Thursday, January 2, 2014


"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce.

Cherokee County was organized in 1846. In accordance with state law, the townsite for the county seat was located near the center of the county, and named after U.S. Senator Thomas J. Rusk. Although only one family lived at the designated townsite, other settlers soon moved to Rusk. In 1851, on the family plantation just east of town, James Stephen Hogg was born, and 40 years later he would become the first native Texan to serve as governor. The second native Texan to become the state’s chief executive, Thomas M. Campbell, was born in 1856 on a farm near Rusk. Today the Hogg birthplace is maintained as Jim Hogg Historic Park. 

Another historic site is the Footbridge Garden Park. In 1861 a long footbridge was built two blocks east of the courthouse square to provide a crossing to a residential area across a valley that became impassable after heavy rain. Later rebuilt and expanded, the bridge today is 561 feet long- the world’s longest, according to Rusk authorities. 

In 1875, because of overcrowding at Huntsville’s State Penitentiary, the Texas Legislature authorized the creation of Rusk State Penitentiary. Construction began two years later, with convicts providing part of the labor, and the new facility began receiving prisoners in 1883. The seven-acre compound was enclosed by a 20-foot-tall brick wall. Three large structures inside were built of sandstone and brick: a three-story administration building; a domestic building which housed the kitchen, dining hall, hospital, library, and chapel; and a three-story cell house. With 528 double-bunked cells, the cell house could accommodate more prisoners than the facility at Huntsville.

The 1883 cell house now serves as Administration
Building of the Rusk State Hospital.
Inmates were expected to offset a portion of their incarceration costs through productive labor. Outside the walls were manufacturing shops, iron foundries, a blast furnace, a sawmill, a brick kiln, and an ice factory. Convicts produced iron products, bricks, ice, wagons, mattresses, brooms, lumber, and paint. Inmates also worked at nearby prison farms, raising vegetables, fruits, and livestock, and at timber camps, cutting trees for the sawmill. The Texas State Railroad was built in 1881 and today the line between Rusk and Palestine provides a delightful, nostalgic transit attraction. 

The Rusk Penitentiary closed in 1917, soon reopening as the Rusk State Hospital for mental patients. The prison walls were razed, but the massive old cell house is still utilized. Also still utilized around town are several excellent old Victorian homes, along with the footbridge, the Jim Hogg Historic Park, the Texas State Railroad, and - when open - a museum just off the square. A variety of historical delights make Rusk a worthy destination. 

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