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Steam Power Led Advances in Sawmilling

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, December 31, 2003, p. A10.

Both Beaumont and Orange were fortunate to obtain steam sawmilling before the Civil War, but sadly war havoc and fire dealt harshly with both. The first steam mill in Jefferson County was built at Sabine Pass in 1846 and was burned by the Union Navy in 1862.

In 1851, John Merriman built the first steam mill at Orange. On Aug. 16, 1853, the editor of the Nacogdoches Chronicle noted that his reporter had visited Orange, where “...Merriman has a large steam sawmill in successful operation; it is a masterpiece of workmanship...”

The 1860 Industrial Census noted that Merriman’s sawmill sliced 10,000 saw logs into 1,100,000 feet of cypress and pine lumber. Merriman paid eight employees a total of $1,980 in wages during the census year ending July 1. The Galveston Weekly News of May 15, 1859, wrote about the mill’s shingle and lath machines, and added that:

“...the spoke-making machine in Merriman’s mill takes my beaver hat with the greatest facility and the least expense. Let lumber fall within its grasp and it comes out a wagon forthwith. Here is the greatest shingle and lumber exporter in the state...”

In February of 1857, John Ross and James Alexander freighted from Liberty a Page circular sawmill in wagons and erected it on Pine Street. On Dec. 9, 1857, Henry R. Green observed of it:

“...I was showed yesterday a novel invention; a self-starter at Ross and Alexander’s sawmill, with which the logs are set to the saw, and which reduces the board to an exact precision in width and at both ends so that house carpenters need no longer swear about clumsily-sawed planks...”

“...Moreover all you have to do is roll the logs onto the carriage, drive in your mainstays, ...put on steam and go to dinner; and by the time you get back, the log is slabbed, sawn up, shoved out of the mill, stacked up and the price marked on the top plank—and all of that is done by steam...”

Alas, Beaumont’s new mill was destined to suffer both from bankruptcy and fire. On Feb. 20, 1859, Green added:

“...Messrs. Ross and Alexander ... have lost their grist and sawmill, and a large lot of cypress lumber equal to $16,000. ...The furnace was on the north side of the mill, and the fire was not noticed until 11 p.m. at night...”

“...About 60,000 feet of cypress stacked by the mill was totally consumed, and smoke (embers) swept southward for several miles, igniting the trees. ...The county was illumined so brilliantly that persons and objects could be recognized from afar...”

Despite the intrusions of war and fire, Beaumont and Orange would emerge by 1885 as the lumber and shingle capitals of the South. By 1885 the former site of the burned-out mill became the location of Long Manufacturing Co., spewing out 36,000,000 shingles every year. Two Beaumonters contributed immensely to the milling processes. Mark Wiess invented the shotgun feed steam carriage, and W. A. Fletcher invented a better model of the steam log skidder and log loader.

By 1891, Wiess’ sawmill, Reliance Lumber Co., executed a contract with a Kansas City railroad to furnish 100,000,000 feet of crossties and bridge timbers.

By 1890 there were about 15 saw and shingle mills in Orange. Three mills there owned their own fleets of lumber schooners, and they shipped to all points west, north and to foreign ports.

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