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Logging in the Pineywoods

photo of forest workers
Forest workers rest beside the fruits of their labor: yards of cut and stacked logs, ready to be transported to the sawmill. Photo courtesy of Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, East Texas Collection (DI_01282).
photo of long-leaf pine
Long-leaf pine, one of the several varieties of trees harvested by loggers in East Texas.
map of land grants in  East Texas
Land grants in East Texas, circa 1838. In Texas Republic days, land was an attractant for settlers and brought cash to the treasury. In the decades following, vast timber-laden tracts were accumulated for lumber operations. Map by Thomas G. Bradford, courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Click to enlarge.
photo of old farmstead
Tall pines stand sentinel at an old farmstead south of Lufkin in East Texas. Early settlers made only small inroads into the vast forests, building log cabins and farm buildings and clearing fields for crops and grazing. Photo by J. Griffis Smith, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife. Click to enlarge.
photo of Thompson Lumber Company Office
Thompson Lumber Company office in Houston. What was to become one of the major lumber operations in East Texas began in 1852 with John M. Thompson's establishment of a small mill in northern Rusk County. Photo courtesy Stephen F. Austin State University, Thompson Collection. Click to learn more.

Settlers coming into East Texas in the early 1800s encountered vast forests—pines and hardwoods extending for miles in a verdant swath broken only by murky, meandering rivers. Caddo Indians had lived in these woodlands for thousands of years, felling trees for their tall, beehive-shaped houses and temples and constructing villages along the Red River, Neches and Sabine. But their impact, and that of the Anglo farmers who followed them, was light, and the forests maintained their dominance on the land.

Commercial logging was to alter that balance, and in the process bring tremendous changes in the economic, social, political, and environmental composition of the region. Evolving from small water-powered mills to massive sawmill complexes and factory towns, the logging business became the primary focus of activity in the region and lumber the lifeblood for various support industries, from ports, railroads, equipment suppliers, and mercantile companies to family farms that supplied produce to the growing sawmill communities.

Lumber Shortage Amid Forests of Plenty

On March 1, 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico and, through armed revolution, won its independence on May 12, 1836. As a fledgling nation, Texas was without any financial structure. In order to develop a treasury, Texas sold its only commodity—land. This process stimulated land entrepreneurs, or speculators, to treat land as cash. Frequently a land grant was sold several times prior to actual survey. Some people began to acquire enormous landholdings, a factor that attracted corporate investment in large sawmill operations several decades later.

The first sawmill identified with a specific individual is an 1829 mill on Carrizo Creek in Nacogdoches County, built by entrepreneur and land speculator Peter Ellis Bean. Bean exemplifies the nature of the American frontiersmen who settled Texas. He first entered Texas in 1801, hunting horses and trading with Indians along the Brazos River, at a time when it was still under Spanish rule. He built a water-powered, sawmill (sash saw) and gristmill and also ran a lumberyard in Nacogdoches. Attracted by that success, other logging entrepreneurs began operations in Texas.

In the decades before the Civil War, however, transportation was a continual problem. Due to the natural obstacles of rivers and muddy soils, few overland roads were suitable for travel at all times, particularly in East Texas. Rivers, which formed the backbone of commerce in the United States, were erratic in water flow and became clogged with logs, snags, and silt. Sawmill owners in the East Texas interior were forced to settle for local trade combining a grist mill and/or general merchandise store, while coastal lumbermen had developed a considerable export trade worldwide.

The centers of commerce developed along the Gulf Coast, where marine shipping could interface with riverine steamboats and overland wagon haulers. Logging rafts, keelboats, and later steamboats operated only during optimal river flow conditions. Due to this lack of transportation, the vast pine forests of East Texas could not be fully exploited in a profitable manner. Consequently, despite the abundance of standing timber, there was a chronic shortage of lumber within Texas.

The Bonanza Period: 1876-1917

In this section:

painting of Caddo Indians building a house
Caddo Indians, the first settlers in the Piney Woods, used poles made from young pine trees to construct their houses and temples. In this artist's depiction of a scene around 800 years ago, teams of Caddo builders set tall, flexible poles in a circular frame for a large, dome-shaped house. Painting by Nola Davis, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Caddo Mounds State Park. Click to enlarge.
photo of The Great Raft
The Great Raft, a massive logjam in the Red River. Natural obstacles such as this blocked transportation on rivers in East Texas, heightening the need for improved transportation on land. Photo courtesy of Louisiana State University, S. Noel Collection.

