Gilmer, Alexander (1829–1906)

By: Robert Wooster and W. T. Block

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: September 17, 2009

Alexander Gilmer, lumberman, son of George and Jane Gilmer, was born in County Armagh, Ireland, on September 7, 1829. At age seventeen he immigrated to Georgia where he built ship masts for the French government before joining his brother John in building vessels independently. The Gilmers invested virtually all of their savings to construct a steamboat, the Swan, to ply the Chattahoochee, but it sank and left Alexander almost penniless. Nonetheless, he continued his trade and went to Texas sometime around 1850 on the Altha Brooks, a schooner that he had helped build. He joined the coastal trade and eventually settled in Orange where he built, repaired, and operated ships. Gilmer spent some time as a lumberjack, floating logs in the Sabine River as well as making cypress shingles by hand. He soon formed a partnership to build schooners with his cousin George C. Gilmer, with a shipbuilder named Levingston, and with the Smith and Merriman sawmill. By 1860 Gilmer had bought out Smith and Merriman's interest in the schooner enterprise. During that year Gilmer was also enumerated in the Orange County census as a thirty-two-year-old shipbuilder with assets worth $3,000.

During the Civil War Gilmer successfully ran the Union blockade. In partnership with M. J. Kopperl, a Galveston merchant, Gilmer made about six successful voyages to Havana, British Honduras, and Matamoros, hauling out loads of cotton and returning with munitions, gunpowder, medicine, coffee, yard goods, and flat iron. In August 1862 one of his schooners was captured by the blockader USS Hatteras. On January 21, 1863, Gilmer was aboard the Confederate gunboat Josiah H. Bell during the offshore battle that captured the Union blockaders Morning Light and Velocity.

During and after the Civil War, Gilmer and his cousin George owned one of Orange's largest mercantile stores. Gilmer retained the store as his personal property after his cousin's death. Gilmer entered the lumbering business in 1866 and became one of the country's largest individual timberland owners. He built or bought sawmills and lumberyards at Orange, Velasco, Beeville, Yoakum, Cuero, Runge, Karnes City, Victoria, Remlig, and Lemonville. In addition to his role as lumberman, Gilmer continued as one of Orange's leading merchants throughout the 1870s. He built a cypress shingle mill and by August 1877 was shipping 800,000 shingles weekly on his schooners. In 1890 he became a partner with J. G. and G. W. Smyth and principal stockholder in Sabine Tram Company of South Newton County, with its first company town and headquarters at Laurel, named for Gilmer's daughter Laura. Gilmer was also founder and president of First National Bank of Runge, Texas. Although he became a millionaire, his rise to economic success was not without temporary setbacks. His shingle mill burned in 1882. On several occasions fire destroyed his sawmill at Orange. After the last fire in 1899, he abandoned sawmilling, but in 1904 he purchased the Lemon Lumber Company at Lemonville.

Gilmer married Etta Reading of Orange in 1856. She died during their first year of marriage, and Gilmer married Cleora C. Thomas, also of Orange, in 1867. He and his second wife had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. He moved briefly to Marfa and then to San Antonio for his health during his later years. Gilmer died while seeking treatment in New York City on July 30, 1906, leaving an estate of well over $1 million. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Orange. In 1981 the Texas Historical Commission placed a marker at his grave.

John Henry Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: Daniell, 1880; reprod., Easley, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1978). Galveston Daily News, February 11, 1905, July 31, 1906. Galveston Weekly News, August 13, 1877. Alexander Gilmer Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin.

  • Peoples
  • Irish
  • Business
Time Periods:
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert Wooster and W. T. Block, “Gilmer, Alexander,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 12, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 17, 2009

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