Proud of East Texas: New Birmingham

Proud of East Texas: New Birmingham

(KLTV) - New Birmingham, heralded as the "Iron Queen of the Southwest," was a boom town that lived and died within a five year period. And yet, the town's history is one of the most intriguing in the state.

From 1889 to 1893, everyone from eastern mayors, steel magnates like Jay Gould, English aristocracy, and even U.S. presidents came to New Birmingham.

Kevin Stingley, history teacher and president of the Heritage Center of Cherokee County, has spent years researching New Birmingham, and separating fact from fiction. It was the beautiful southern hotel, reported to be the finest west of the Mississippi, that first grabbed his attention.

"The very first time I saw a picture of that hotel, I thought, 'wow I've got to find out more.' It was a fabulous structure," Stingley said.

New Birmingham was carved out of East Texas forests, two miles east of Rusk in Cherokee County. The area's abundance of pig iron, essential to the production of steel, attracted the attention of sewing machine salesman Anderson Blevins.

He talked his wealthy brother-in-law, General W.H. Hammon, into furnishing the money to buy thousands of acres of land options, and eastern businessmen into furnishing additional capitol.

On October 12, 1888, the first lot was sold in New Birmingham, and before long, a variety of businesses, including one of the first A. Harris stores, the elegant southern hotel, and stately homes had been built.

Unusual for its time, the town even had paved streets and electricity. And yet, this beautiful, modern city was to last only five years: The victim of international intrigue, state politics, a disastrous explosion, and a controversial murder.

"It was a company town build on credit. There was not much of a cash flow," said Stingley.

The deathblows to New Birmingham's survival seemed to hit all at once.

The panic of 1893 brought the building of railroads to a halt, the bottom dropped out of iron prices, the town's major plant, the Tassie Belle, exploded, and Governor Hogg's Alien Land Act prevented foreigners from investing in Texas land. Millions of investment dollars promised by English aristocracy couldn't be used, and to top it all off, the town's main money man, General Hammon, was murdered.

"The real housewives of New Birmingham, you could call it. It was a fascinating story," Stingley said.

A beautiful young woman, Mary Wheeler Kuney, who later became a noted artist, was the object of a good deal of jealousy among New Birmingham matrons. When General Hammon started spreading rumors about her, Mary's husband, Stanley, shot and killed Hammon.

"Kuney was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to two years in the pen and he served it here in Rusk," Stingley said.

Hammon's widow, Ella Virginia, was devastated by the light sentence.

"The story goes that she ran through the town calling for its demise and put a curse on New Brimingham, and a few years later, when the town collapsed, they said, 'see, she put a curse on the town.'" said Stingley.

Reportedly, the widow Hammon screamed that New Birmingham would 'go back to the forests from whence it came.' Curse or not, the prophecy has come true. A lonely historic marker is the only sign that New Birmingham ever existed.

But much like the fabled Camelot, New Birmingham is too fascinating a story to be forgotten.

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