The logging business became the primary concern in the region and lumber the lifeblood for various support industries, from ports, railroads, equipment suppliers and mercantiles to family farms that supplied produce to the growing sawmill.

photo of a log train
Texas and South-Eastern Railroad log train at Diboll, circa 1910. The completion of a railroad network in East Texas and across the state—enabling transport of wood products from forests to mills and beyond—was a key factor fueling the Bonanza Period of logging. Photo courtesy The History Center, Diboll.
photo of Henry J. Lutcher
Henry J. Lutcher. The lure of land drew the Pennsylvania lumberman and his partner, G.B. Moore, to Texas in the 1870s. Lutcher and Moore constructed a "state-of-the-art" sawmill at Orange and purchased timberland on both sides of the Sabine River. The two later built three railroads: the Gulf, Sabine, and Red River; the Mississippi and Ponchartrain; and the Orange and Northwestern.
flier for the Sabine & East Texas Railway
Flier for the Sabine & East Texas Railway, 1882. The company, later incorporated into the Texas and New Orleans line, was one of many short, trunk lines constructed by mill owners during the Bonanza period to move lumber products. Photo courtesy "Texas Tides" digital historic photo collection, Stephen F. Austin State University. Click to enlarge.
photo of Thomas Temple
Thomas Lewis Latane Temple (1855-1935) founded Southern Pine Lumber Company in 1893, Texas South-Eastern Railroad in 1900, and Temple Lumber Company in about 1906. The Southern Pine and Temple companies merged in 1956 and are now known as Temple-Inland Forest Products Corporation. Photo courtesy of The History Center, Diboll.

The Civil War halted settlement and economic growth in East Texas. Investment in transportation began again after the war, particularly due to the liberal policies of the State, which granted land to rail companies for each mile of track they lay. By 1880, railroad development had reached a point where main lines connected most of East Texas.

At this time a new innovation, the band saw, also arrived, enabling safer and more efficient milling operations. Concurrently, the forests of the Great Lakes were being cut out, and investment capitalists were turning their attention to the forests of the south, and Texas in particular. This marked the beginnings of an enormous period of growth for Texas logging and the rise of the big mills. Again, land speculators combed through the courthouses and land districts of East Texas, acquiring lands that were unclaimed or available for back taxes and putting together some of the largest tracts to date in Texas.

In "Sawdust Empire," Robert S. Maxwell and Robert D. Baker describe this period, ranging roughly from 1876-1917, as the "Bonanza Period" of the logging industry in East Texas. It was during this period that fortunes (both personal and corporate) were made. The larger mills that had been established earlier in the period grew larger and more powerful, while many of the smaller mills as well as some of the large mills that had come too late into the region, suffered from a lack of access to timber and were forced out.

The Bonanza Period of industrial logging would never have occurred were it not for the introduction of the railroad to the forests of East Texas in the 1880's. Prior to that time, transporting cut timber to the mills was a slow, tedious endeavor dependent upon draft animals, good weather, and good fortune. Initially logging was performed close to rivers, where water was used to ship the cut and seasoned logs to the mill. Staging areas were located at central areas. The logger cut the trees with an ax, using a saw to cut the tree to lengths. The trees were dragged by oxen or mule to the river bank where they were stacked awaiting high water. Once in the water the logs were joined into rafts, and floated to coastal mills.

The advent of steam-powered, small-gauge trains and loaders made it possible to transport ever larger loads of logs to the mills. Once the railroad was extended into the interior, mills were constructed closer to the remaining virgin stands. Corporations built much larger mills along rail spurs in the remaining uncut areas of East Texas.

