RAILS GAVE LIFE TO SAWMILL TOWNS OF LONG AGO
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 24, 1978, and later reprinted in BIG THICKET BULLETIN.
Sources: Galveston DAILY NEWS, as is reproduced in W. T. Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES: THE CHRONICLES OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS, FROM RECONSTRUCTION TO SPINDLETOP, pp. 270-525.
The shrill blasts of steam whistles were not exactly strangers to the piney woods. But prior to 1881, they were emitted only by the steamboats which plied southward from Bevilport and Town Bluff on the Neches, or by the locomotives of the Yellow Bluff Tram Company, which dumped hundreds of logs into the river on daily runs between Buna and Yellow Bluff (north of Evadale). In 1880, Buna was not yet a sawmill town as it later became. It was first built by Joseph A. Carroll to house the logging crews of the Texas Tram and Beaumont Lumber Companies.
The year 1881, however, would initiate new and significant changes to the land of the pineys and spawn numerous sawmill towns whose names today are in some cases already forgotten. The first locomotive crossed Pine Island Bayou over the new bridge in 1881. Kountze was born as a camp for railroad laborers, and within months, the first rails and telegraph line reached Woodville. By 1883, the railroad stretched more than 100 miles, from the gulf at Sabine Pass to its northern terminus at Rockland.
The Sabine and East Texas Railroad had been chartered in 1858, but rail construction was completed only from Sabine to Beaumont when the Civil War began. During the 1870s, the line was acquired by the Kountze brothers, a banking firm of New York and Denver, whose East Texas Land and Improvement Co. owned 250,000 acres of prime timber lands, mostly in Hardin County. In 1882, the Sabine and East Texas was absorbed by the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, and later became a part of the sprawling Southern Pacific system. The stretch of line from Beaumont to Rockland was soon renamed the East Texas Railroad.
By 1890, seventeen sawmills had been built along the 100-mile road. Village, Warren, Hillister, and Colmesneil are numbered among those towns which survive today. But most of them disappeared like the long leaf, yellow pine forests which sustained them, for it has always been a fact of life in the forested South that the town died whenever the sawmill was dismantled and moved away. The East Texas towns of Nona, Sharon, Olive, Tryon, Plank, Hyatt, Summit, and Spring Creek are now only dim memories of a distant past, although in some instances a lonely marker beside the railroad tracks may mark the spot where some of them once stood.
Many of those earliest sawmill communities on the East Texas Railroad owed their existence to the Beaumont timber barons. The proprietors of the Beaumont Lumber Co., John C. Ward and the Carroll families, owned the Nona Mill Company located 22 miles north of Beaumont. The mill cut 65,000 feet of lumber daily. By 1889 the town of Nona had grown to 500 persons and included churches and schools. An independent planing mill, owned by Arthur Hutchins of Houston, dressed 70,000 feet of rough lumber daily, utilizing the combined outputs of the Nona mill and the Seneca Sawmill of Woodville.
The Nona Mill Company also owned 40,000 acres of virgin forests. The Nona Tram Co. consisted of six miles of narrow-gauge railroad, one locomotive and 12 flat cars to log the mill. The firm, along with the Beaumont Lumber Company, employed a total of 230 men in their sawmills and forest crews.
Two pioneer Beaumonters, Sidney C. Olive and J. A. Sternenberg, had originally built the huge Centennial Sawmill on the "Steam Mill Square" in Beaumont in 1876. With the opening of the railroad, they chose to move closer to their timber supply, and in 1882 they begin building the new Sunset Sawmill at Olive, about three miles north of Kountze. The town of Olive quickly grew to 500 inhabitants in 1889 and to 700 persons by 1904.
In 1883 the proprietors dismantled and sold the Centennial mill, which was soon re-erected in Tyler County. They also founded 35 retail lumber outlets over the state, and as a result, Olive moved to Waco to supervise the retail trade. Sternenberg eventually moved to Houston to help supervise the growing enterprise. He continued to spend much of his time on his farm at Olive, but left active management of the mill to his son and brother.
