CAMDEN: A Lumber Town and Its Trains

Editor’s note:

I first visited Camden in February of 1964. It was a fascinating place for any steam enthusiast even though the days of lumber operation by railroads were over. A link to my companion story: Iron horses put out to pasture

I wondered then and since just what it must have been like to grow up in this little company town. Steve Locke did, and I asked him to tell his story.

No. 1 on the turntable in Eureka Springs. She looks pretty much like original except for the lettering.

I Want To Go Home

Story by Steve Locke

© Steve Locke

Born in the late 1940’s, I grew up in the small company-owned lumber town of Camden in East Texas, wishing I had been born much earlier when steam locomotives were in their heyday.  The little town was owned and operated by W.T. Carter & Bro’s.  Lumber and other products were shipped to and from Camden via the MC&SA (Moscow, Camden, & San Augustine) railroad, which in the early days also carried payrolls and a shotgun guard.  The railroad never reached San Augustine, so as the story goes, people referred to it as the Mister Carter and Sid Adams.  Sidney Adams was one of the early pioneers of Camden, helping Mr. Carter build his Lumber Empire.  Camden was started about 1898 when Mr. Carter moved his mill to that location after the mill in Barnum, Texas had burned.

Camden had a commissary, hotel, hospital, barber shop, beauty shop, post office, gas station, and churches.  There was also a recreation hall, ball field, and of course the depot for the MC&SA.  We didn’t have a movie theater, as it burned down years before my birth.  The high school also burned and students had to go by bus to Chester.  We also didn’t have any restaurants or hamburger shops.  The company owned everything including all the houses for which the employees paid a small rent, ours was $18, but of course wages were pretty low too.  We didn’t pay for water or electricity until commercial electricity was brought in in the early 1960’s.  The doctor in town was paid by the company and each employee paid a small monthly fee, but we didn’t pay for office visits.  It was the same at the drug store where we only paid actual cost for medicines.  Sounds like an imaginary town by today’s standard, doesn’t it?

I have to give special mention of the commissary as it was the complete (the only) place to shop when you lived in a town that was fairly remote.  In the commissary was a meat market with any fresh meat you could, want except fish, cut any way you wanted it.  There were all the canned and dry goods you could want.  If you needed stove pipe or a wood burning stove or gas space heater, they had that too.  Hats, shoes, belts, cloth, patterns, thread for sewing, furniture, and on and on.  Need hay or feed for horses, cows, or chickens?  The commissary had it all.  Attached was the drug store with the pharmacist and all sorts of over the counter medications.  It also had the ice cream, soda, cigars, cigarettes, and miscellaneous items.  It was a favorite stop for kids and teenagers to grab a soda and candy bar and hang out on the long store porch and visit.

No. 2 in Reader, Arkansas. A lot of things were changed particularly the light, domes, and stack.

In the early years of my memory, there were two sawmills, one for hardwoods and the other for the southern yellow pines that the East Texas area was well known for.   Early on, they were both steam powered.  A large steam engine with a very large flywheel and belts provided power that ran a huge band saw and chain tables and such.  There were other steam engines and devices for turning logs on the carriage.  We called them as guns because they made a popping noise as they pushed and then let go.  When they added a second shift at the mill, I think in the early 1960’s, people fussed about the noise when they were trying to sleep.  Then they got used to it, and if the mill stopped for a mechanical problem or something in the night, the whole town woke up and wondered what was wrong.  In the early 1950’s, the hardwood mill burned.  It was rebuilt to use mostly electric power.  The pine mill was gradually converted to electric operation.

And of course with the mills, there was a myriad of lumber yards and warehouses.  There was also a very large machine shop and double stall locomotive maintenance shop.  I think they even had a drop table as all locomotive maintenance was done there.  I can still remember the coal fire smoldering in the forge.   You’d think “what a boring little place to live”, but there was plenty of life and freedom to do almost anything a kid could think of.  During my early childhood, there weren’t many televisions or telephones which lead to a close knit community with people spending time talking, families visiting in the evenings, and social gatherings.  Sad side note:  my family still didn’t have a television when I went in the military at the age of 21.  Well, maybe it’s a funny note, but I didn’t think so.

