Editor’s note: The following is a research paper 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 for publication with a letter explaining his motivation for sending us his paper. 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: Through the course of the last fall semester I wrote a primary-source-based research paper as an assignment for one of my history classes. New Birmingham, the abandoned ghost town outside of Rusk, was the subject I chose to explore and write on. 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 fifty-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 twenty thousand acres of the choicest land, approximately two 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 fifty-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 eleven dollars a ton.
The New Birmingham Company also built the New Birmingham Pipe Works, a twenty-five-ton pipe foundry, as well as the J. D. Baker Brick Company, capable of producing twenty-five thousand 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 twentieth 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.
If the construction of the iron furnaces or the ice factory did not inspire awe in the local inhabitants and visitors of New Birmingham, the belle of the town, the Southern Hotel, would definitely have made a lasting impression.
Lavishly decorated with true southern charm and built at a cost of $75,000 in 1889, the Southern was the icon and social center for New Birmingham.
The Southern, well-equipped with three stories, 100 rooms and the finest bird’s-eye maple furnishings, had no equal in regards to elegance anywhere in East Texas and arguably the entirety of Texas itself. The interior walls of the hotel were paneled with curly leaf pine, orchestras and flowers were shipped from Dallas and Houston, both sure indications of men of means during the time.
The first hotel guest book displayed the signatures of blue-bloods such as U.S. President Grover Cleveland; Robert Van Wyck, future mayor of New York City; and railroad tycoon Jay Gould, among others.
Multi-course suppers in the Southern’s main dining room, attended by lords and barons from England, possessed a certain je ne sais quoi about them. The frequent social events at the hotel usually took the form of dances attended by “tall, handsome beau brummells in burnsides (who) bowed and twisted before some of the most authentically elegant ladies ever in East Texas.”
It would seem that as New Birmingham “reveled before the gaping eyes” of America, nothing would bring an end to the pageantries and gaiety enjoyed by the citizens of the Iron Queen.
For all of the iron ore in the area, the two capable furnaces, the steady stream of new inhabitants (New Birmingham, at its height, had a population of more than 2,000) and the desire of many to facilitate the permanence of New Birmingham, the growth of the Iron Queen did not suit all, specifically, necessary investors from the Northeast.
Witnessing the success of New Birmingham first-hand, eastern capitalists feared that New Birmingham would interfere with Big Steel’s iron markets of the South and West. Accordingly, as New Birmingham threatened their best interests, the wealthy northeastern investors harbored no pleasant attitude toward the notion of East Texas transforming from a consuming to a producing center.
The members of the New Birmingham Iron and Development Co. (the product of the reorganization of the New Birmingham Iron and Land Co. in 1890), did not initially anticipate the costs of business. Realizing that despite the company’s $3.5 million in assets, more funds would need to be procured to continue the livelihood of the company, the members sent delegates to London in hopes of generating interest for new investment.
The representatives found an interested party in the Baring Brothers, a financial and banking powerhouse of the British Empire. Consequently, the investment firm sent its members to New Birmingham to investigate the proposition.
In order to fully understand the Baring Brothers’ opinion of the New Birmingham venture, it must be clarified that in the English tradition, it was considered fundamental to possess large quantities of coal for the profitable production of pig iron. When the Englishmen arrived in New Birmingham and observed the vast wooded forests (able to be processed into coal) owned by the New Birmingham Co., they wasted little time agreeing upon an investment deal.
In the agreement, Baring Brothers promised to invest $1 million in the New Birmingham Iron and Development Co., and an additional $5 million toward development projects for manufacturing pig iron into finished products.
Had the deal gone into effect, New Birmingham would have been set on sure footing, the future of the town as an industrial center of the southwest cemented.
Unfortunately, the deal never finalized.
After 1893 and the economic panic, a gaunt shell of abandoned buildings replaced the sprawling miniature metropolis of New Birmingham.
The details surrounding the failed attempts to finance the New Birmingham Co. and the nationwide depression of the 1890s would appear to be necessary events of discussion concerning any history of the failed town. But, all too often this is not the case.
In response to the perpetual question, “Why did New Birmingham fail?”, the curse of Mrs. Hamman lives on in the minds of the people as the true agent of destruction. Certainly, the superstitions and religious fervor of East Texas residents have nurtured such a romantic belief.
As a result, in order to discern the true causation of New Birmingham’s failure and sleuth the town’s history, one must start by rejecting this fantastical theory.
The story of Mrs. Hamman is one of intrigue and fascination, and it is so engrained with the memory of the town it deserves adequate mention.
As the story is told, S. T. Cooney and his wife, both originally from Tennessee, moved to New Birmingham and took up residence in the Southern Hotel.
At the time, former Confederate General William H. Hamman (Blevins brother-in-law and original financier of land options for the New Birmingham Company) and his wife were also occupying a suite at the Southern.
