Cherokee County, Texas

NEW BIRMINGHAM

 

 

Once in a while an event, as brilliant as and lasting no longer than a shooting star, flashed across the path of history to leave the observer blinking with wonder that the episode even occurred.

 

Such is the story of New Birmingham, a dazzling upstart town once called the “Iron Queen of the Southwest” that went from “boom to bust” in only five years.

 

The plan for a great Southwestern iron town evolved in the mind of Alexander B. Blevins, who came to East Texas from Alabama in 1888 selling sewing machines.  On every hand he observed rich iron ore deposits which could be mined easily and in sufficient quantity to ensure production may years.  Of course, the State of Texas as in the iron business in Rusk, then, but since no private enterprise was making iron, Blevins envisioned another Birmingham equal to the South’s iron center in Alabama.

 

Enlisting the aid of Capt. E. L. Gregg and F. B. Guinn and using money furnished by his brother-in-law, W. H. Hammon, Blevins obtained options on 20,000 acres of land rich in iron ore.  In St. Louis, Mo., the promoter called on R L. Coleman, who helped secure additional finance from future New York Mayor Robert Van Wyck, James A. Mahoney, and A. H. W. Wilbert.  These men chartered the Cherokee Land and Iron Co., platted the proposed town of New Birmingham, and began constructing the 50-ton Tassie Belle furnace named for Mrs. Blevins.

 

An ultra-modern town sprang up east of the Kansas & Gulf Short Line Railroad (Cotton Belt) about two miles southeast of Rusk within three years after the first lots were sold in the fall of 1888.  Streets were graded and named after Texas and Northeastern cities.  The town’s business center, located in a 15-block district on Dallas, Galveston, and San Antonio Streets, eventually contained 32 mercantile houses.  These included the Ahearn Brothers’ furniture store and a pioneer version of Sanger-Harris (later based in Dallas, Tex.).  Tow steam-powered brick plants, a sash and door mill, and a planing and shingle mill were hard-pressed to meet the building material demand.  Objects of marvel to down-town Cherokee Countians were the ice plant, bottling works, and what may have been Texas’s first electric power plant.

 

All these wonders and delights were reported enthusiastically by The New Birmingham Times newspaper as it promoted the town far and near.  The late Tom Flinty Jr., a reporter for The Times and later an editor of The Dallas Morning News, worked with a staff that went on to become well-known in the newspaper world.

 

Small wonder that people flocked from everywhere until the town’s population exceeded 2,000, all enjoying electrically lighted streets and more than 400 homes and business houses equally bright, a financially strong bank (F.W. Bonner and Sons), and an interurban street railway that connected the town with Rusk.  The pride of New Birmingham was the $60,000, 99-room Southern Hotel, lighted brilliantly and featuring billiard tables and hand-carved wainscoting and furniture – a perfect setting for majestic dinners and dances, played for by orchestras imported from Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans.  The guest register resembled Who’s Who in America and included the signatures of Jay Gould, Grover Cleveland, and James Stephen “Jim” Hogg.  The hotel was also the residence of Col. And Mrs. W. H. Hammons, leaders of the town’s lively social life.

 

Romanticists delight in telling the legend of Mrs. Hammons placed a fatal curse on the thriving city.  On July 14, 1890, Col. Hammons was gunned down by a local businessman, who felt his wife had been libeled by malicious town gossips.  Learning of her husband’s slaying, Mrs. Hammons went berserk, ran through the streets, calling down the wrath of God to leave no tick or stone standing in that “mushroom town.”

 

Blevins and his New York backers soon saw the need for additional financing to keep the town rolling.  Unable to lure additional support from the Northeast, The New Birmingham Iron and Land Co. found a British syndicate, the Baring Brothers, interested in developing the timber holdings for England’s charcoal needs.  The negotiations hit a snag, however, when it ran into Texas Gov. James Stephens Hogg’s Alien Land Act, which prohibited foreigners’ owning property in Texas.  Even a wining and dining promotional campaign at the Southern Hotel with the Texas Governor as guest of honor failed to exempt New Birmingham from the law; so, the deal folded.

 

The panic of 1903 slowed the town to a standstill.  An explosion and resulting fire at the Tassie Belle furnace shut down the iron plant with the loss of 300 jobs.  Town lot sales ceased, payments on previously purchased property were defaulted, and homeowners and businessmen began to vacate their premises.  The grand Southern Hotel became dark and silent, its once enormous staff reduced to a caretaker’s family.  “The Iron Queen” is dean, the Cherokee County Banner reported in its July 4, 1893, edition.

 

The empty shell of the elegant hotel stood vigil over the ghost town for years.  After the turn of the century, occasional sightseers saw a touch of irony in the decaying hotel office where stacks of fading promotional brochures dated October, 1891 still proclaimed the optimism of a youthful New Birmingham.  During World War I the brick business houses were salvaged for building material and all the iron making machinery was hauled away to distant foundries as scrap iron.  In 1926, the gaunt specter of the once-fabulous hotel was destroyed by fire, which obliterated the vestige of the town “that died a bornin’.”

