By Thanasis Kombos
Editor’s note: The following is the first of four parts of a history of New Birmingham, the ghost town outside Rusk, written by Thanasis Kombos, a Jacksonville resident who is currently a history major at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Kombos prefaced his submission of this paper to the Daily Progress with a letter explaining his motivation for sending his work for publication. A portion of his letter prefaces this section of his paper.
The subsequent parts of his paper will be printed on the coming three Sundays, accompanied by photos, as applicable, of New Birmingham.
A letter from the author: My desire to publish in the Jacksonville Daily Progress is twofold.
Firstly, as New Birmingham’s history is vivid and colorful and town’s eventual failure has had lasting effects on Cherokee County and East Texas as a whole, I believe it deserves a place in the active memory of the area’s citizens.
Secondly, and I believe of more importance, concerns the place and value of history in our culture today. In this day, more and more it seems that the appreciation of a community’s heritage and its civic pride, once propelled and supported by a genuine interest in history, has, in many ways, greatly diminished.
In 1913, Ossie Wiggins, the salutatorian of Jacksonville High School, wrote an essay describing the history of Cherokee County to date. By submitting my essay for publication, I hope to continue that same tradition of students of history (especially our younger generation of lay historians) taking up the pen and writing on our community’s history and sharing their work with the rest of the populace.
Emily Dickinson once wrote “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.”
While the likes of New Birmingham surely did not inspire her to construct such poetry, the past inhabitants of this Texas ghost town knew the truth of her words better than most as a people who perennially recognized the distinct taste of success, but never won the opportunity to savor it.
Beginning in 1887, with the establishment of the town, and through the succeeding decades, the promise of success, guaranteed by iron, oil or timber, all betrayed those who wished to see the town rise to the grand prominence and stature they believed destiny owed them.
Of the area’s (namely Cherokee County) failed enterprises, the collapse of its iron industry is unequivocally the most unfortunate.
Deemed the “Iron Queen of the Southwest” only weeks after its founding, early on, New Birmingham displayed the makings of town primed to become the largest industrial city in Texas. However, great potential does not always determine success, and the reality of New Birmingham attests to this truth.
Historians, journalists, politicians, and many others have all postulated as to why New Birmingham never answered its call to greatness. Despite a loose grounding in fact, many people, even in this day, still hold strong to the belief that a curse placed on the town by an enraged widow caused the ruin of New Birmingham. Without completely discrediting the plausibility of the negative effect of the widow’s curse, in all likelihood it played no role in the destruction of the town save perhaps adversely effecting the emotions and perceptions of New Birmingham’s residents.
Ultimately, the cause of ruin for New Birmingham was two-fold. The Alien Land Law of Texas, proposed and endorsed by Governor James Stephen Hogg, prevented New Birmingham from receiving large investments of capital from overseas investors. The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depressed economic state of the union through the 1890’s destroyed the market for New Birmingham’s pig iron.
Coupled together, the alien land law and the panic dealt deadly blows to the budding New Birmingham venture, from which recovery was impossible.
Despite the grand downfall of New Birmingham, grander still, was the rise of the mini-metropolis. The architect of New Birmingham’s rise was Anderson B. Blevins, an enterprising Alabama sewing machine salesman who had immigrated to East Texas years before the establishment of the town.
Through his years of traversing through East Texas peddling his sewing machines, Blevins became aware of the vast iron deposits in and around Rusk, Texas. Upon learning that no significant private enterprise existed to extract and process the ore, Blevins sought to capitalize on the advantageous situation.
In need of private capital to actualize his vision for a second Birmingham, Blevins found fiscal support from local investors Dr. D. C. Jones and William H. Hamman (Blevins brother-in-law) of Calvert, Texas and E. L. Gregg of Rusk. Together, these men formed D. C. Jones and Company.
Soon thereafter, with further investments by wealthy eastern capitalists Richard L. Coleman and Henry T. Kent of St. Louis and H. H. Wibert of New York, the company reorganized as the Cherokee Iron and Land Company.
By the fall of 1887, the New Birmingham Company had selected the site from which to raise the town and commenced plans for the building of a 50-ton iron furnace.
In the spring of 1888, the company once again reorganized, this time into the New Birmingham Iron and Land Company as William R. Utley, Robert A. Van Wyck and later James Mahoney, all of New York, bought stock in the company.
For the town site, the investors of the New Birmingham Company purchased 20,000 acres of the choicest land, approximately 2 miles southeast of Rusk. Abounding with natural resources, the land purchased by the company contained a seemingly inexhaustible supply of iron ore and vast pine and hardwood tree forests.
The attractiveness of the land was a marvel in and of itself as Tom Finty Jr., a one-time resident of New Birmingham imaginatively describes: “It [New Birmingham] was then and is yet a scene of natural beauty, especially in the autumn, when there is a great contrast of color. The red of the iron-impregnated soil gleams and the brighter red of the gums flames between the dark greens of the grass and pines, with the bronzes and browns of the fading oaks establishing a bond.”
Now in possession of such a fine locality to found a town, Blevins and the other promoters believed that just as Birmingham, Alabama had found success, so too would New Birmingham, as the latest “Vulcan” city.
As millions of dollars in capital poured into the new town, overnight a humming little city, equipped with all of the ornaments of the most modern town, replaced the quiet benevolent forests of East Texas.
The two 50-ton iron furnaces of the town, the “Tassie Belle” named after Blevins wife, and the “Star and Crescent,” so titled because investors of Texas and New Orleans had provided the funds to construct the structure, produced pig iron at a profitable cost of about $11 a ton.
The New Birmingham Company also built the New Birmingham Pipe Works, a 25-ton pipe foundry, as well as the J. D. Baker Brick Company, capable of producing 25,000 bricks a day.
The New Birmingham Lumber Company’s planing and shingle mill provided the wood materials for the town’s construction projects and New Birmingham’s coal-fired electric light plant produced electricity for New Birmingham and parts of Rusk. Surely a mark of the approaching 20th century, New Birmingham even boasted an ice factory.
Other buildings and businesses worth mention include the F. W. Bonner and Son’s Bank, New Birmingham’s park and railway depot, a mule-drawn interurban that travelled the short distance between Rusk and New Birmingham, various other mercantile shops and residential houses, the large stately brick schoolhouse deemed the New Birmingham Institute, the office of the sophisticated weekly newspaper, the New Birmingham Times, and finally the magnificent Southern Hotel.
A note about included photos: The photos of New Birmingham were generously provided by members of the Cherokee County Historical Commission and were part of a special publication, printed in October 1891, designed to lure new residents to the booming town.
By Thanasis Kombos
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