Barnum boomed, then gradually faded away

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Journal

Barnum is but a whisper of the lusty, lively booming East Texas town it once was.

Only a handful of houses are scattered beside a winding county road that in 1884 led to the first sawmill of W.T. Carter and Brother Lumber Company.

The heart of Barnum was about two miles northeast of what is now U.S. Highway 287 between Corrigan and Chester.

Ten miles east of Corrigan on the highway, a large, deteriorating store marks the site of present-day Barnum. It was once owned by S.H. Morrison and its large, friendly interior accommodated farm families and sawmillers for miles around. Today, the store is shuttered, a relic of Barnum's past.

Barnum began when the Trinity and Sabine River Railroad built in 1881 a line to a point about twelve miles east of Corrigan, near the Polk-Tyler county line W.T. Carter, who operated a mill in Trinity County, purchased several large tracts of timberland, brought his brother E.A. Carter into the venture and named the firm the W.T. Carter and Brother Lumber Company.

In 1884, Carter supposedly named his sawmill town Barnum for P.T. Barnum, the great circus showman. Another story says he named the town for a friend, who owned a sawmill at Groveton in Trinity County.\par }{\plain By 1890 Barnum was large enough for a post office, had one of the largest commissary stores in Polk County, a hotel with fifty boarders, a public hall, school, church and other businesses. The lumbering operations included a sawmill, a planer, storage bins, seven miles of tram roads used to shuttle logs into the mill, and two locomotives.

According to one writer, the first tram road used at Barnum was a "pine pole railroad (wooden rails)" over which log cars were pulled by mules.

Carter was inducted into the lumber business years earlier while assisting his father in running a mill at Trinity. His father's mill and a commissary store were destroyed by fire in 1877, resulting in losses of about $3,000. The mill was rebuilt and relocated to Barnum when the Texas and Sabine Railroad expanded into Polk County.

In the l960s, during an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Mrs. Claudia Willson, the daughter of W.T. Bates, Barnum's postmaster, was living with her husband in a home on a hill overlooking the old sawmill.

Mrs. Willson remembered many of the sawmill stories handed down by her father and others who worked at Barnum. "The town was a pretty place, and the sawmill and railroad made it a typical lumbering town," she said.

An account of Barnum published in 1889 said "the moral tone of the community is excellent. Preaching and Sabbath school are had every Sunday, and a good school is had eight months each year. There is seldom as much refinement and intelligence found in a town the size of this..."

But in the summer of 1897, in an event reminiscent of the Trinity fire, a spark from a locomotive touched off a conflagration that destroyed the mill, the lumberyard, the railroad depot, the post office and many of the employee homes.

In a letter written a day after the fire, the Carters said "we are perfectly solvent and while our loss was a heavy one, we hope to be on our feet again soon..."

But the Carters found themselves embroiled in a court battle with the railroad company over the cause of the fire and a settlement seemed unlikely.

By 1898, Barnum's fate was sealed. The Carters selected a new sawmill site in Polk County and named it Camden for the home of a New Jersey surveyor who laid out the town. As a new Carter mill and an expanded lumbering empire rose at Camden, Barnum slowly perished.

Although most of Barnum's residents left the community, it continued to be a stop on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas System and the Barnum post office remained open for several years.

W.T. Bates, the former Camden postmaster, bought some of Barnum's homes, acquired a large block of timberlands and built a smaller sawmill, a store and a post office. For about fifteen years, Bates contracted timber to the Carter mill at Camden. He also served as a railroad agent.

Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 30 books about East Texas and the author of a forthcoming book on forgotten towns of East Texas. He can be reached at