TOWNS OF ONALASKA
This year (2004), as Onalaska celebrates the 100th anniversary of
its founding, townspeople are discovering more about their past
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
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.
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’
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
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.
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)
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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