Nestled deep within the piney woods of the Angelina National Forest sits one of the most intact of all of East Texas’ numerous ghost towns. Founded as a logging community in 1898 by Hal Aldridge, he established the town deep within the forests of Jasper County, with the intention of taking advantage of the area’s plentiful woods and pristine river.
At one time, this community reached a population of just over 1,000 citizens and contained a commissary, a hotel, a depot, a dispensary, 2 churches, 2 schools, and the houses of 200 tenants. However, after some controversial disputes with labor organizers, a growing number of increasingly disgruntled workers, and an unfortunate fire in 1911 which almost destroyed the entirety of the mill structure, the future of the town seemed bleak.
After mortgaging the remainder of the mill to John H. Kirby, he began the construction of several large concrete rooms to house the engines, boilers, flywheels and dry kilns. Designed in accordance with the requirements for fire insurance, he hoped to safeguard against any major future financial loss.
Another fire scare occurred in 1914, and a year later the entire mill burned to the ground. Discouraged, Hal Aldridge packed up and moved his logging dreams to El Paso, selling the site to Beaumont’s J. Frank Keith who operated a smaller 40,000-foot sawmill for 18 months before selling to the Kirby Lumber Company. A large majority of the city left with Hal, and the looming shadow of a future ghost town crept eerily over the remaining residents.
The last known sawmill on the property burned down in 1918 and in 1925 the railroad tracks which used to ship logs out of Aldridge were torn up. The town was abandoned the same year and slowly began to be reclaimed by its surroundings. Today, it sits as a desolate remnant of a time long past and a troubled establishment which never found its way out of the thick pines of East Texas.
Sixty-five miles west of Houston sits the unincorporated community of Rock Island, Texas. Drawn in by the promise of settling in a tropical paradise near the Gulf of Mexico, a majority of Rock Island’s original residents arrived in 1897. Despite this unfulfilled reality, the town continued to grow, and by 1925 it had evolved into a thriving agricultural community with over 500 residents. Due to increased mechanization and a lack of farming jobs available, the population began to dwindle and businesses began to close, until the town eventually reached the status of a ghost town. Now, Rock Island’s few remaining structures sit alone, steadily baking in the East Texas sun as time eases this once-bustling city into another decade of isolation.
UPDATE: Rock Island, Texas is NOT a ghost town according to residents.
Currently located near the intersection of State Highway 80 and FM 81, Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings founded the town of Helena in 1852 on the site of a former Hispanic trading post. Although once projected to become one of the largest cities in the state of Texas, Helena now exists as a remnant of a bygone era and as the shell of a town once known for violence, outlaws, and a legendary dispute between lawmen and land moguls.
During our visit to Helena, we stopped by the Karnes County Museum which houses most of what remains of the old town. On these grounds sit several well-preserved structures from Helena’s historic past, such as the post office, the courthouse, the schoolhouse, as well as two iron jail cells which housed the most infamous of Karnes County criminals. The museum curator, Ramona Noone gave us an insightful tour of the property and educated us on both the history and folklore of Helena and Karnes County. With her help, we were able to get a pretty good feel for everyday life in the Helena city limit (minus the gunslingers and outlaws). As expected, it turned out that there’s a lot more to this small Texas town that meets the eye.