The Sunset sawmill cut 65,000 feet of lumber daily and owned a large dry kiln and planing mill. Logs were supplied by a locomotive and five flat cars, which made several trips daily along the five miles of tram road. Twelve of the mill employees organized the Olive Brass Band, which became well-known at Beaumont, where it played for many dances and concerts during the 1890s.
The Sunset sawmill burned in 1904, but Sternenberg used his employees to rebuild a new mill, which was back in operation in six months. In 1907, the Sunset mill burned for a second time, after which the town of Olive gradually disappeared. J. A. Sternenberg was also a well-known horticulturist who also maintained a home, a large farm, peach orchards and grape vinyards at Olive. He was continually experimenting and importing new strains of fruit trees and grape vines to add to his orchards. As a result, he was also instrumental in founding a canning factory at Olive, which had a daily capacity of 5,000 cans.
Two miles north of Olive was the small sawmill village of Tryon. The Tryon mill belonged to B. S. Fitzgerald and had a daily capacity of only 25,000 feet. The mill had no dry kiln or planing mill, and as a result, the mill's production was shipped to Orange for curing, dressing, and marketing by the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company.
The next mill town moving north on the railroad was Plank, or Noble's Switch, located 32 miles north of Beaumont. The Plank mill belonged to three brothers, J. W., E. S., and Oscar Middlebrook, and cut 50,000 feet daily. Its planing mill could dress 25,000 feet daily and shipped an average of 100 box cars of finished lumber each month. About 1891, the Plank sawmill was sold to J. A. Bentley and Co., and eventually it burned down about 1893.
The Middlebrook brothers were avid bear hunters and sportsmen, and always kept a large pack of hunting hounds. And the Plank woodlands soon became a favorite hunting retreat for the Beaumont nimrods as well, compliments of the Middlebrook brothers.
Very quickly after 1881, R. W. Snelling and D. J. Williams each built a sawmill at Kountze, and both mills were destroyed by the massive hurricane of Oct. 12, 1886. (The same storm destroyed Sabine Pass and Johnson's Bayou, La., drowning 196 persons in both towns.) Apparently, the log supply of each man was nearing depletion, for each chose to rebuild at other points to the north, Snelling at Woodville and Williams at Summit.
One of the first and largest sawmills on the railroad was the Village Mill Company, built at Village, or Long Station, in north Hardin County in 1881. Its owners, W. A. Fletcher and John W. Keith, also operated the Texas Tram and Lumber Company and Long Manufacturing Company at Beaumont. Its popular superintendent, J. Frank Keith, would later amass a considerable fortune in lumber and oil at Beaumont.
The Village mill began as a 50,000-foot sawmill, but by 1892 had been enlarged to 80,000 feet daily. Its extensive planing mills, lathe mill and Chicago dry kilns made it one of the best-equipped lumber manufactories in the South. In 1885, the sawmill shipped 11,247 box cars of timber products.
Fletcher and Keith operated 21 miles of tram roads, four locomotives and 60 log cars over their 110,000 acres of prime timber lands. It was at Village in 1895 that W. A. Fletcher first demonstrated and later patented his famed steam log skidder, which would revolutionize logging as extensively as Mark Wiess' steam-operated carriage would improve sawmill cutting capacity. Fletcher's invention was a massive machine with winches and 1,200-foot cables that could snatch a log from the forest to the railroad for loading. The log skidder stood on four high wheels, and its bulk straddled the log car it would load. Crane-like arms from the skidder would then lift the log and place it on the car. One must remember that many of these logs were of such size, 4 to 5-foot diameters, that only three logs could be placed on one flat car.
In Jan., 1895, the Village mill broke the world record by cutting 255,000 feet of lumber in 11 hours on a single circular saw, some 65,000 feet in excess of the previous record. Other mills quickly questioned the accuracy of the cut, but it was well attested to in numerous sworn affidavits before the Hardin county judge.
By 1889, the town of Village Mills had grown to 600 persons and included schools, churches, stores, a public hall, and a two-story hotel. By 1904, the population had increased to 800, four hundred of whom were employed by Kirby in his mill and forest operations. Although the few houses left there near the Tyler County line still have a post office, Village Mills has been only a shadow of its former self since the Kirby sawmill moved away.
