Alto, also known as Branchtown, is an incorporated community at the junction of U.S. Highway 69, State highways 21 and 294, and Farm roads 752 and 1911, eleven miles south of Rusk in southern Cherokee County. The settlement was founded around 1849 by Robert F. Mitchell on land acquired in a lawsuit with John Durst. The site was once a part of an extensive grant to Nacogdoches merchants William Barr and Samuel Davenport. A local post office opened in 1850 under the name Branchtown. In 1852 the town was renamed Alto ("high"), reportedly at the suggestion of Captain Henry Berryman, because of its location at the highest point between the Angelina and Neches rivers. Because it was situated on the Old San Antonio Road, the settlement quickly developed into a commercial center and stopping point for travelers. Mitchell opened a store in 1851, and by the eve of the Civil War Alto had several stores, a blacksmith and livery shop, a saloon, a cotton gin, and a school for girls. After the construction of the Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad through the town in the mid-1880s, Alto drew residents and businesses from many nearby communities. By 1885 the town had four gristmill-cotton gin combinations, a sawmill, a church, a district school, a saloon, several general stores, and a population of 600. A newspaper, the Alto News, was begun in 1893; under the name Alto Herald it continued to be published in the early 1990s. A bank was established in Alto in 1903, and in 1909 the town was incorporated.
Alto continued to prosper. In 1929 it reported a peak population of 1,600. With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, however, the population fell, and in 1936 the community reported 1,053 residents and eighty businesses. The population was 1,500 in the mid-1960s. In 1990 the town had 1,252 residents and twenty-seven businesses. In 2000 the population was 1,190. Cattle ranching, oil and gas, and lumber are its chief industries.