In the summers of 1966 thru 1968, I cut “bug timber” (pine trees infested with Southern Pine Beetles) in the woods with a chainsaw and worked twelve hour days Saturdays and Sundays at the planer mill.  There I would pull finished lumber off the chains and grade and stack it. Or, sometimes I would work with a couple of other guys cutting and hauling slabs to the boiler room.  At the direction of the fireman, we would simultaneously open the doors on three boilers and throw in slabs until he said stop.  Then, we would go out and dive under a water faucet as the heat coming off those boilers was scorching.  We never wore short sleeve shirts for work.

No. 3 sits beside the old Camden depot at Texas Forestry Museum in Lufkin, Texas.

My favorite thing about that little town, other than the fantastic people, was the trains.  My earliest memory of them was when we lived very close to one of the mill ponds in the same house where dad was born in 1914.  I could stand at the back window of our dining area and look directly at the mill pond and railroad tracks that ran between our house and the pond.  At various times during the day, usually pretty early in the morning, locomotives would come by pulling a long string of skeleton cars loaded with logs.  Some of the loads would be hardwood logs bound for the other mill or pine logs which would be switched to the siding closest to the pond to be dumped into the pond.  The logs would be dumped or rolled off the cars by cables connected to a steam powered loader often referred to as a skidder.  Men in flat bottom boats would use poles and cant hooks to direct the logs to the chain to be carried up into the mill.  My favorite site was when the #1, which was a wood burning locomotive with a big balloon or “cabbage” stack was working.  I think it may have been the last wood burning locomotive in regular operation.  There was a “sister” engine, #2, that came built the same as #1, but it had been converted to oil burning and the big “balloon” stack gave way to a shorter flanged stack.

Living in that location provided me with a pretty good view of the sawmill and enough railroad to be quite entertained as a child.  There were mill whistles from both sawmills and stack noise from the mills, as well as the locomotives.  Though the mills didn’t typically run on Saturday, the men who worked in the logging operations usually worked at least half a day on Saturday, and some of them had to work at least a little while on Sunday.  Saturday afternoons were when I could learn by watching my dad do things around the house.

There were several of the engineers and one locomotive mechanic/hostler that lived on the same dirt road as we did, and all the families knew each other.  Most families didn’t have telephones or televisions and spent more time actually visiting and talking while the children played outside.  Once when the engineer who lived across the road from us was working down by the mill pond on Saturday afternoon, my dad took me down and we climbed aboard the locomotive to chat and ride while Mr. Leggett was moving cars around during unloading operations.  I got to stand on the fireman’s box and ring the bell each time he was about to move.  I wish I had been a little older, as the excitement would have meant a lot more.   My dream job was to be a locomotive engineer, but alas, the days of the steam locomotive were gone by the time I reached that age, even though they were used on the MC&SA until the mid-1960’s, and occasionally as relief when the diesel was down for maintenance or there was extra traffic until the late 1960’s.

No. 1 “Big Mike” in Teague, Texas

 

At one time, there were several locomotives in daily operation, as there was a logging camp named Camp Ruby and a mainline that ran from Camden to Camp Ruby.  There was also a locomotive shop at Camp Ruby.  Camp Ruby was begun in 1926 as a logging camp to place the workers close to the location of large stands of timber.  One of my uncles told of making the move from Camden to Camp Ruby, loading everything they owned, including the family dog, on railroad cars for the move.  My dad and all his brothers and sisters went to school in Camp Ruby.

