University of Texas at Austin wordmarkUniversity of Texas at AustinCollege of Liberal Arts wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

Aldridge Sawmill and the East Texas Logging Bonanza

collage of the Pineywoods of East Texas
Scenes from past and present in the Pineywoods of East Texas, where logging transformed a sleepy economy and sparked the creation of hundreds of mill towns in the early 20th century. Shown above, in color, are the ruins of Aldridge Sawmill southeast of Lufkin, Texas; photos courtesy USDA Forest Service. Early logging scenes from photos provided by the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, East Texas Collection.
map of Texas' regions
The Pineywoods region—shaded in jade blue on this map—extends downward across a wide swath of East Texas to the northern Gulf Coast. Map courtesy The University of Texas General Libraries, Texas Map Collection. Click to enlarge.
photo of tall yellow pine trees
Tall stands of yellow pine dwarf a man in East Texas. In the virgin forests—known to Native Americans and early settlers—trees reached 150 feet in height and up to 5 feet in diameter. Photo courtesy of Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, East Texas Collection. Click to see full image.
map of Jasper County
Neatly laid out in a bend of the Neches River, the Aldridge town and sawmill is shown during its heyday in this early map of Jasper County, Texas. Typical of many milltowns, Aldridge flourished until the timber was depleted. (Note that the town name is spelled differently on this map.)

One of the few sites of its type with significant structural remains, the Aldridge Sawmill has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been investigated by volunteers and professional archeologists through the USDA Forest Service Passport in Time project.

Deep within the pine forests of East Texas, a few ruined buildings—their concrete walls overgrown, crumbling, and splotched with graffiti—and a maze of stone foundations near a pond are all that remain of what was once Aldridge, a bustling sawmill and neatly laid-out company town. It is hard to imagine that less than a century ago in these quiet woods, steam and sawdust once filled the air. Shouts of mill workers competed with the metallic din of machinery and the blaring whistles of trains hauling lumber to far-away markets. Forest crews—the choppers, flatheads, and buckers who harvested the enormous pines from woods nearby—came to town on occasion, joining the sawyers, trimmers, planers, managers, merchants, teachers, preachers, and their families who made up the Aldridge populace.

Like many other early lumber factories in this richly resourced region, Aldridge was a temporary phenomenon, a mill complex and community created to serve a single purpose—to extract and process timber resources. Sawmills were built, forests harvested, and communities reduced to ghost towns within the sweep of half a century or less. Yet, during its brief heyday, the Aldridge sawmill produced thousands of board feet of yellow pine lumber a day and supported hundreds of workers and their families. Collectively, Aldridge and the many East Texas sawmills like it played a significant role in the American economy—providing the lumber needed to build the towns and cities across Texas and other parts of the nation.

The "Bonanza" period of East Texas logging began in the late 1880s and lasted until the late 1920s. Well before this time, national population growth and industrial development had exhausted the last remaining forests in the northern United States and created a huge demand for southern lumber and other timber products. The largely untapped timber potential of East Texas attracted new investment capital to finance larger, more powerful logging operations.

Timber production shifted from the small, relatively primitive, owner-operated sawmills of the mid-19th century to more industrialized, technologically sophisticated operations employing hundreds of people. The new operators, some of them corporations, came to dominate the East Texas economy in the early 20th century. They built their own railroads into the forests, connecting their remote sawmills and "company towns" with shipping points for their timber products.

An estimated 615 sawmills were operating in Texas in 1910, according to the Texas Almanac. The impact of this activity was dramatic. Approximately 18 million acres worth of "Pineywoods" timber was cut during the 50 years between 1880 and 1930, an amount estimated to represent 59 billion board feet of lumber. Most of the pristine pine forests were cut out within a few decades. Depletion of the state's timber resources, combined with the impact of the Great Depression, brought an end to the "Bonanza" period. Some of the large timber companies moved their operations to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, while others went into bankruptcy.

Federal legislation authorized the purchase of cut-over timber lands, and in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began to appraise and purchase such lands in East Texas. These include what are now the Angelina National Forest, Davy Crockett National Forest, Sabine National Forest, and Sam Houston National Forest. Over the past 70 years, the Forest Service has replanted these lands and replenished the East Texas timber reserves, implemented sustained yield practices, and instituted programs to conserve the soil, water, and other natural resources of the region.

The Aldridge Sawmill, which operated between 1905 and 1923, was capable of producing 125,000 board feet of lumber per day, making it a large operation for its time. But, plagued by fires and eventually the depletion of nearby timber resources, the Aldridge operation was abandoned. Over time, its houses and factory buildings were picked over, some torn down for usable construction materials and machinery, others left to slowly succumb to the forces of nature. Today, the site continues to be threatened by vandals and treasure seekers.

Located within the boundaries of the modern Angelina National Forest, the Aldridge Sawmill and Township historical site represents the combination of industrial technology and capital investment that opened the Pineywoods to economic development in the early 20th century. As one of the few sites of its type with significant structural remains, Aldridge has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been investigated by volunteers and professional archeologists through the USDA Forest Service Passport in Time program.

In the following exhibits, we explore the Forest Lands and the types of trees used in the still-thriving lumber industry. In Logging in the Pineywoods, the fascinating history of logging and its significance in the development of East Texas is reviewed. In Investigating the Aldridge Legacy, we take a close-up look at Aldridge as representative of the many sawmill operations that thrived for a relatively brief moment during the logging bonanza, and we learn more about the measures being taken to preserve this and other historic forest sites. In Learning about Logging, teachers and students will find links to a variety of educational materials and curricula focused on forests and their resources and the logging industry. Teaching about Sawmills is a lesson for 7th-grade students correlated to this exhibit that gives 7th-grade students an opportunity to practice math skills while becoming familiar with Texas’ “Boom & Bust” economy  and the natural history and geography of the east Texas Piney Woods. The Aldridge Sawmill/Logging History exhibits on Texas Beyond History are based on reports written by the USDA Forest Service archeologists during their historical research and investigations of the site. The exhibits are supported by a grant from the Temple-Inland Foundation.

map of Texas' regions
Trees and bushes crowd the interior of what was once the boiler building at Aldridge Sawmill. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.

Approximately 18 million acres worth of Pineywoods timber was cut during the "Bonanza" period between 1880 and 1930, an amount estimated to be the equivalent of 59 billion board feet of lumber.

photo of Angelina National Forest
Dark pines and tall cypress are mirrored on the surface of this quiet pond in the Angelina National Forest in East Texas, near the Aldridge site. Photo by John Suhrstedt, courtesy Texas Department of Transportation. Click to enlarge.
photo of volunteers
Under the watchful eye of a USDA Forest Service supervisor, volunteers in the Passport in Time program sort through artifacts excavated during the 1996-97 project at Aldridge Sawmill. Through the efforts of staff archeologists and volunteers, historic forest sites are documented and investigated, helping to preserve the forest legacy and increase public awareness. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service. Click to see full image.
photo of grafitti
Vandals have painted graffiti on many of the walls at the Aldridge site, a highly destructive activity that Forest Service staff hope to discourage with greater education efforts. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.