In the Woods

Trees were selected, felled, scaled, and cut to transportable size by timber crews , usually 40 to 60 men supervised by a woods boss, known also as the "bull of the woods." Conditions were often grueling, with workers putting in 10-hour days on back-breaking tasks in the forests, often many miles from the mill. Many experienced loggers were expert at their trade, able to notch, saw, and fell a tree with precision. In addition to cutting tasks, forest workers transported logs, worked on roads, and set miles of ties for rail tracks.

photo of two sawyers
Two sawyers use a crosscut saw to cut down a large pine. Photo courtesy Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Click to enlarge.
photo of John H. Kirby
John Henry Kirby, the "Prince of the Pines," shown in a 1925 photo. Kirby built a railroad, oil company, and lumber company, at one point controlling more than 300,000 acres of land, but was forced into bankruptcy during the Depression. Photo courtesy of the Center for East Texas Research, Stephen F. Austin State University, Forest History Collection. Click to learn more.
photo of buckers
"Buckers," or choppers, saw pine trees, which have been stripped of branches, into smaller sized-logs for transport. Photo, circa early 1900s, courtesy of Center for American History, UT-Austin. Click to enlarge.
photo of a scaler
The woods boss, or "bull of the woods," looks on as a scaler evaluates the size of a log. The boss wielded considerable authority: when a worker got into a confrontation with the boss, it was said that he had "locked horns with the bull." Photo, courtesy of Center for American History, UT-Austin. Click to enlarge.
photo of a log on a cart
An enormous log is loaded on a high-wheeled cart, ready to be pulled by mules to a flatcar for transport to the mill. Photo, courtesy of Center for American History, UT-Austin. Click to enlarge.
photo of logging workers
Logging workers, hauling hundreds of yards of cut timber, emerge from a partially cut forest in East Texas. Photo courtesy Center for American History, UT-Austin. Click to enlarge.
photo oof cross-loading operation
Early cross-loading operation using mules to haul logs onto a flatcar. The later introduction of steam-powered cranes to hoist the logs revolutionized the logging industry. Photo courtesy Center for American History, UT-Austin. Click to enlarge.

Mills and Mill Towns

photo of Thompson Brothers mill
A train carries a load of logs to the Thompson Brothers mill. The logs were floated into the mill pond for storage or guided by a "pond monkey" onto a chain and into the mill for processing. Photo courtesy of Center for American History, UT-Austin, East Texas Photograph Collection, (DI#01287).
photo of the inside of a sawmill
Workers stand by as logs pass down a conveyor belt in this early 20th-century sawmill. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service. Click to see full image.
photo of a sawmill worker
A sawmill worker checks a load a lumber ready for shipping. Photo courtesy of Stephen F. Austin State University, Forest History Collection.
photo of employees of SPLC
Employees of the Southern Pine Lumber Company in front of the company store, or commissary at Diboll, about 1907. Photo courtesy of The History Center, Diboll.
photo of children
Children walk along the railroad tracks at the Diboll sawmill ponds in about 1912. Their parents were managers at the Diboll commissary and the planing mill. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of The History Center, Diboll.

During the Depression, the Southern Pine Lumber Company was forced to sell about 100,000 acres for less than $3 an acre to keep its sawmill working. Many Diboll employees repaid the loyalty the company had shown them by lending the company small sums of money they had managed to save.

photo of a front camp
A "front camp" in the forest. Wood crews-flatheads, skidders, loaders, and others--often worked miles away from the sawmills, making it necessary to set up temporary living facilities for workers and their families. Small towns of tents or boxcars were common in the woods. Photo courtesy of Stephen F. Austin State University, Thompson Collection. Click to enlarge.

By 1910 there were more than 600 sawmills in Texas, although probably no more than 100 could be considered large mills—those with a capacity of 80,000-100,000 board feet. In many areas, the sawmill represented the only source of cash, and two or three generations often worked in turn at the mill. The mill created work where none had been available, and the owners had to provide housing, usually deducted from pay.

In terms of operations, one of the most important features of the mill was the mill pond. It covered several acres and could hold up to four million board feet of logs. The water provided ease of loading and unloading, preserved the logs from bark beetle attacks, and washed dirt and soil off the logs, thus reducing wear on the saws. From the pond, the logs were moved onto a conveyor chain, and were hauled to the log deck. If no pond was available, rail tracks were placed as a siding as close to the saws as possible.

A typical large sawmill was a complex of two or three story buildings divided according to each step of the lumber-making operation. The saw machinery usually was located on the second floor, the saw filer, who kept the saws sharpened, on the third floor. On the second floor, the scaler measured and sized the log, using the cutoff saw to section the long timber into efficient cutting lengths. Moved via a log kicker, logs were then sent to bandsaws, where the sawyer cut the log into boards. Once trimmed, the lumber was transported into the yard to dry and cure before it was finally sent to the planer for final processing.