There were also several trams or spurs that ran into various locations in the forests.  Mainline locomotives moved loaded cars to the sawmill and returned with empties to the camp, also hauling supplies and those who may need a ride to or from the camp.  I think at that time, there were two mainline locomotives, three or four in logging and switching operations, and then one on the MC&SA.  The MC&SA actually had two locomotives on the roster (#6 and #201), referred to as the little Panama Locomotive, but rarely ever had both under steam at the same time.  It kept a hostler pretty busy in the mornings.  MC&SA was a chartered railroad and the locomotives were lettered as such.  Though technically, everything belonged to W. T. Carter & Bro. they were kept separate for legal reasons I suspect.  When MC&SA used #14 it was leased to the railroad from W.T. Carter& Bro.

It was said that the wives knew when to put supper on when they heard their engineer husbands blow their whistle.  Each engineer had a fairly distinctive way of blowing a whistle.  The MC&SA engineer from about 1957 until 1969 or so had a way of blowing that was pretty identifiable.  I could always tell when someone else was blowing at the crossings when the train returned from Moscow in the early afternoon as we could hear from the school on the other side of town.

I probably should mention here that all locomotives and rolling stock used in the logging operations had link and pin coupling systems while the MC&SA had knuckle style couplers so as to be compatible with other railroads such as Houston East and West Texas which eventually became controlled by Southern Pacific .  A lot of men were injured using those old link and pin couplers.

Deadly link and pin couplers.

All of the old locomotives used in logging operations were equipped with a large pipe that ran vertically down the side of the tender and sections of hose which could be attached for gathering water in the tender.  At Camp Ruby, there was a large pond for the purpose of collecting water for the locomotives and there were creeks and rivers available.  I never quite understood how they could suck the water up the hose into the tender.  It was explained to me that they would shoot steam into the tender and as it cooled, a vacuum would be created, thereby sucking water from whatever source they found convenient.  I’m still baffled.

In addition to water was the need for good dry sand for the sand dome and sanders and to scoop into the firebox to help keep flues clear.  For this there were “sand burners” placed in certain locations.  This was a furnace used to dry and sift sand.  There is still a road called Sand Burner Road in a heavily forested area more or less east southeast of Camden.  At the Camden sand burner, a man would scoop sand from a creek bed and haul it up to the burner.

It took lots of wood for those old wood burning locomotives.  When they were in town, they were loaded up with slabs from the mill, but when they were in the woods, they were loaded up and fueled with pine knots.  While logs were being loaded, men were assigned to go into the woods and gather pine knots which were rich lighter pine.  They burned real well, but gave off lots of black smoke.  The slabs from the mill tended to be green and gave off more sparks.

By the time I was old enough to remember much, the camp had been pretty much closed down though the commissary remained open for many years afterward.  This coupled with the slowly advancing transition to using trucks to haul the logs instead of trains, was leading to the beautiful sights and sounds of locomotives chugging and whistles echoing through the area disappearing.

The MC&SA used a turntable at Moscow and a wye at Camden to turn the locomotives #6 and #201.  When they leased the #14 from W.T Carter & Bro., it was too big for the turntable, so it ran forward to Moscow and backward on the return to Camden.  The turntable was turned by hand with all the crew except the engineer providing the power.

Before my grandfather retired, he was a grade foreman and oversaw the building of roadbeds for the track to be laid on.  Most of that was done with mules and slips, which were a like a large shovel with two handles, that were dragged and filled with dirt then dumped where it was needed.  Sometimes when they had to lay track through wetland areas, they would build up a base by cutting trees and laying them and using a dragline to scoop mud and silt and pour it on top of the logs.  Dynamite was used often for clearing stumps and other obstacles, and  I heard stories of him cutting dynamite sticks and using them to unclog stopped up flues on the old wood burning locomotives.

