TEXAS' FIRST 'BIG' SAWMILL
By W. T. Block
It almost defies belief to look at the topography surrounding Sabine Pass, Texas, and realize that that coastal seaport was once the location of Texas' largest sawmill. The only trees in sight for miles around are a few live oak shade trees and some marsh mesquites, which are only large bushes.
Major Sidney A. Sweet, a former San Augustine contractor and architect, settled there in 1846, and he soon bought one half of the Sabine townsite. In the same year, he erected a steam sawmill, known as S. A. Sweet and Company, as well as a sash and door factory, and a shipyard.1 Sweet was the first East Texan, who floated log rafts down the Sabine River and then towed them across Sabine Lake to his sawmill site. His first mill was probably equipped with a sash gang of two upright saws.
In January, 1849, Sweet sold his mill to David Bradbury, Orrin Brown. Ben Granger, and Isaiah Ketchum, who quickly changed the firm's name to Spartan Mill Company. The new owners were all ship carpenters, who apparently wished to guarantee to themselves an adequate supply of cypress ship timbers. The Nacogdoches Times of Jan. 20, 1849, described the overhauling of the Sabine sawmill and the installation of three new saws.2
In 1850, Spartan Mill Company cut 4,000 saw logs, worth $5,500, into 1,200,.000 feet of lumber, worth $28,000. The mill employed 15 men, paid a total of $637 monthly in wages.3 By 1857, the Spartan Mill Company lay abandoned and rusting, and John Sealy of Galveston, the trustee for the lien holder, sold the sawmill at public auction to David R. Wingate of Newton County for $2,000.
Wingate, who came to Texas in 1852 with 70 slaves, had also owned a sawmill on the Pearl River in Mississippi, consisting of a "sash gang of twenty saws...driven by an...upright engine..."4 In 1859, Wingate completely rebuilt the old Spartan mill, renaming it D. R. Wingate and Company. Details of its cutting machinery have not been located, but the mill's daily capacity reached 30,000 feet, unheard of in the East Texas of 1860. Wingate may have installed a 48-inch circular saw, since 48" Page circular sawmills were on sale in Houston as early as 1846.5
In 1859, Wingate and Company cut 7,488 saw logs, worth $11,980, into 2.5 million feet of lumber, worth $43,680. The mill employed ten men, paid $300 monthly in wages.6 Wingate rafted both cypress and long leaf pine logs, cut by slave labor on his 3,000 acre plantation, and he towed the log rafts by steamboat across Sabine Lake. He also owned a fleet of lumber schooners, and he enjoyed a large export trade with the West Indian sugar planters, who bought his lumber, cisterns, and sugar vats. He also manufactured doors, windows and frames, as well as millwork in his sash and door factory. In August, 1860, a boiler at Wingate and Company exploded, killing and maiming four people, but the mill was quickly back in operation.7
In April, 1861, the sawmill closed down when the Civil War ended all lumber demand. When a yellow fever epidemic struck Sabine Pass in July, 1862, Wingate abandoned his mansion and expensive furniture, and he moved his family and 13 slaves back to Newton County. On Oct. 20, 1862, Confederate cavalrymen hid out in the sawmill, and when the Federal gunboat Dan steamed by in the Pass, they fired four carbine volleys at the vessel. Angered, the Federals came ashore and:8
There were also a thousand uncut logs at the mill, which they failed to burn, and as a result the logs were utilized in the construction of Confederate Fort Griffin. And thus ended quite ignominiously the sawmilling epoch at Sabine Pass, a victim of the spiteful Union Navy's torch.
1Vol. F, pp. 166-169, Jefferson County Deed Records; Files 87 & 87A, Estate of Sidney A. Sweet, Jefferson County Probate Record.
2Vol. G, pp. 157, 164, Jefferson County Deed Record; (Nacogdoches) Times, Jan. 20, 1849.
3Manuscript Census of 1850, Jefferson County, Sched. V, Products of Industry.
4W. T.Block, "An Early East Texas Captain of Commerce: David R. Wingate," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XIII (Nov. 1977), p. 62.
5(Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, Nov. 9, 1846; Oct. 12, 1848, p. 1.
6Census Returns of 1860, Jefferson County, Sched. V, Products of Industry.
7(Galveston) Weekly News, Aug. 14, 1860; Block, "An Early East Texas Captain," p. 65.
8(Houston) Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Nov. 5, 1862.