The town of Hyatt was located in south Tyler County, near Hickory Creek, and 39 miles north of Beaumont. By 1889 the population there numbered about 800, most of whom lived in one hundred company-owned houses. In 1882 two brothers, Joseph S. and W. M. Rice, erected a 55,000-foot sawmill, along with dry kilns, a planing mill, and tram roads. In 1892, the Hyatt sawmill burned, but the proprietors soon replaced it with a new 75,000-foot mill. The sawmill owners of both Hyatt and Olive were well-known for their sponsorship of baseball teams composed of their employees. In fact, the Rice brothers played positions on their own team, and as early as 1883, they often played their rivals in Beaumont and Houston.
During the 1880s, the town of Warren in Tyler County emerged as the largest lumber producer along the railroad, and by 1893, its two mills were turning out 140,000 feet daily. As soon as the rails reached Warren, Alexander Young built the 70,000-foot Warren Lumber Co. sawmill, with William Brough, Jr., as its superintendent. In 1887, Young, in partnership with Brough and Krueger of Grand Rapids, Michigan, added a second large sawmill and planing mill a few hundred yards to the north and utilized a single marketing and bookkeeping division for both plants. The owners also had ten miles of tram road, three locomotives, and 35 flat cars, and they employed 200 mill hands and loggers. One account of 1889 stated:
"There is quite a respectable town built up at Warren, consisting of about 1,000 inhabitants. This establishment has a large store situated between the main line of the Sabine and East Texas railway and their siding, which serves also as a depot, telegraph office, and post office. Mr. H. D. Darden, the postmaster, handles 100 letters daily which is a pretty good showing for a fourth-class post office."
In 1884, the Tyler County Lumber Company erected a 30,000-foot sawmill at Hillister, four miles north of Warren. By 1890, this mill belonged to Arthur Hutchins and his brother, L. Hutchins, of Houston, and its capacity had been increased to 50,000 feet. The owners also owned three miles of narrow-gauge tram road, one locomotive and 15 cars, and employed 150 men in their plant and forest. In 1891, Arthur Hutchins moved his 70,000-foot planing mill from Nona to Hillister, and installed a Cole dry kiln with a capacity for drying 25,000 feet daily. L. Hutchins ran the mill, and J. Valentine was the bookkeeper, salesman, and paymaster.
The Seneca sawmill at Woodville belonged to R. W. Snelling and F. P. Gagne. It was built in 1887 as a 30,000-foot mill, and all of its rough product was shipped to Nona, Texas, to be dressed. In 1890, Snelling and Co. increased the capacity to 40,000 feet and added a planing mill. The owners had three miles of tram, one engine and 5 cars. The writer has a picture of huge logs lying in the yard of the Seneca mill about 1895, and each log, at least five feet in diameter, stood up to the necks of the men standing beside them.
Two of the smaller sawmills on the railroad were located in the extreme south end of Hardin County. One was Pipkin's sawmill at Pipkin's Station, and the other was the Turner and Hooks Lumber Co. mill at Sharon, or Hooks' Switch, 15 miles north of Beaumont. Each had a capacity of about 25,000 feet daily. In November, 1893, the Hooks mill blew up, killing and maiming 10 people and totally destroying the plant.
Perhaps the liveliest spot along the railroad was Colmesneil, whose population in 1889 numbered, 2,200 persons. It took its name in 1883 from Capt. Colmesneil, the first and very popular conductor on the East Texas trains. The town was also the junction with the Trinity Tap and Sabine Railroad.
The Yellow Pine Lumber Company there was perhaps the best-equipped in the state of Texas. Its daily cut was 75,000 feet on its rotary saw and 15,000 feet on its gang saw. Its dry kilns could accommodate 50,000 feet of green lumber each day, whereas its six planing machines could dress 100,000 feet daily, much of that being the output of the neighboring mills.
