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NEW BIRMINGHAM, TX
NEW BIRMINGHAM, TEXAS. New Birmingham, once called the "Iron Queen of the Southwest," was a short-lived industrial town near the junction of U.S. Highway 69 and Farm Road 343, two miles southeast of Rusk in central Cherokee County. It was founded by Anderson B. Blevins, a sewing-machine salesman from Alabama who traveled on business to Cherokee County in the mid-1880s. Impressed by the large iron ore deposits in the area and the already operating iron foundry at the Rusk Penitentiary, Blevins envisioned an industrial center comparable to Birmingham in his home state. He returned to the East and with the aid of a number of capitalists, including James A. Mahoney, future New York mayor Robert Van Wyck, and his brother-in-law William Harrison Hamman, founded the Cherokee Land and Iron Company (renamed the New Birmingham Iron and Land Company in 1889). In 1888 Blevins obtained options on 20,000 acres of land, much of it with rich iron ore deposits. A mining operation was established almost immediately, and within a short time work began on a fifty-ton blast furnace (named Tassie Belle in honor of Blevins's wife) and on rolling and planing mills.
In addition to the foundry, the company planned to develop an entire community. The new town, known as New Birmingham, was platted just east of the Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad; on October 12, 1888, the firm began selling lots. Streets-named for cities in Texas and the Northeast-were laid out and graded. The business district was in a fifteen-block area on Dallas, Galveston, and San Antonio streets. Within a few months a small town had developed, and by 1890 New Birmingham had an estimated 2,000 residents, a bank, a saloon, a sash and door factory, an iron pipe foundry, a large brick kiln, an ice factory, wagon and plow works, two cornice factories, and one of the first electric generating plants in Texas. An interurban railroad was built to link the town with nearby Rusk. By the early 1890s more than 400 houses and businesses had been constructed. The centerpiece of the new town was the three-story brick Southern Hotel, which featured running hot and cold water, electric lights, and an elegant restaurant. Among the hotel guests during its heyday were President Grover Cleveland, Governor James Stephen Hogg, and railway magnate Jay Gould.
During the early 1890s the New Birmingham Iron and Land Company aggressively promoted the new town with advertisements and brochures designed to lure new residents and capital. A newspaper, the New Birmingham Times, which began publishing soon after the town was founded, enthusiastically reported the latest community accomplishments and heralded New Birmingham as the future manufacturing center of the Southwest. From the start, however, the venture was plagued by a serious shortage of capital. Blevins and his New York backers attempted to attract new investors. Unable to find additional support in the Northeast, the syndicate tried to make a deal with the Baring brothers in England, who expressed interest in acquiring charcoal for English mills. But the recently passed Alien Land Law, which prohibited foreigners from owning land in Texas, undermined that effort. Blevins, in an attempt to gain an exemption from the law, invited Governor Hogg to New Birmingham and mounted a lavish promotional campaign. But he failed to obtain Hogg's support, and the deal with the Barings collapsed.
Another intimation of impending trouble occurred in July 1890, when W. H. Hamman, one of the venture's chief backers, was gunned down by a local businessman who thought Hamman had insulted his wife. Hamman's wife, after learning of her husband's death, reportedly ran through the streets calling on God to "leave no stick or stone standing" in the town. In later years many saw her plea as an omen. Without additional financial backing, the promoters were unable to weather the panic of 1893. To compound the problem, an explosion and fire the same year destroyed the Tassie Belle furnace, and almost 300 residents were thrown out of work. The Southern Hotel and most of the manufacturing plants closed, and within a short time many residents and merchants began to move away and default on their payments. On July 4, 1893, the Cherokee County Banner announced that the "Iron Queen" was dead.
Though by 1896 the population had fallen to 200, several attempts were made to reinvigorate the town. Record Brothers of Pennsylvania tried to start up the smelter in 1899 but quickly abandoned the effort. In 1907 Blevins tried again to resume operations at the foundry, but another financial panic doomed the effort. The post office stayed open until 1906, but by 1910 New Birmingham had been abandoned. During World War I most of the remaining structures were razed, and the salvaged material was used in Rusk. The hotel burned in 1926, and the last building of the town, the schoolhouse, was torn down in 1932 to make way for a new highway. A historical marker was placed at the site in 1966. Ruins of the furnace and other structures can still be seen at Tassie Belle park.
BIBLIOGRAPHY:T. Lindsay Baker, Ghost Towns of Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). Cherokee County History (Jacksonville, Texas: Cherokee County Historical Commission, 1986). Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. New Birmingham Iron and Development Company, New Birmingham as It Is (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1891). Hattie Joplin Roach, A History of Cherokee County (Dallas: Southwest, 1934). Dorman H. Winfrey, "New Birmingham, Texas," East Texas Historical Journal 5 (March 1967).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Christopher Long, "New Birmingham, TX," accessed April 28, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hvn16.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.