is on one of the most enduring mysteries in East
In the early 1900s, an explosion and fire struck the old Emporia
sawmill south of what is now Diboll.
More than thirty sawmill workers, most of them black, are believed to have perished
in the conflagration.
Burned beyond recognition, the men were reportedly
buried in a mass grave somewhere on the Emporia town site, now a part of Diboll,
with no tombstones to mark their final resting place.
While few records exist to confirm the incident, there is enough information about
old Emporia to hint that the story may be true.
began with the purchase of 5,755 acres of land north of the Neches River by Samuel
Fain Carter and M.T. Jones from W.H. Bonner on November 3, 1892.
a year, the town had a sawmill owned by Carter and Jones, a post office, company
houses, a school, a church, a store, a hotel and a railroad spur to ship lumber
to the Houston, East and West Texas, the main line leading from East
Texas to Houston.
later, another sawmill owned by T.LL. Temple and his family sprouted north of
Emporia with the name Southern Pine Lumber Company. The establishment of the mill
led to the founding of Diboll
and one of Texas’ largest lumbering empires.
Carter and Jones, both from
Houston, were no strangers to sawmills.
Jones was a well-known and wealthy lumber dealer who owned two sawmills at Orange.
He was also the uncle of Jesse Jones, who founded the Houston Chronicle and served
as new New Deal architect of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
Born in Alabama and raised at Sherman,
Texas, Carter settled in Beaumont
in 1882 and within a short time owned an interest in a sawmill at Village Mills.
He later moved to Houston.
With the startup of the Emporia sawmill, Joseph P. Carter not only became the
mill superintendent, but served as Emporia’s first postmaster in 1893. Samuel
Fain Carter’s brother, Press, served as a bookkeeper and manager of the Emporia
At its peak, Emporia had a population of about 300 with
125 employees working at the mill and with logging crews in the woods. With a
daily cutting capacity of 75,000 board feet a day, the sawmill specialized in
lumber for railroad cars and timbers for bridges.
Emporia apparently lacked
most of the conveniences of older and more established sawmill towns of the day.
Employee housing, except for cottages for mill managers, were of unpainted clapboard
construction with outdoor toilets. The town had a commissary store, a community
church and meeting hall, and a small school.
There were at least two recorded
fires at the sawmill. In July of 1897 the mill burned to the ground. By 1900,
Emporia built a new sawmill and acquired additional timberlands in Tyler County
and bought a sawmill at Doucette.
The second fire that occurred in March
of 1906 and killed the thirty or so employees dealt a death blow to the town.
The disaster could have been the result of inadequate water to fight the fire.
A news article in 1904 said “water is so scarce that, in order to operate the
mill, water has to be hauled from the Neches River,” a mile distant.
the fire, the company sold its Emporia and Doucette mills to Thompson-Tucker Lumber
Company, which owned mills in Polk and Trinity counties.
there are no remnants of Emporia except for a cemetery behind a convenience store
on U.S. Highway 59. The cemetery contains a large number of unmarked graves with
pieces of petrified wood and native rock to mark their location.
marked grave is that of a Waltman child who was born December 11, 1880, and died
August 14, 1882.
Cemetery officials said a long-standing legend claims
a black cemetery lies in the thick woods around the graveyard, but no signs of
it have been found.
The Emporia sawmill supposedly stood beside what is
now the Union Pacific railroad crossing of Maynard Street at milepost 106 in South
Diboll. So far, no one has located the purported mass grave at Emporia, but it
is rumored to lie somewhere east of U.S. 59 in Diboll’s
South Meadow area.
updated July 2, 2012
Bob Bowman's East Texas
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers