate the Rex any longer. Eventually, it was left tied up at a wharf here at the foot of Pujo Street and as time passed, it sank into the lake.
The Borealis Rex was majestic and powerful in its time. There are a few old photographs of the boat which have been reproduced or enlarged, and different artists have recently painted or sketched pictures of it. However, there is one original oil painting of the Rex which we have on display today for you to see. It was painted in 1907. This painting is kept on display in the office of Max McCain Morris, grandson of Angus Bouie.
Many of the residents of our city have actually seen the Borealis Rex, and some have fond memories of riding on the Rex. They have passed these memories down to their younger generations, but the dedication of this monument today helps to insure that the memories will not be lost with time. For this market will be a lasting tribute to the Borealis Rex, a part of our history, and we thank you for that.
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