 

During New Birmingham’s prime days another iron furnace of 50-tons-daily capacity – the Star and Crescent – was constructed by the Cherokee Iron Manufacturing Co. with New Orleans and Rusk financing.  Located about half-way between Rusk and New Birmingham, the plant had barely started production before the panic of 1893 forced it to close.

 

An inept attempt by the Record Brothers of Pennsylvania to resume production at the smelter in 1899 using lignite as fuel, ended in failure when the furnace chilled.  The plant remained idle until 1907, when A. B. Blevins, still pushing the iron business, obtained an option on the Star and Crescent holdings.  A newly formed Rusk Iron Co., with W. H. Oatley as President, found money in Massachusetts to recondition the plant.  It negotiated for the use of New Birmingham property and resumed iron production.  Doom to failure by another money panic that year, the plant equipment ended inevitably on the scrap heap.

 

Almost four decades passed before the iron interests gathered enough strength for another go at the business.  In 1944, after exhaustive persuasion by Cherokee County citizens and their elected representatives, the U.S. Department of Defense directed the establishment of an iron ore processing plant west of Rusk on US 84 near the Texas State Railroad and Cotton Belt Railroad crossing.  The plant was to have been constructed with an allotment of $2,379,000 from the Federal Defense Plant Cooperation.  It was to have used a charcoal blast furnace and sintering plant from Pembroke, Fla., and a colonizing and charcoal by-products plant from Wells, Mich.  Capacity of the plant was to have been 100 tons of pig iron, plus charcoal, glacial acetic acid, Methanol sintered iron ore, and blast furnace slag for mineral wool per day.  A stop-work order was issued on the plant in July, 1945.  The plant was declared war surplus property by the War Assets Administration and put up for sale.  Col. E. R. McCrossin, the war-time plant supervisor, bought the property in 1947 and incorporated it as the Valencia Iron and Chemical Co.  After producing pig iron three years, the plant was idled for lack of funds.  Sheffield Steel Co., a subsidiary of Armco Steel Co., which already owned large iron ore deposits in the county and operated a cleaning and crushing plant at Mr. Haven west of Jacksonville, bought the Valencia Iron and Chemical Co. and all its holdings, including the New Birmingham Development Co.’s iron ore.  With holdings of 64,000 acres near Rusk, Sheffield closed the smelter to concentrate on mining the ore for use in its Houston plant.  Superintended by Leo R. Conwell and using the strip-mining technique, Sheffield produced 16,500 tons of washed ore per month until 1968, when the company stopped mining ore in Cherokee County.

 

Although ore mining for pig iron production ceased, another profitable use for local iron ore had been discovered earlier.  How that phase of the iron business developed as an important part of the county economy is revealed by a first-hand account from Mrs. Ruth Slover Jennings.

 

In the fall of 1935, W. H. Tilley, Division Chief Chemist of the Lone Star Cement Co. in Houston, was in the early stages of perfecting a formula for quick-setting oil well cement using iron ore as a strengthening agent.  He came to Jacksonville and lodged in the old Liberty Hotel, while exploring the countryside for just the right ore to complete the experiment.  From N. A. “Jack” Slover, an extensive landowner in Dialville, Tilley secured samples of iron ore and return to Houston.  After proving the worthwhile use of iron ore in cement, the chemist came back to Dialville in the spring of 1936 to obtain a steady supply of the rock.

 

In those Depression years, local landowners willingly picked up surface rocks and hauled them to Slover’s gin to be weighed and loaded in gondola cars on the Cotton Belt Railroad.  The shipping created a little boom until all the surface rocks were exhausted in the Dialville area.  Then Slover’s daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Clarence R. Jennings, bought a truck and air hammer and began gathering the rocks themselves around Maydelle, Fry’s Gap and Cushing.

 

Then Clarence joined the U.S. Navy at the beginning of World War II, Ruth kept the operation going until her brother-in-law, “Pete” R. Halbert, joined the business.  The firm of Jennings and Halbert Iron Ore Contractors was organized, and a full-scale mining operation began.  Operations were extended into the Poynor and Frankston areas after Jennings return from military service in 1945.  The firm supplied iron ore to cement companies in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Nebraska.

 

In the 1950’s the company set up a rock crusher in Union Grove, south of Jacksonville, but later moved it to Dialville where the operation continued until 1968.

 

When the old iron ore leases of Sheffield Steel Co. began to expire in 1971, Comer Hudson, formerly in the highway construction business, bought the Jennings and Halbert rock crushers and set up operations east of Dialville near the old Cherokee Plunge swimming and recreation area.  Encouraged by increased sales, Hudson instigated a $2 million plant expansion in 1982, which allow the production of 500,000 tons of crushed ore a year.

 

Information from The Cherokee County Historical Commission.                                             Cherokee County History, published by The Cherokee County Historical Commission in 1986, second printing 2001. (Books are available at the Courthouse in Rusk, TX or at Post Office Box 1128 Jacksonville, TX 75766.)

 Special thanks to Karol Hughes