Sawdust City on the Sabine
In the early 1830s a Sabine River boatman named Green settled on a bluff on a bend of the river. History does not leave much about Green; there are two spellings of his first name, either Resin, or Reason, and not much else. It is recorded that the place he settled was named Green’s Bluff.
In 1840, patriotic citizens changed the name to Madison, named for President James Madison.
A post office was established in 1850. To avoid confusion with the earlier established town of Madisonville, the name of the town was changed to Orange in 1858. The inspiration for the name may have come from a grove of Orange trees owned by George Pattillo.
Orange had two main natural resources.
It was ideally located on the Sabine River. Riverboats could go upstream as far as Logansport and schooners could load cargoes and sail down the river, across Sabine Lake and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Another resource was the location of thousands of acres of virgin pine and cypress timber that could be milled into lumber. The combination of the Sabine River and the huge virgin forests would bring about the birth of the “Sawdust City on the Sabine.”
There is confusion about when the first sawmills were built in Orange, possibly as early as 1836.
There are reports of Robert Jackson buying a steam sash mill from two men named Payne and Bendy in 1840, but there is no record listed in Products of Industry published in 1853.
Jackson later built a mill that was powered by a steamboat engine. It probably came from the Rufus Pittman which sank south of Belgrade on Jan. 6, 1840.
There had been hand-hewn cypress shingles exported from Orange, through Sabine Pass, to Galveston, as early as 1839.
In 1855 Dr. William Hewson built the Empire Mills on the river south of Orange. He was able to cut 8,000 board feet of lumber per day.
The mill employed 10 men and was said to be the best mill in the state. On May 31, 1856, the mill was deliberately set afire by a moderator’s posse of Orange’s vigilantes.
The vigilantes were trying to flush out Sam Ashworth and Jack Bunch who were believed to be hiding in the mill. Ashworth and Bunch killed Sheriff’s Deputy Samuel Deputy. The loss of the mill was $15,000 and 100,000 board feet of lumber.
In 1857, W.C. Brazee and James Woods built a mill with one circular saw and one upright saw.
The Brazee and Woods mill was one of four sawmills located at or near Orange that were capable of cutting 3,000 to 4,000 board feet of lumber daily.
The other mills were owned by John Merriman, Robert Jackson and R.A. Neyland and Company’s steam shingle mill.
Following the end of the Civil War, in 1866, A.T. Chenault and John McGehee built a mill.
McGhee sold his interest to Chenault and Chenault converted the mill to become the first mill in Orange to manufacture sawn shingles. A Muzzy Upright Shingle Machine was installed that was capable of cutting 10,000 shingles a day.
The machine was pushed in 1867 to cut 15,000 per day and later became a marvel when it was able to be converted in late 1868 to cut 20,000 shingles per day.
David R. Wingate was already the owner of a large plantation in Newton County when he built a sawmill at Sabine Pass. The mill became the largest steam sawmill in the state. Along with the mill, Wingate operated a fleet of timber schooners. In 1862, occupying Union forces burned the mill and confiscated the schooners.
Wingate returned to Newton County and ran his plantation until 1873 when he moved to Orange and bought half interest in Eberle Swinford’s Phoenix Mill.
The shingle mill was capable of cutting 80,000 shingles a day and also operated a small circular sawmill. In 1877, Wingate wanted the freedom to make decisions own his own and sold his interest in the mill to Charles H. Moore of Galveston.
In 1878, he completed a new mill in Orange and started D.R. Wingate and Company. His mill burned in 1880. He built and lost other mills to fire. About 1890 after his wife’s death, he left the lumber business and ventured into rice farming.
Alexander Gilmer had come to Orange in 1867 and bought two-thirds interest in James Wood’s sawmill. Gilmer later built and operated his own mills.
Along with good fortune in the business, he also had mills built in 1869, 1891, 1893 and 1899. His last lumber operation was the Lemon Lumber Company at Lemonville in northern Orange County. After the 1899 fire he did not return to Orange.
In April 1877, H.J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore built the Star and Crescent Sawmill. This was the largest and one of the most modern in the state. It was capable of cutting 100,000 board feet of lumber per day.
The mill was a mechanical marvel of the time — a 22-gang saw. A 36 inch log could be surfaced 12 inches apart on two sides, then fed into the huge saw, and in one minute, 22 one-inch by 12-inch boards would be cut. The mill was also capable of producing beams in a 14 X 32 inch dimension.
By 1905, the mill capacity would increase to 300,000 board feet of lumber per day.
This amount was equal to about 30 acres of virgin timber. A portion of the land holdings of Lutcher and Moore was equal to about 500 square miles of East Texas, Beauregard and Calcasieu Parishes in Louisiana.
In 1885, Lutcher and Moore built the log railroad at Niblett’s Bluff to bring the cut timber to the river where the logs were built into rafts and towed by tug to the mill at Orange.
In 1888, Lutcher and Moore was operating three locomotives, 175 loggers, and 80 tram cars. They were dumping 250,000 feet of cut lumber into the river daily. There were 200 workers in the Orange mills and the payroll was $13,500 per month.
Moore sold his interest to Lutcher in 1901. In 1902 Lutcher bought the L. Miller Lumber and Shingle Mill on the river south of Orange and remodeled it into the “Lower Mill”. The original mill at Orange became the “Upper Mill.”
In 1905, both mills were working 10 hour days. Payday was every Saturday and the company was paying $22,000 in wages every month.
After 1920, lumber demand began to fall off. In 1920 there were only three large mills left in Orange.
The death blow to Orange’s lumber industry came with the Great Depression in 1930.
On Dec. 16, 1930, the last raft of logs reached the mill and when they were sawn, the mills closed ending 53 years of continuous operation.
After 1930 the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company existed as a real estate, mineral rights for leasing and a timber sales firm. Eventually all its assets were liquidated.
The growth and wealth of Orange was based on the lumber industry. With the demise of all the businesses related to timber and lumber, Orange went into a decline that lasted until the explosion of the shipyards in World War II that brought new wealth into Orange.
There was a decline after World War II until the petrochemical industry brought new productivity to the “Sawdust City.”