While the logging operations were still using trains as the primary mode of transporting logs to the mill, my grandfather was semi-retired and I would get to hang out with him occasionally.  He would drive a “work bus”, which was a large truck with a shell on the back.  The shell had benches down both sides with boxes underneath for the workers to put their lunches and store their rain gear and things.  While the trains were in the woods getting logs loaded on them, my grandfather would go about the business of packing the journals on the skeleton cars.  He would have supply of “waste”, which looked like strings of shredded rags, and oil cans.  He would go from car to car, stuffing the “waste” in the journal boxes and saturating them with oil.  They really didn’t want to stop a train on the way home and put out a fire started by an overheated journal.  Fires were fairly common, some caused by hot boxed journals or sparks from stacks and fireboxes.  The wood burning locomotives for the most part had a spark arrestor of sorts in the form of the “balloon” or “cabbage head” smoke stack, but they weren’t extremely effective.

While granddaddy was going about his job, I would be standing in the back of his old pickup watching the operations going on around me.  Logs that had been cut were bunched using mules and then dragged to the sides of the skeleton cars by mules pulling high wheel carts.  Those carts had eight foot high wheels and a slip tongue arrangement so that when they pulled forward, the load was lifted high off the ground which made it much easier for the mules to drag.  A steam powered skidder would then skid the logs up poles that were placed against the cars.  Sometimes oxen were used for dragging the logs from the woods, especially in very wet conditions, as they could be used where the mules couldn’t.  They were also sometimes used to skid the logs up onto the cars.

This is one of my photos of the little “Panama” in Eureka Springs about 1989.

I don’t recall how many cars were usually loaded, but sometimes there were enough that the locomotive might not be able to pull them all into town, depending on the hill they had to climb.  Many times they would have to “dead man” off a section of cars by chaining them to trees or the rails, a dangerous operation to say the least.  Remember those deadly link and pin couplers?  They would pull part of them all the way to town or to a siding if there was one available, and then go back for the rest of the loaded cars.  Other times they would be able to pull the load by getting a good downhill run and then working the Johnson bar all the way down to the last hole going up the next incline.  The roadbeds weren’t the greatest, and those old locomotives would be rocking side to side so hard you would think the wheels were leaving the rails.  Those were times where a fireman certainly earned his pay.  First off, he had to keep up as much steam as he could, but secondly, he had to keep a close eye on the sight glass to make sure the water level didn’t drop off the crown sheet going down the hill and then not let the level come up too fast on the uphill side.  While he’s busy doing that he has to keep the fuel in the firebox and keep blowers and other important issues under control.

In the early 1950’s, there was a 16 mm film made about the logging operation and the mill.  I watched part of the operation with my mother and someone else, probably my granddaddy.  In the late 1950’s, I had the opportunity to see that film while still in grade school.  I think that film is archived in the Houston Public Library, but have no idea what the title is.  I’ve been telling myself for years that I need to investigate that.  I would love to see it or perhaps arrange for it to be shown at one of our Camden Homecomings.

I loved watching everything about the logging operations when they involved the trains.  I also loved watching the trains during switching operations as there was so much activity in a smaller area.  One thing I particularly liked to watch was what I called “poling”.  This usually was done when a pulpwood car or gondola was on a siding and they needed it on the mainline behind the locomotive.  They would move the car until it was at a certain point close to the switch, then the locomotive would move alongside it on the mainline and the switch would be set to allow the car to roll onto the mainline.  A pole would be placed between pockets on the tender and the car.  The engineer would then move the locomotive quickly backwards and stop.  The pole would fall out and the car would continue to roll onto the mainline.  The brakeman would usually stop the car with the hand brake.  The switch would be thrown again, and the locomotive would back up and couple to the car.

