“It doesn't get any lonelier than this, Cause I'm on this road alone.” — “Lonelier Than This” song lyrics by Steve Earle
There was no mistake that I was on this road alone. I really don’t think anyone had been on it in a long time, and here I was at the end of the road. I chuckled thinking any farther travel on this “road” would require an off-road vehicle. I had already navigated washouts rivaling small canyons and pine saplings between dirt ruts qualifying for forest management.
Surveying the spot where the app proclaimed, “you have arrived,” I realized that my intended destination was nowhere in sight. Humor again compensated for uneasiness when I realized if anything happened to me deep in this forest, my grandchildren could be retired before I was ever found.
Thoughts soon drifted back 100 years about the hustle and bustle of a community of 2,000 supporting one of the largest sawmill operations in Texas near the spot where I was surrounded by serenity deep in a national forest,
History records that East Texas logging boomed between the late 1880s and the late 1920s when southern lumber and timber products were in huge demand. The untapped potential of East Texas attracted increased logging which led to large industrialized mills replacing small owner-operated sawmills.
Railroads grew into the forest connecting remote sawmills and the company towns that sprang up around them. The mill I was searching for one day last week was built in 1905. At its peak, it produced 125,000 board feet of lumber a day making it one of the largest producers in the state. The community that grew up around it included 200 company houses, a hotel, post office, blacksmith shop, train depot, schools, shops and saloons. Continued success eluded it after two fires and diminishing pine forests eventually lead to its demise by 1923.
My presence deep in the woods was not driven by sawmill research or by seeking history about the East Texas timber business. I was looking for the ruins of the Aldridge sawmill and the community around it—Aldridge, Texas.
Both are gone now and have been for almost a century, but remnants of concrete structures that housed the mill equipment still slumber deep in the Pine Thicket of the Angelina National Forest. The vine-covered and graffiti-adorned ruins are accessible by a 2.5-mile hike from the Boykin Springs Recreation Area, and reportedly also via a wilderness trail from somewhere near where I was standing that morning at the end of the road. Access via the road less taken looked to be a short distance on maps, but I won’t know until I return with better info and suitable hiking gear.
Curiosity leads me to see firsthand the ruins of prosperity from an earlier time with a possible family connection. Hal Aldridge was a Mississippi native from the same area as my father’s family who worked in sawmills before building the mill and town that bore his name.
Significant time has been invested recently researching dad’s heritage, something he never had any interest in doing. In fact, he associated with only two of his siblings in my lifetime, and I knew little about his family when I started down the path of learning more about my Aldridge roots.
On that morning last week in the woods, paths crossed at the roots of some majestic pines near the spot where mills once produced lumber from ancestors of the trees surrounding me.
Whether or not research ties my family tree’s roots to the ghost town of a mill and community with which I share a name, going down that road is fascinating. But if you don’t hear from me soon, please send my grandchildren down that road before they retire.