The pride of the Yellow Pine firm was its steam lumber stacker, which could stack 40,000 feet daily and do the work of 12 men. The company employed 300 men in the mills and woods and operated five miles of tram track, two engines, and 25 cars. By 1889 Colmesneil was the collecting point for great quantities of cotton, corn, hides, and other commodities, which it shipped to market via its two railroads. The town formerly consisted of twin villages, Ogden and Colmesneil, which grew together in 1887 and decided to consolidate. The following description of its thriving economy appeared in the Galveston "News" of 1889:
"The town is well supplied with schools and churches. The Baptist and Methodist churches are each well-fitted up, the former having a pew capacity of 350 persons, the latter for 250. Builders are now at work erecting a Catholic church, to be an exact counterpart of the pretty Catholic church of Orange."
"The high school building is fitted up with patent car seats with attached desks, a good supply of charts, blackboards, and an organ. There are 137 pupils assigned to this school for the coming scholastic term. There is another school building in North Colmesneil, to which 47 little pupils are assigned because the distance is too great from their homes to the larger school."
There are 23 business houses, seven hotels, and two livery stables. The Colmesneil "Times" is a neat, spicy paper published here every Wednesday, and has perhaps the best local circulation of any paper in eastern Texas."
The Yellow Pine mill employed 300 men in its plant and woods, and logged over 14 miles of standard tram rails with two locomotives and 24 cars. W. H. Carson was the company's general manager, assisted by Jack Mitterer and H. M. Fleming as mill foremen.
Three miles to the north of Colmesneil stood the lumbering village of Summit, where D. J. Williams and Co. operated a 30,000-foot mill, built in 1887. Williams had formerly plied the sawmiller trade at Kountze before a hurricane destroyed his business there in 1886.
Spring Creek, located four miles beyond Summit, was the next stop on the railroad. James and H. E. Craig founded the 30,000-feet per day Spring Creek sawmill, along with a planing mill of 20,000 feet daily capacity. The surrounding village of 200 persons had a post office, a town hall, and a general store.
Rockland, Texas, the northern rail terminus of the Eastern Texas line, contained the last two sawmills on the railroad. The Rockland Lumber Company, owned by Joseph A. and A. D. Carroll and J. W. Delaney, operated a 50,000-foot mill on the banks of the Neches River, employed 75 men, and owned tram roads and large tracts of timber lands in the surrounding counties. The other sawmill belonged to R. D. Davis, the proprietor of the Rockland Hotel, but no mill statistics are available for it. By 1893, the Carrolls and Delaney had sold out to the Aldridge Lumber Company.
In 1885 the Sabine and East Texas mills manufactured 60,000,000 feet of lumber, almost double the production of the Beaumont sawmills, and shipped 7,404 box cars of timber products. Within a decade these statistics would double again.
In retrospect, some ecologists and writers have sought to portray the pioneer East Texas sawmillers as the despoilers of the public domain, content only to reap windfall profits. Careful scrutiny of the mill statistics, wages and prices of their day, however, indicates that the early millers found it equally necessary to swim with the competitive currents, or else sink in the stream, paying low wages perhaps, but likewise reaping only the modest profits that stiff competition would allow.
While the frontier millman paid no income tax, neither was he nurtured by a benevolent government, nor blessed with reasonable interest and insurance rates, by which he might expand or protect his business. The ever-present threat of fire could easily have, and often did, pauperize him in one night.
Concerning despoliation of forests, the sawmillers' attitudes were equally shared by the pioneer farmers. Except as firewood, lumber, or a game preserve, timber was a menace to agriculture, one which obstructed the plow and sapped the soil of its vital moisture. To the sawmiller, trees were his and his employees' 'bread and butter,' and for every forest monarch logged to the mill, others were girdled in the field and left to die.
But inevitably, despoliation also wrought changes in the forest and in the ways of the woodsman. Gone are the days of cut over stump land, for new seedlings soon replace the saw logs as soon as they fall to the ground. And gone to are Olive, and Hyatt, and Call, and Bessmay (although Bessmay is just now rebounding as a new mill site), for the move of the mill and the mill hands to new timber stands was a way of life that East Texans had come to accept.
And gone for the most part are the whir and shotgun exhaust of the steam carriages, the whine of the circular and gang saws, and the screech of the big band saws, but at such former mill sites as Call and Honey Island, the echoes and memories of sawmill days, when life was simpler and people were friendlier, linger on.