Sawmill town Aldridge had sad history
By W. T. Block
First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday January 29, 2000.
In 1960 I took a Boy Scout troop to Boykin Springs in the Angelina National Forest, and in the course of the scouts’ explorations, we found some huge concrete rooms in the forest, reminiscent of the pill boxes of the Siegfried Line that I had slept in during World War II. The sylvan hulks were grim reminders of the ghost town of Aldridge, and of a long extinct age of East Texas history.
In 1898 Hal Aldridge sold his sawmill property at Rockland, Texas, and he built his new mill 11 miles to the east in extreme northwest Jasper County, on the banks of Neches River, where he controlled 300,000,000 feet of standing timber. Aldridge quickly grew to a town of 1,000 persons, and prospects for its future seemed very bright. In 1906 Aldridge and John H. Kirby built the 11-mile Burr’s Ferry, Browndell, and Chester Railroad, which connected with the East Texas Railroad at Rockland.
By 1906 Aldridge had a large commissary, depot, hotel, dispensary, 2 churches, 2 schools, and 200 tenant houses. By 1910 a Methodist and a Baptist preacher resided there. Some of the key mill personnel of that year included: R. Wilkerson, sawmill foreman; John E. Lowe, woods foreman; Joe Rothwell, track foreman; E. W. Whitman, steel gang foreman; V. C. Hall, sawyer; A. P. Allison, locomotive engineer; W. C. Stackley, bookkeeper; J. N. Weaver, commissary manager; and Dr. A. P. Barkley, mill physician.
However, fate was soon to alter the town’s tranquility. On August 25, 1911, the entire Aldridge sawmill plant burned down, a fire that most persons considered to be arson, and was attributed to a disgruntled labor organizer. At that moment 30 neighboring sawmills were on strike, and strikers were often accused of driving railroad spikes into logs to destroy the band saws. It was also Hal Aldridge’s second conflagration since his Rockland sawmill had burned in 1894.
In order to rebuild, Aldridge mortgaged his new mill to John H. Kirby, and in order to obtain fire insurance, he had to build the huge concrete rooms, some 30 feet tall, to house his giant steam engines, boilers, flywheels, and dry kilns. Labor agitation continued, and in 1914 a small fire began, but was quickly extinguished, when mill hands discovered that half of a barrel of kerosene oil had been spilled over stacks of lumber. A year later, the entire mill burned again, and Hal Aldridge gave up and moved to El Paso. A great many residents gave up too and moved away, to seek employment elsewhere.
After the 1915 fire, the site was sold to J. Frank Keith of Beaumont, who operated a small 40,000-foot sawmill there for the next 18 months, before he sold out to Kirby Lumber Company. In 1918 the last sawmill on that site burned down, and Kirby converted the site to a logging camp, from whence 50,000 feet of logs were shipped daily to Kirby’s sawmill at Village Mills.
Surely no other mill town in East Texas history endured a more disastrous history than did the town of Aldridge. In 1925 the railroad tracks were torn up, and the site was abandoned for all time. One man reported that in 1932 he had to blast out one corner of a concrete hulk in order to remove an old steam engine.
Today the town’s huge concrete skeletons stand vine-entwined, bat and vermin-infested, like giant mausoleums in a jungle graveyard. And undoubtedly the sightseers of the future will continue to be baffled whenever they encounter those unsightly sawmill ruins in the forest.