With the growth and expansion of mills came company towns, the small communities which were to dominate the landscape and economy of East Texas. The company town typically was isolated, placed near the critical resources—large tracts of timber. As trees were cut down and forests used up, logging operations moved into more-remote areas, and more towns built. It was not uncommon for towns of a thousand people or more to spring up in a year's time.

Mill towns were composed of segregated groups of houses for black and white workers and their families, a general store or commissary, a hotel/boarding house, company offices, churches, schools, and stores. In most towns, water was pumped from a well for two or more houses; indoor plumbing and electricity became available in some areas in the late 1920s. Most homes had gardens and a few chickens kept in pens or ranging free in the yards. Wood cook stoves and potbellied stoves provided heating and served for food preparation.

Mill towns varied as to amenities and comforts. While Fostoria, a milltown owned by the Foster Lumber Company of Kansas was described as clean, well-kept, and self-sustaining, Kirbyville, owned by the Kirby Lumber Company, was characterized by a visiting Harper's Weekly journalist as "gray dingy boxes arranged row by row in the horror of dull uniformity that is the curse of most industrial communities." Generally, the larger and more influential mill owners, such as Lutcher and Moore, T.L.L. Temple, the Thompson Brothers, and Carter-Kelly companies, were responsible for the more well developed and advanced mill towns, with electrical power and running water available to most, if not all, mill town residents.

In some towns, deep bonds were formed between company and workers. During the Depression, the Southern Pine Lumber Company was forced to sell about 100,000 acres for less than $3 an acre to keep its sawmill working. Many Diboll employees repaid the loyalty the company had shown them by lending the company small sums of money they had managed to save.

In addition to mill towns, the East Texas forests were dotted with temporary camps and make-shift towns for the workers in the woods—those involved in cutting and harvesting trees and making wood products. There were front camps, often constructed along rail trams as staging areas for workers; turpentine camps, where pine resins were harvested and made into turpentine; tie camps where railroad ties were collected and shipped; stave camps, where barrel staves were made; tent camps along railroads or in remote settings; and the cutting front itself. Boxcars and tents typically served as housing for the forest workers.

These facilities were usually established next to the main lines of the logging railroads, which connected them with the primary mill and its mill town. These logging railroads, or trams, provided not only the principal means of carrying cut timber to the mill, but also functioned as a basic transportation system for the front camp workers, who usually had families living in the primary mill towns. These trams were extended as the logging fronts advanced through the virgin pine forests, often resulting in an intricate spiderweb design of cleared routes that would eventually become the basis for a fully developed rural transportation system of Farm-to-Market and County Roads. Without this infrastructure, the modern development of East Texas would not have been possible.

After the Boom

photo of the inside of a sawmill
Interior of an early 20th-century sawmill. Photo courtesy Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Click to see full image.
photo of loading lumber
Lumber planks are loaded into boxcars for distribution in this 1907 scene at the Diboll mill. Photo courtesy of The History Center, Diboll.
photo of a family and their house
A family poses on the front porch of their company house in a milltown. Housing provided by lumber companies varied from town to town; this board-and-batten cottage would have been considered quite comfortable. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy Stephen F. Austin State University, Forest History Collections.
photo of Diboll school house
Pupils gather with their teacher in front of the Diboll school house, circa 1907. Many milltowns had both segregated schools and residential areas. The teacher in the photo is identified as J.W. Hogg. Photo courtesy The History Center, Diboll.
photo of a train
A child poses on the cowcatcher of Temple Lumber Company train engine No. 6, with its crew. Transporting both logs and timber workers from forests to milltowns, trains and forest trams were a vital connection for the logging business in East Texas. Photo courtesy of The History Center, Diboll.
photo of tree stumps
Tree stumps dot the rolling landscape where tall pines once stood. Since the time of this circa 1902-1908 photo, much of the deforested land has been purchased by the USDA Forest Service and replanted. Photo courtesy of the center for American History, UT-Austin (#DI-01295).
photo of William G. Jones
William G. Jones, a banker from Temple, Texas, helped establish Arbor Day and The Texas Forestry Association with the purpose of replanting trees. He later petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt for forest and wildlife reserves on cutover lands, an effort which led to the National Forests in Texas. Photo courtesy of Stephen F. Austin State University, Forest History Collection.
photo of a pine tree
A branch of a young pine tree. Trees planted by the USDA Forest Service and East Texas lumber companies in cut-over areas have grown into mature forests in many areas. Photo by Elizabeth Grivas, courtesy of Texas Department of Transportation.