I mentioned that some of the men had to work on Sunday, and those mules and oxen were the primary reason for that.  They also had some horses too.  My dad rode a horse performing his duties as foreman.  The only access to most of the logging operations was by train.  The livestock had to be tended daily so on Sunday mornings, they would take a locomotive and a tool car or caboose and go to the site near the logging operation where the animals were corralled to feed, water, and check their condition.  They also had to watch for theft.  It was one of those early morning trips on a cold winter morning that brought about one of the interesting episodes that my dad talked about many times.  The hostler, probably the fireman, got the locomotive ready and they set off on their trip.  Well, it seems that when the hostler was getting the locomotive fired up, he didn’t close the mud valve which he probably couldn’t close because it was frozen solid.  As they were on the way out and already several miles from town, the mud valve thawed and basically emptied the boiler.  They had to douse the fire very quickly to prevent severe damage to the boiler.  Without steam to operate the pump/injectors, they had to manually refill the boiler.  To do that, they had to remove a plug at the top and pour the water in.  They used fire buckets to dip water from the tender and pass them up to the top to be poured in.  A fire bucket is a bucket with a pointed bottom instead of being a flat bottom, which makes it faster to shove it into a tank or barrel and dip water especially when the barrel may not be large enough to allow a bucket to be turned over for dipping.  There were many fire buckets and barrels placed at strategic locations around the mill and lumber yards.  As I recall, it took several hundred buckets to refill the boiler.  Then, of course, they had to relight the fire and wait to build up a head of steam.  I’m sure they were glad to have some warmth from that firebox.  Sounds like a really fun thing to do on a freezing winter day, doesn’t it?  When they got to the corrals, they had to deal with more ice as all the water troughs were frozen over.

Sometimes there would be mishaps such as vehicles running into the trains at highway crossings.  Those occurred multiple times at the U.S. 59 crossing in Moscow and some were fatal.  There was also at least one on U.S. 287 in Barnum involving a butane truck.  The butane truck came over a hill and the driver saw that he couldn’t stop before hitting the train, so he slowed down enough to jump out of the truck.  We went to the site, but could only get within a few hundred yards of the scene.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured in that crash, and the truck didn’t explode.

The worst mishap that I can recall happened in 1966 when MC&SA conductor, Carl Vinson was killed at the Moscow connection to Southern Pacific.  For some reason Carl was behind a boxcar when a SP locomotive slammed into it and ran over him.  Carl and his wife, Ruby, were close personal friends of the family and loved by all the community.  Camp Ruby was named after Ruby.  That was a very sad time for MC&SA and the entire town.

I’m not sure how many locomotives W.T. Carter & Bro’s owned, but there were quite a few.   As far as I know, ten of them survive today.  According to an interview with Mr. Carter Caton, he had been an engineer on a local shop built locomotive called a Rogers locomotive with high wheels when he was very young.  There were at least two Shay locomotives, and one of them is on display at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.  There were two #1’s, both of which survived.  There was a #1 Mikado they called “Big ”, which was purchased during WWII, I believe, and is on display at a museum in Teague, Texas.  The other #1 was a little Baldwin locomotive with a “sister” #2.  I think they were delivered as coal burning locomotives, but both burned wood until #2 was converted to oil.  There was also #3, #4, #5, #6, #201 and #14.  #6 and #201 were assigned to the MC&SA while all the others were W.T. Carter & Bro’s.

I would like to give special mention to some of the locomotives.  N o.201 was referred to as the “little Panama engine” and was purchased from the government after completion of the Panama Canal.  One of my great-great uncles( my great-grandfather’s brother), Henry Fuller was given the task of going to New Orleans when the locomotive arrived to oversee modifications and repairs necessary before it was delivered to Camden.  I was told that he then rode in the cab all the way from New Orleans with a pallet on the footplate to sleep on.

No. 201 returning to the Eureka Springs depot

The #201 and # 6 alternated service on The MC&SA until the #6 was retired about 1957.  I recall reading that one of the engineers said that #6 was a very easy locomotive to operate.  The #201 and #14 alternated until a GE 44 Ton #17 was purchased and then the #14 was used when #17 was down for maintenance.  I remember once when the diesel broke down in Moscow, they had to fire up #14 which had been sitting long enough that the oil in the tender was very thick.  They fired up with wood slabs and ran up and down the hill from the shop until the steam lines could heat the oil enough.  What a beautiful sight it was to see her going back and forth with a geyser of sparks and smoke shooting up from that old stack.

