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Salem Townsite Once Produced Lumber Boom

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 21, 2004, p. A16.

The ghost town of Salem, also known as Old Salem, in central Newton County is located near Highway 2829, about 35 miles north of Orange and 48 miles northeast of Beaumont. The town’s history goes back to Texas Revolution days.

The community was settled in 1835 by Seth and Lydia Swift, and was named for their hometown in Massachusetts. They brought their household goods up the Sabine River and built their log cabin at the mouth of Big Cow Creek.

By 1840 steamboats were stopping at Salem, unloading barrels of freight and supplies and loading bales of cotton bound for New Orleans. About 1836 Swift founded the Salem ferry, and in 1839 he became the first postmaster there.

On Jan. 6, 1840, the steamboat Rufus Putnam struck a snag and sank at Eaves Plantation, across the river from Salem. Later its steam engine and boilers were salvaged for use in a sawmill.

Although early Salem had no school building, Swift hired Martha Percival to teach the neighborhood children. In 1859 Newton County produced 2,091 bales of cotton, which continued to arrive at Salem for transshipment to Sabine Pass.

Salem reached its zenith after the Cow Creek Tram Co. was organized and chartered in December 1890 by Dennis Call of Orange and George Adams of Newton. However a new headquarters location was founded two miles south of the previous townsite, and became known as “New Salem,” to which the Old Salem post office soon moved.

Call, who owned a 25,000-acre tract of virgin timber, and Adams, who owned a 10,000-acre tract, soon built their business office, tenant houses, eight miles of standard-gauge rail track, commissary, log skidway and auxiliary buildings in the spring of 1891. On Oct. 29 of that year, the company—using a nine-man team of loggers, one locomotive and 32 log cars—skidded 960 logs, scaling 211,000 feet log measure, into Sabine River for the Orange Lumber Co. sawmill.

Salem grew into a town of 400 people, with 150 loggers and tram personnel working in the forests. Ten miles to the south was the town of Laurel, headquarters of Sabine Tram Co., and a rivalry arose between them as to which could skid the most logs into the river each day. There was also a legend about a logger named Belle, and the only tombstone he had were the letters B-E-L-L-E, carved into a tree by his grave.

The tram’s supervisory personnel included T. J. Trotti, general manager; Charles Smith, steel gang foreman; J.C. Ferguson, saw boss; G. W. Smith, bookkeeper; John Pollok, locomotive engineer; Hal Gilbert, team and corral foreman; T. W. Lee and A. J. Moss, commissary employees; and William Zahlmann, chief machinist and blacksmith.

By 1895 Call and Adams decided to build their own sawmill at a place named Call. Hence they extended their tram road to it, and built their sidetracks and rail outlet to the Santa Fe Railroad at Call Junction. The site of New Salem was quickly abandoned, when all facilities of Cow Creek Tram Co. moved to Call.

The Salem Post Office was discontinued in 1897, but the ferry operated until 1937. Two different school buildings had been built there by that date, but later all children were bused to Newton or Bleakwood schools. In 1949 oil was discovered in the Salem Oil Field. Several rural families still live in the Salem vicinity, some descendants of Salem’s pioneer founders.

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