In 1917, Robert W. Wier and the Lutcher and Moore heirs combined resources to construct the last large mill at the town of Wiergate, with timberlands covering about 86,000 acres in Newton, Jasper, and Sabine counties. The Wiergate Lumber Company logged what was perhaps the last great Texas stand of longleaf pine.

By 1920, many of the lands acquired by the big mills had been cut out, leaving tangled thickets of second growth hardwoods, mixed with a few pine seedlings. Foresters and conservationists complained that the practice of free-range husbandry eliminated pine regeneration and promoted the growth of hardwood, thereby eliminating the potential for sustained yield logging. Some companies moved to the West Coast, where large tracts of lands and forest were available to sustain the cut-and-run method of logging. Others went bankrupt, letting their lands fall into receivership.

Because Texas had retained its public lands when it became a state in 1845, the federal government lacked national parks and forests in the state. In May 1933, the Texas legislature passed a bill, supported by both lumbermen and conservation groups that authorized the U.S. Forest Service to appraise and purchase lands. The federal government purchased more than 90% of the lands that were to comprise the National Forests in Texas from 11 lumber companies.

Beginning in 1898, the Forestry Bureau of the U.S. Department of Agriculture began an agreement program with Texas lumber companies and private individuals to develop working plans to restore the forests and develop a sustained yield strategy. From the 1930's to the present, the U.S. Forest Service has replenished the East Texas forest reserves and developed effective sustained yield practices, while conserving soil, water, and other natural resources.

The cultural, social and economic structures for modern East Texas were shaped and molded by the early 20th century logging industry. Mill towns have become cities; logging railroads have become multi-lane highways; and family-owned mills have become multi-national corporations, all in the last 100 years. There are few, if any, facets of modern East Texas that have not been directly affected, or influenced, by the boom-bust cycles of the early 20th century logging industry.

Tracking Historic Sites in the Texas National Forests

It is rare now to find a good body of pine standing along the railroad, the best must be sought ten and fifteen miles back . . . The hope of the forests is that the State or the United States government will intervene, and pass laws limiting the cut to certain sizes, also employing a forestry patrol to guard against fires and waste.-William Goodrich Jones, following a horseback survey of the East Texas pine forests in 1898.

photo of wooden derricks
Wooden derricks are reflected in an oil field pond at Sour Lake, Texas. Lumber from East Texas provided building materials for industries across the state, from oil derricks to rail ties. Photo courtesy of Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Click to enlarge.

East Texas Sawmill and Rail Data Bases


# of Mills

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San Augustine



San Jacinto













The remains of the early 20th-century logging industry which can be found in the four National Forests in Texas represent the full range of logging industry-related sites and features. Major mills and mill towns, such as Aldridge and 4-C, represent the highest level of development, with multiple saws, large residential areas, commissaries, hotels, schools, churches, and other conveniences one would expect in a small community. Smaller front camps, such as Bannister, Brittain, Wilburn and Ragtown, while smaller and only temporarily occupied, contain equally complex features as the larger mill towns. These essentially mobile encampments were laid out in a precise pattern with primary and intersecting secondary thoroughfares lined by tents or other types of temporary housing.

In 1993, the Texas Forestry Museum began development of a database of historic sawmills in the twelve county area defined as the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. The Museum was joined in this development by the T.L.L. Temple Archives, the Sam Houston Regional Library, the USDA Forest Service and the School of Forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University. By the end of 1994, over 5,500 sawmills and logging industry related sites, located in forty counties from the Red River to the Gulf Coast in the eastern third of Texas, were listed on the database. By the end of 1995, a linked database of Steam Logging Rail Roads had been also been developed. In 1998, the sawmill database was made available to the general public through the Texas Historic Sites Atlas Project, Texas Historic Commission and Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.

To learn more about historic logging sites in the Texas Pineywoods, search the online East Texas Sawmill Data Base© and East Texas Tram and Railroad Data Base© developed by the Texas Forestry Museum and maintained by the Texas Historical Commission. The sawmill data base documents more than 4500 sites in 54 counties, and the tram data base details more than 300 trams and railroads that were run as sawmill company lines. These sites may be researched on the Texas Historical Commission's Historic Sites Atlas.