No. 14 as she has sat for the last thirty-plus years on private land. I took this picture in the late 1980’s. In the background are remnants of some of the old hardwood mill buildings. She was sandblasted and repainted in 2016.

#14 as she has sat for the last thirty-plus years on private land.  I took this picture in the late 1980’s. In the background are remnants of some of the old hardwood mill buildings.  She was sandblasted and repainted in 2016.

#201 and #1, #2, and #4 were all purchased by Mr. Grigsby in Arkansas along with the old combine coach.  #1 and #201 were in the movie The Blue and The Grey filmed partially in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  The #2 was used in filming the 1985 TV Mini-Series North and South, partially filmed in Reader, Arkansas.  At times, the locomotive and rolling stock have been hauled to other locations for use in movies.   #1 was used in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and #2 was used in Reader, Arkansas.  Both of those locomotives are still in operation part time as movie props (3:10 To Yuma) and tourist attractions such as Tavares, Eustis & Gulf Railroad in Florida, for which #2 was converted back to wood burning.  They are owned by Mr. Richard Grigsby in Arkansas and he has them out on lease.  He bought several locomotives and pieces of rolling stock after W.T. Carter & Bro. sold the company to U.S. Plywood and Champion Paper.  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Grigsby during a visit to Reader Railroad in the late 1980’s.

Here is No. 1 showing off on ES&NA trestle.

Mr. Grigsby told me that when they went to Camden to get the #2, they fired it up where it was sitting to move it out the gate to get it off company property for loading on trucks.  He said that about the time they rolled out the gate, one of the flues gave way and filled the cab with so much steam you couldn’t see.  It scared the bejeebers out of a couple of people though it didn’t hurt anyone.  Of course it also put the fire out too, but it didn’t matter as they had gotten it where it could be loaded.  He said it was really and eerie sight when all that steam filled the cab.

I could ramble on forever about what it was like to live in that time and place that some claim never moved into the twentieth century.  Alas, in 1968 W.T. Carter & Bros. sold Camden and their timber holdings to U.S. Plywood and Champion Paper.  The new owners weren’t interested in operating a company town and within a year or so families were starting to move away.  By the time I returned from military duty in Germany in 1973, everyone had moved out of company-owned housing and a way of life was gone.  The people (many from our country’s greatest generation), sights, sounds, and smells will forever linger in my memories.  The sounds of a sawmill and the smell of wood slabs and sawdust burning with a train whistle at a crossing in the distance that seemed like they would always be there are gone from everything except the memories of the few of us left that lived there.

Stephen L. Locke

Bibliography

I would like to recommend the following web sites that are dedicated to either railroads or Camden history for more information about Camden, Texas.

I would also recommend the following publications.

  • Journal of Texas Shortline Railroads And Transportation, A History of the Texas Shortline Railroads, Nov / Dec /Jan / 1997 Volume 1, Number 3

I found at the Texas Forestry Museum in Lufkin, Texas.

  • CAMDEN, TEXAS DOCUMENTARY DVD
  • Journal of Texas Shortline Railroads And Transportation, A History of the Texas Shortline Railroads, August 2002, Volume 4, Number 1

There are two books written by Norma Hammond McLoughlin that really give a good glimpse at what company-owned lumber towns and the use of railroads were like in the early twentieth century.  One of the books is SAWDUST MEMORIES  A History Of Camden, Texas.  The other is CAMP RUBY A Place in Time.  The first, my wife purchased for me at Texas Forestry Museum and the other I purchased from Amazon.

If you’re in the East Texas area, I would strongly recommend you visit Texas Forestry Museum in Lufkin.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *