by Anna Redhair, Graduate Student
Map of the proposed layout for the town of New Birmingham. The streets were named after major U.S. cities, Texas towns, and a few of the major investors in the project.
In the early 1880s, Alabama native and sewing machine salesman Alexander B. Blevins envisioned a town in East Texas that would rival the iron production of Birmingham in his home state. While traveling through the eastern part of Texas, he encountered significant iron ore deposits and identified a potential town site two miles east of Rusk, between Palestine and Nacogdoches. Blevins secured financial backing for “The Iron Queen of the Southwest” from his brother-in-law Gen. W. H. Hammon, a prominent Calvert lawyer, and several other wealthy investors from New York. The town, called New Birmingham, sold its first lot in 1888 and by 1891 it boasted around 2,000 residents, two working furnaces, a train depot, electric light station, carriage shop, ice manufacturer, pipe and bottling works, brick yard, and the largest hotel outside of Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston. Most of these buildings were built with brick, demonstrating the founders’ intention for the town’s permanence.
The Texas Collection recently discovered two pieces of promotional material associated with New Birmingham: a map of the proposed layout of the town along with existing homes and buildings as of August 1891 and a promotional booklet with details about the town’s benefits and business opportunities, which can be accessed here: here and here. Yet, by 1893, New Birmingham was deserted and the Cherokee County Banner, a local newspaper, declared that the “Iron Queen was dead.” All the town’s residents left except for a single caretaker and his wife who lived in the Southern Hotel, but even that structure burned to the ground in 1926. Most scholars point to a lack of initial capital for the venture compounded by the Panic of 1893, an explosion that ruined one of the furnaces, and the unfavorable Alien Land Act passed by Texas governor James Hogg as likely causes of the city’s quick demise. A legend survives, however, that tells a significantly different and more dramatic reason for the total destruction of New Birmingham, Texas.
The most impressive structure in New Birmingham was the Southern Hotel. It housed such distinguished guests as Texas Governor James Hogg, railroad magnate Jay Gould, and former President Grover Cleveland.
According to the legend, Gen. W. H. Hammon and his wife Ella lived in the Southern Hotel. Ella had bright red hair and was considered the most beautiful woman in the town. In 1890, grocer S. T. Cooney and his wife, who was also very beautiful, moved to the town. Mrs. Hammon supposedly became incredibly jealous and she and her husband began spreading rumors around the town about Mrs. Cooney’s conduct. S. T. Cooney filed a slander suit against Gen. Hammon, but instead of waiting for the court to handle the conflict, he took matters into his own hands and shot Hammon to death in the middle of the street on July 14, 1890. Mrs. Hammon witnessed her husband’s death and called on the townspeople to lynch Cooney, but public sentiment about the incident was divided. After unsuccessfully attempting to convince the defense attorney to drop Cooney as a client, she ran through the streets of New Birmingham with her red hair flowing and cursed the town, calling on God to “leave no stick or stone standing in this mushroom town.”
This photo shows a single brick wall from the high school, the only structure remaining from the town of New Birmingham. The rest of the site has been overgrown by the surrounding East Texas forest.
Although the dramatic details of the legend cannot be proven, the slander suit and murder were reported in several Texas newspapers. The Galveston Daily News closely followed the trial and Cooney was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary on July 11, 1891. When the furnace exploded and the financial crisis hit New Birmingham in 1893, many townspeople recalled the curse of Mrs. Hammon and believed it to be a bad omen. Unlike other ghost towns in Texas, nothing remains to mark the place where this magnificent boomtown once stood. Most of the bricks from the businesses and homes were carted away during World War I or used to erect structures in the nearby town of Rusk. In a sense, Mrs. Hammon’s curse came true after all.
“Gen. Hammon Killed.” Dallas Morning News. July 15, 1890. America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex. accessed June 14, 2017.
Long, Christopher. “New Birmingham, Texas” A New Handbook of Texas. Vol. 4. Austin, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 1996.
“Made It Manslaughter.” The Galveston Daily. July 11, 1891. Newspapers.com accessed June 14, 2017.
“New Birmingham.” Cherokee County History. John Allen Templeton, ed. Jacksonville, TX: Cherokee County Historical Commission, 1986.
New Birmingham Iron and Improvement Co. of Texas. New Birmingham, Cherokee County, Texas. Chicago: Rand, McNally, and Co., 1891.
New Birmingham, Texas. Chicago: Rand, McNally, and Co., 1891.
New Birmingham, Texas [Vertical File] The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Roach, Hattie Joplin. A History of Cherokee County. Dallas, TX: Southwest Press, 1934.