JASPER COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - East Texas News has launched a special series we'll be calling "East Texas Throwback." It will feature special landmarks around our area that need a spotlight shined on them. We begin the series with the town of Aldridge, a so-called ghost sawmill town, over in Jasper County. It was one of many sawmills that helped get the East Texas lumber business on the map. However, today it's one of the only sites still standing.
Deep inside the Angelina National Forest, sitting not to far from the Neches River, you'll find the three structures that remain of the sawmill town of Aldridge.
It may be hard to picture but in the first decade of the 20th century, Aldridge was home to over 1,000 East Texans and pumped tons of pre-cut lumber to the world.
"You have to imagine this area as previously being a small mill town, so in addition to these structures, there were homes and other business," said Kimpton Cooper, the district ranger for the Angelina National Forest. 'There was even a hotel once upon a time."
But how did this remote location in the forest become a lumber powerhouse?
It was all the vision of Hal Aldridge who decided to move his lumber business across the Neches River in 1903. His vision was complete by 1905, when the Aldridge sawmill became operational.
In 1907, the Burr's Ferry and the Browndel & Chester Railway rolled into town, and the mill, including the bustling town, was in full swing. At this point, the mill was producing 75,000 board feet of lumber each day.
However, just a few years later, tragedy struck Aldridge. The wooden structure was 'totally destroyed," according to an article that appeared in the "Beaumont Journal" on August 25, 1911.
By the following year, the mill was rebuilt with safeguards including concrete buildings reinforced with iron beams - the first in East Texas. They were furnished with state-of-the-art machinery that included a steam-powered engine.
At this point, the mill was providing 125,000 board feet of lumber each day. Historians believe at this rate it was no doubt one of the largest lumber producers in the state of Texas.
However in 1914, after just two years of success, Hal Aldridge decided to leave to go out West to El Paso. He decision came after the mill was struck twice by arsonists. Plus, he also saw the depletion of pine forest in the area.
The remaining Aldridge family members sold the mill in 1920, including the town, to John Henry Kirby, also known as the "Prince of the Pines."His business, Kirby Lumber Company, once controlled 300,000 acres of forest including 13 sawmills.
Kirby couldn't keep the sawmill afloat. By 1925, the town was dead, and the railroad tracks were ripped up.
According to Cooper, the abandoning of these sawmills was nothing new.
"Typically, what we were doing at the time, we'd get a piece of land and cut all the trees that were of value in that area and set up a settlement and work, and then you'd move to another piece of land," Cooper said.
From 1880 to 1920, during this so-called "sawmill bonanza" period, hundreds of mills popped up. At the peak in 1910, there were up to 615 mills with towns attached to them.
These now so-called "ghost towns" are names you'll probably recognize around here. They include Concord, Manning, Ratcliff, and Turpentine, to name a few.
But what makes Aldridge so unique are the concrete structures still standing over 100 years later.
"It's exciting to go back and see exactly where they worked and where the children played," said Rachel Collins, the director of the Texas Forestry Museum. "And to see ruins just make it all the more real."
The Texas Forestry Museum in Lufkin is the only museum of its kind in Texas. It gives visitors an idea of what sawmill life was life.
"They lived a very simple life, but they worked very hard. The men would go to work every day," Collins said. "Often they would ride the train into the woods. The women, of course, would stay home and make meals. Often times, they would deliver the lunch out to the men working in the woods. All the while tending to the kids and the chores around the home."
One of the last sawmill workers in the last company town in East Texas, Camden, gave us more insight into sawmill life.
"Well, we'd go out into the woods and get us some pine log to get us to Moscow. A lot of time the boxcar would catch on fire, you see," the man said in a video about East Texas saw mills. "We'd have to stop and put the fire out. I was getting tired out put the fire out. So they flagged me down, and I didn't stop I just brought them all into town. All on fire. Mr. Carter, he's the man who owned the mill, sent him to come over to the office. I didn't want to see him. I was getting tired of that. I didn't care if it all burn down."
Jobs in the lumber business still remain dangerous if not done correctly, and that certainly was the case during the early 1900s.
"It was a very dangerous job. Many people, if they didn't lose limbs, they were often killed; they often lost their lives," Collins said. "But, of course, with education and safety it is less of an issue."
The site of Aldridge was eventually acquired by the U.S. Forest Service in 1935, and it remains under their care to this day.
If you'd like to visit the sawmill, is only accessible through a hiking trail that the U.S. Forest Service has marked with these yellow tags.
If you're up for the adventure, you start at the Boykin Springs Recreation Area and hike nearly 3 miles through the forest.
Just beware of ticks. And … some of the trail is a bit difficult to walk through thanks to Hurricane Rita, which destroyed many of the hike's bridges in 2005. Despite all that, it's worth the hike as John Ippolito, a former forest archaeologist for the USDA National Forests and Grasslands, puts it.
"The first time I walked onto it, it was like walking onto a Mayan site in the Central American jungle," Ippolito said.
Ippolito certainly treated the site as such. In 1979, he and his team helped excavate the site of the mill. They found artifacts of the town of Aldridge, including tokens, a form of payment from the mill owner to the worker, colorful ceramic tableware, and even parts of a doll.
They're all reminders of the Aldridge residents who lived in the area in the early days of the 20th century.
Something else you'll notice is the great amount of graffiti on the remains of the Aldridge sawmill.
"People have a tendency to leave their marks; you'll see that pretty much anywhere you go in the U.S.," Ippolito said.
Ippolito added these markings and tags are nothing new. Some have actually been up there for decades and are considered to be a special type of art.
"Some of the earliest graffiti that's out there has now reached an age where under definitions it is considered to be 'rock art,'" Ippolito said.
While "rock art" isn't protect by law, park officials have been instructed to leave up some of these markings. However, the majority of the graffiti at Aldridge is new, and without a 24-hour presence it will most likely continue.
However, Cooper does have a suggestion for those who'd like to see something done.
"But if there are people that are interested in engaging they can always contact us, whether is it about this or any other thing the Angelina Forest," Cooper said.
While the Angelina National Forest is home to this site, and it's slowly getting taken over by nature, it still stands over 110 years later as a reminder of what the Pineywoods are all about.
"The lumber industry is what shaped East Texas," Ippolito said. "The lumber industry still is to some degree driving the economy. You've got that nice connection of past and present, and for that to continue on in the future, you've got to take care of what's left."
If you'd like to know more about the Aldridge Sawmill Hiking Trail, you can find more details at this link.