by Caroline Clemmons
Jefferson, Texas is a favorite site to visit for our family, especially for my youngest daughter and me. Our family first visited when our daughters were ages seven and ten, and stayed at the historic—and supposedly haunted—Excelsior Hotel, part of which dates back to 1850. It’s a lovely little hotel which features their famous orange blossom muffins for breakfast. Sadly, we were not plagued by a ghost. That would make a terrific Hallowe’en post if we had been, wouldn’t it?
Jefferson is distinguished for several reasons. It was the first city in Texas to use artificial gas for lighting. The country’s first commercial ice plant was built there in 1868. Jefferson had one of the first breweries in Texas. By 1870, Jefferson was the sixth largest Texas city. Not large by East Coast standards of that time, but prosperous by pioneer standards, and one of the most important towns in Texas between 1845 and 1872. Jefferson rivaled Galveston, exporting the products of Texas farms and plantations and importing manufactured goods from all over the world.
The people of Jefferson lived well, and the evidence of their comfortable life is visible all over Jefferson today from the number of fine homes still standing from that era. There are over 30 homes and buildings with historic medallions. Over twenty bed and breakfasts, some in historic homes, are available for visitors as well as two hotels and a motel.
At the time Jefferson was established in 1836, there was a long jam more than 100 miles long on the Red River north of present Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Caddo Indians said this logjam had always existed, and it was known as the Great Red River Raft. The Great Raft acted as a dam on the Red River and raised the level of the river and Caddo Lake by several feet. A corresponding rise in Big Cypress Bayou permitted commercial riverboat travel to Jefferson from ports such as New Orleans via the Mississippi and Red Rivers.
There is disagreement about the role railroad magnate Jay Gould played in Jefferson’s demise. Jay Gould allegedly became angry at the failure of city officials to offer incentive for him to build his railway to Jefferson. He is alleged to have signed the hotel registry at the Excelsior House by adding “the end of Jefferson” after his name. He went on to bypass Jefferson with his railroad in favor of Marshall. Some say he was responsible for the explosion of the logjam that destroyed Jefferson as a port.
Well, that makes a grand story. In fact, there had been attempts over the years to destroy the Great Raft, but it was not until after the invention of nitroglycerin that the Army Corps of Engineers was able to break up the Great Raft in 1873.
The story is too good to let go, however. Townspeople obtained Gould’s private dining car and it is located across from the Excelsior Hotel.
Visitors have to give thanks to the ladies of the Jefferson garden club for taking the city in hand, so to speak, and launching a massive revitalization and beautification campaign several decades ago. They borrowed money to restore many of the buildings and homes of this picturesque town.
Caroline Clemmons writes Romance and Adventure.