First Iron Smelting Attempt In Texas Ended In Ashes
W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 3, 2004, p. A16.
Perhaps most Southeast Texans know very little about Texas’ earliest attempts at iron-smelting, most of which was at a place in Cherokee County, appropriately named New Birmingham. Actually iron-smelting in Texas goes back to 1846 at Alley’s Mill, but the furnace in use there was quite minute compared to the Tassie Bell or Star and Crescent furnaces at New Birmingham, which produced 100 tons daily of pig iron.
The source of the metal was the iron oxide or red ocher (hematite) beds that blanketed much of the “Redlands,” which is a very low grade ore. Since there were no adjacent coal mines, huge quantities of the neighboring forests had to be reduced to charcoal to heat the furnaces.
New Birmingham owed its origin to A. B. Blevins, a Birmingham, Ala., sewing machine salesman, who first studied the red ocher outcroppings and enticed Eastern bankers to invest in iron production there. In 1888 the Cherokee Land and Iron Co. built the Star and Crescent furnace, followed quickly by the Tassie Bell furnace, owned by the New Birmingham Iron Co. Both furnaces required huge amounts of charcoal, much of which was made by the state penal camps along the Texas State Railroad to Palestine.
By 1890 New Birmingham seemed destined to become the leading city of Cherokee County, and large expenditures of money were observed everywhere in the city. The entire business district consisted of brick buildings. With a population of 1,500 people, it quickly acquired 300 new homes, depots of both the Cottonbelt and Palestine railroads, an electric light system, a pipe foundry, churches and schools, a bottling works, the Berkshire Sash and Door Co., a bank, the New Birmingham Plow Works, two sawmills, and a newspaper named the New Birmingham Times.
Its most palatial building was the 75-room, three-story Southern Hotel, which boasted of its society balls and hot and cold running water. Its surviving register still bears the names of presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, who perhaps campaigned there, and also that of Texas governors.
Ultimately the New Birmingham experiment would have failed anyway because of the low-grade ore and lack of coal mines. However the underlying causes of failure were the financial panic of 1893 and the Texas Alien Land Law, which prevented foreign investment there. The immediate cause was the explosion, which wrecked the Tassie Bell furnace and the owner’s refusal to rebuild it.
Old-timers of that era, however, maintained it was the “red-haired woman’s curse”—that “no stick or stone will be left standing”—that destroyed the city.
In 1892 former Confederate Gen. W. H. Hammon and his beautiful wife were the socialite leaders of the town and resided at the Southern Hotel. Soon a young newly wed husband and his gorgeous raven-haired bride came to town, and quite a rivalry developed between the two beautiful women. Afterward Gen. Hammon was murdered, and when the newly-wed husband was charged with the offense, his red-haired bride supposedly ran through the business district, screaming her “curse.”
After the town disappeared, only the dilapidated Southern Hotel still stood until 1926, when it too burned down, destroying the last “stick” that was still standing. And true to the “curse,” New Birmingham’s location has returned to the forest that spawned it, and hardly a “stick or a stone” of the old townsite remains standing today.