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Texas | Columns

THE FOUR TOWNS OF ONALASKA

by Bob Bowman

This year (2004), as Onalaska celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding, townspeople are discovering more about their past
Bob Bowman
Onalaska, a historic village in Polk County, is a name that seems to have floated into East Texas from somewhere else. First-time visitors naturally ask if it came from Alaska.

This year, as Onalaska celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding, townspeople are discovering more about their past, including the fact there are four Onalaskas in the United States -- all with connections to the same family.

The story begins with lumberman William A. Carlisle, who opened a sawmill at Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 1893. The town’s name came from an old Aleutian Indian word, “Unalaska,” meaning “dwelling together harmoniously.”

Carlisle and his son were so smitten with the name that in 1894, when they opened a second sawmill in Arkansas, they adopted it for the community around the mill. And in the early 1900s, when the Carlisles came south to Polk County, Texas, to build still another sawmill, they founded a third Onalaska near the Trinity River.

In 1909 the Carlisles decided to build yet another sawmill. They selected a site in Lewis County, Washington, and for a third time confiscated the Onalaska name.


Texas’ Onalaska is celebrating its centennial this month with a variety of events. While the town’s economy is grounded in the commerce produced by Lake Livingston, there was a time when Onalaska had one of Texas’ largest sawmills.

William Carlisle bought 150,000 acres of virgin timberland in Polk County in the early 1900s and hired L.O. Jackson to oversee the construction of a mill. Jackson favored sites on Choates and West Tempe creeks, but they were opposed by landowners.

Jackson had looked at a location near the Trinity River and ruled it out because of large, pesky mosquitoes that plagued nearby residents. But, with the rejection of two other locations, he was forced to pick the river plot.

To combat the mosquitoes, Jackson built the sawmillers’ homes with screened windows and doors -- the first such houses in Polk County. But the mill workers claimed the screened houses were too hot and began cutting holes in the screens. When Jackson asked a worker why he had cut two holes in a screen door, the man said he had a cat and dog who had the run of the house. “But why two holes?” asked Jackson. The man snapped back, “When I say scat, I mean scat. And they need two holes to get out.”

Jackson had been warned by local residents that floods on the Trinity were “deep enough to hide a smokestack”. Jackson had the mill built on the highest ground he could find and, sure enough, a flood in 1908 almost reached the community.

The completion of the mill in 1907 attracted a railroad, the Beaumont and Great Northern, which was extended to Livingston a year later to connect with the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad, which served towns and sawmills from Houston to Shreveport.

The Carlisles also built Polk County’s first concrete sidewalk, as well as churches, a hospital, a post office, a school and other amenities for the sawmill families. By 1908 the town had two hotels, a depot, a bank, an electric power company and a population of about 2,000.

Carlisle’s decline as a lumbering center began when the virgin forests were cut over and in 1909 the Carlisle mill was sold to West Lumber Company. But floods from the Trinity River and a lack of suitable sawlogs led to the mill’s closure in 1913. An excellent collection of photographs from the old sawmill days is on exhibit at the town’s library this month as Onalaska -- one of four Onalaskas still “dwelling together harmoniously” -- celebrates its centennial.


by Bob Bowman
All Things Historical Oct. 15, 2004 Column

Published with permission
(Distributed as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas)

Getting There

ONALASKA, TEXAS

Polk County, East Texas

Farm Road 356, US 190
90 miles north of Houston
By Lake Livingston between Huntsville and Livingston
Population: 1,782 (2010) 1,174 (2000)

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Forum

  • I read with great interest Bob Bowman's article, "The Four Towns of Onalaska." It was enjoyable reading.

    I am originally from Onalaska, Wisconsin. It might be a nice addition to the article if Mr. Bowman would include the information that the town name "Onalaska" originally came from the poem, "The Pleasures of Hope" by Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell. Mr. Campbell's poems were very popular in American grade schools in the mid-1800s. Thomas G. Rowe, one of the men who platted Onalaska, Wisconsin, carried a copy of Mr. Campbell's poems around with him on his adventures. He decided to name his new townsite, "Oonalaska" (the original spelling Campbell used in his poem) but then decided to drop the extra "o" at the suggestion of his good friend, Harvey Hubbard, an attorney and later, a La Crosse County, Wisconsin judge. The then "village" of Onalaska was founded in 1851, many years before Mr. Carlisle owned his sawmill in the original Onalaska of the lower 48 states. Onalaska was a lumbering community from the start. It was on the Black River, whose watershed was once a great "pinery" of white pine. Mr. Carlisle owned a mill near the end of Onalaska, Wisconsin's heyday as a lumbering center. He is not considered a town founder in Wisconsin's Onalaska -- the town was founded many years before he came on the scene.

    Thomas Campbell is buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, England. The famous "wolf couplet" that mentions "Oonalaska" is inscribed on his tombstone. By the way, of course he made a mistake when associating wolves to Unalaska Island -- there hasn't been any wolves there since the last ice age. Campbell also admitted, before his death, that he borrowed the wolf couplet from another poem, a common practice at the time. The poem was originally published in 1799, when Mr. Campbell was only 21 years old. - George Tabbert, now residing in Winona, Minnesota, January 28, 2006

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