Within a short period of time, Hamman’s wife, taking notice of Mrs. Cooney, for whatever reason, opposed of the manner in which she conducted herself in public (one might also assume that Mrs. Hamman harbored some jealous feeling towards the more youthful Mrs. Cooney).
In opposition, the General and Mrs. Hamman began to circulate slanderous rumors regarding Mrs. Cooney. Shortly thereafter, the father of Mrs. Cooney travelled from Tennessee to visit his daughter and son-in-law in New Birmingham.
Upon the father’s arrival, he caught ear of the slanderous remarks that were making their way through the town. Mrs. Cooney’s father admonished Mr. Cooney for not openly addressing the situation and entreated him to murder General Hamman for the lies he had spread if he considered himself a man of honor.
Charged by his father-in-law’s words, Mr. Cooney immediately sought the general.
Quickly, he located Hamman walking off a train returning from Jacksonville. Spying Hamman from within his grocery story, Cooney watched as the general proceeded up Dallas Street, one of New Birmingham’s primary business avenues.
As Hamman passed by Cooney’s grocery, Cooney stormed out onto the street, walked within six feet of the general, and fired once from his double-barreled, 12 gauge shotgun.
The shot hit Hamman, wounding him in the back of his head and neck. The general immediately “wheeled [around] facing his assailant with hands uplifted, uttering some imprecations unintelligible to those who witnessed the affair.” He then collapsed, and within five minutes he died.
Hamman’s wife, in route to meet her husband on the train, witnessed the murder not many yards away.
Cooney, arrested immediately, did not resist. In court, he was found guilty of manslaughter and served two years in a state penitentiary, before being pardoned by lame duck Lt. Gov. George Cassety Pendleton on Dec. 31, 1892.
Despite Mrs. Hamman’s tireless appeals for the lynching of Cooney, her petitions fell on deaf ears.
Distraught because of Cooney’s unjustifiable release, she flew into a fit of rage. Racing down the streets of New Birmingham she pleaded to God to destroy the town. Rather prophetically, she asked God to forsake New Birmingham so that no building of any kind be left standing, and for the pine trees of the forest to re-conquer the town site.
In less than a year, the Jacksonville Banner reported that New Birmingham was “absolutely dead,” and the fate that Mrs. Hamman wished to see New Birmingham succumb occurred just as she professed.
As Mrs. Hamman’s words eventually rang true to the residents of New Birmingham and the people of the surrounding area of Cherokee County, superficially it would seem befitting that the destruction of the town was the effect God’s divine retribution.
There is no evidence to substantiate this claim, and one can safely assume that while New Birminghamites lived the divine life, they did not come to an end because of a fall from God’s grace. Instead, political obstacles and the simple principles of economics brought an end “to the glory that was Rome— or rather, New Birmingham.”
The main obstacle that prevented the sustained success of New Birmingham and near wholly contributed to its failure concerned, quite simply, the inability of the Baring Brothers and the New Birmingham Company to finalize their investment deal. But the failure of the two parties to reach a final agreement did not involve themselves; rather, the fault lies with Gov. James Hogg’s support for the Alien Land Law.
Essentially, the law forbade any alien from holding land in the state of Texas, and prevented massive purchases of Texas land and resources by foreign aliens. By preventing the seizure of land by foreigners, Hogg believed that this would marginalize land speculation and limit swarms of foreign tenantry on large estates controlled by alien landlords.
Once the attorneys for the Baring Brothers learned of the details of the law, they informed their clients that investment in the New Birmingham Company would not be a prudent venture, as Texas law forbade aliens from owning land.
Hoping that some kind of accommodation could be met, both parties invited Hogg and his associates to an illustrious banquet at the Southern Hotel on July 16, 1891. In celebrating the governor’s arrival, festivities and parades commenced throughout the day, culminating with an evening dinner at the Southern.
Food dishes on the menu for the meal included mock turtle, venison, saddle of lamb, an array of side dishes, several fine wines and Apollinaris cigars. Despite this lavish treatment, unconvinced, Hogg continued to discourage the Englishmen from the investment project.
Pleas by members of the New Birmingham Company for a modification or exemptions to the Alien Land Law did not alter Hogg’s belief in the merit of the legislation.
Besides Hogg’s faith in the Alien Land Law, the political situation in the summer of 1892 in Texas may have also shaped Hogg’s decision not support an exception for the Baring Brothers’ New Birmingham investment plan.
In 1892, Texas experienced some of the greatest political activity since Reconstruction with the introduction of the Texas Peoples’ Party (a state party aligned with the broader national populist movement of the time) onto the political scene. Made up mostly of small independent farmers and sheep ranchers, laborers and blacks, the party staunchly supported an increase in the amount of money in circulation and any laws or preventative actions to keep land from the possession of large alien landowners.
For Hogg, he faced the difficult prospect of trying to assimilate this sizable population of historically democratic voters (in the 1892 gubernatorial race, the Texas Peoples’ party garnered 25 percent of the vote) back into the Democratic Party’s fold.
Conscious of this situation, one may justifiably speculate that in order to neutralize the populists’ threat to the Texas’ Democratic Party, Hogg refused any dispensation to the Baring Brothers because he feared that allowing the English firm to buy out the New Birmingham Company would have only widened the rift between himself and the populists.
Whether or not this is truly the case, the fact remains that as a consequence of Hogg’s unwillingness to support an amendment to the law, the weary English investors abandoned the New Birmingham investment project.
Along with both parties of the investment project and Gov. Hogg and his associates, many notable New Birmingham citizens attended the banquet at the Southern on the sixteenth of July; among those in attendance was Mr. L. T. Moore, a New Birmingham real estate dealer.
During an interview with the Dallas Morning News, years later, Mr. Moore unapologetically focused much of the blame of not securing the Baring Brothers investment to Gov. Hogg and speculated that the political blunder cost the state of Texas billions of dollars.
As Moore elucidated, “English capital was our only chance. The English syndicate members believed in the project... They were ready to put up $1,000,000 as operating capital and to invest $5,000,000 in the production end of the industry. Had this been done New Birmingham would have developed into a thriving iron production center and the industrial map of the entire Nation would have been changed.”
For the same article that Moore provided insight, the Dallas Morning News also interviewed H. B. Marsh, Gov. Hogg’s one-time law partner, who was well versed in the material of the contentious legislation.
Attesting in Hogg’s defense, March claimed: “The alien land law which barred English capital from the New Birmingham industry was enacted for the protection of West Texas homeseekers. Much West Texas land was available for 50c an acre. Foreign syndicates made a practice of buying large blocks of land. Sometimes an entire county, and through a high pressure sales campaign selling it at exorbitant price, far above its actual value… The alien land law was needed legislation. It could not be applied to one section of the state and not another.”
Much of Marsh’s argument is sound, and that the Alien Land Law protected West Texas residents speaks to Hogg’s admiral concern for Texas citizens. That being said, Marsh’s claim that the legislation required enforcement throughout Texas is inaccurate and unsubstantiated.
Further, for Marsh to imply that the situation in West Texas mirrored that of New Birmingham leaves into question his partiality regarding the topic. In the case of West Texas, foreign speculators hoped to take advantage of the low property values for their own personal monetary gain, while the Baring Brothers sought the enrichment of New Birmingham and the financial success of themselves as well as New Birmingham’s residents.
Whether because of a lack of understanding of New Birmingham’s precarious financial situation or a stubbornness to entertain the notion of an exception to his legislation, Gov. Hogg facilitated the collapse of the Iron Queen.
Without the Baring Brothers investments, New Birmingham lay open and exposed to the ups and downs of the market. A vast majority of the pig iron produced by the New Birmingham furnaces supplied companies who manufactured railway car wheels in large union cities like St. Louis.
As the Panic of 1893 struck hardest at the railroad industry, the demand for New Birmingham’s iron evaporated causing the price to plummet.
Now with no economic means left to sustain itself, all hope for New Birmingham was lost. The miners moved on. Many non-local residents returned from whence they came, having defaulted on their property.
The New Birmingham Iron and Development Company fell into the hands of its receiver, James Mahoney, an original investor, purchased the property of the town.
As brilliantly as New Birmingham flashed into existence, it now flickered and died, living on only in the hearts and minds of its disappointed and bankrupted residents.
For the local inhabitants of Cherokee County, most of whom were farmers, life continued on, much as it had before the founding of New Birmingham. Ironically, the iron ore soil gave not only the distinct color and taste to the farmers’ tomatoes, peaches, and watermelons that the area is noted, but also sharply reminded them of New Birmingham and the success of an iron queen that was not theirs to partake.
On March 31, 1926, the Southern Hotel, once the pride of New Birmingham burned to the ground. Left in the guardianship of a caretaker since the mid 1890’s, it is believed that the whiskey still the caretaker maintained on the third floor of the Southern started the blaze.
The last remaining structure of the town, a portion of the New Birmingham Institute, was leveled during the construction of Texas highway 40 (now U.S. Highway 69) in 1932.
The only vestiges of the town left untouched are the magnolia trees originally planted around the perimeter of the Southern.
Today, New Birmingham, listed among the masses of Texas ghost towns, is only a faint memory, having nothing left to distinguish it from the other abandoned communities that cannot boast such a compelling history.
A victim of the poor economic times of the 1890’s and the political blundering of Gov. Hogg and his administration, New Birmingham, the grand vision of Anderson Blevins, deserves a place in the active memory of all East Texans who wish to better appreciate how a series of unfortunate events can lead even the most promising enterprise into ruin.