Jefferson, Texas

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Jefferson is Texas' best preserved Civil War-era community, boasting the largest collection of antebellum homes and other period structures in the entire state. It all began here on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou, a tributary of the Red River, which is in turn a tributary of the Mississippi. Antebellum Jefferson was Texas' second largest port city after Galveston on the Gulf Coast and by the war reportedly had a population in excess of 20,000, a major metropolis for the time. Paths and trails radiated from here "inland" as far as Paris, Tyler and Dallas, then only an infant of the far frontier.
Jefferson's heyday came to an end in 1873 when Captain Henry Miller Shreve, used the then-recent technology of nitroglycerine and dynamite to blast the Red River raft, clearing shipping lanes on the Red but drastically lowering the water level in its tributaries. Riverboats here had never been large like the "floating palaces" on the Mississippi, but even the much more modest ones could no longer ascend Cypress Bayou, bringing an end to Jefferson as a river port. A legend blames railroad magnate Jay Gould for keeping his trains away from Jefferson, routing them instead through Marshall which in turn became a booming rail center.

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(2015) Enlarge Big Cypress Bayou

(2015) Enlarge Interpretive Marker: Jefferson Turn Basin


(2015) Enlarge Big Cypress Bayou
Big Cypress Bayou (in modern parlance Big is usually dropped) flows eastward - left in these photos - through Lake Cypress, Texas' only natural lake and one which it shares with neighboring Louisiana. Then the water level was much deeper owing to what was called the Great Raft, a massive miles-long logjam on the Red above modern Shreveport which acted as a natural dam, making Shreveport head of navigation on the Red and raising the water level in all its tributaries. The area shown in the park was then largely covered by water, allowing small shallow-draft steamboats space to turn around for their return trip. The town began as a ferry at this point which was also the head of navigation on Cypress Bayou. The railroad bridge pictured crosses the stream today, but trains did not come here until well after the Civil War and too late to save the town's by-then slumping economy.


(2015) Enlarge Jefferson Interpretive Marker
As the historical marker describes, Jefferson was an important shipping and small manufacturing site for the Confederacy; goods from Texas were shipped from here through Lake Cypress on to the headquarters of the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy at Shreveport. This included gunpowder made in powder mills a dozen miles south in the country nearer to Marshall, Texas. During Reconstruction, anti-government sentiment ran so high a Federal garrison was established here to protect Freedman and government property and enforce Reconstruction laws.


(2015) Enlarge Jay Gould's Railroad Car
Many years later during the Great Depression and well after Gould's death what was believed to be his private rail car was discovered on a siding being lived in by otherwise homeless vagrants. It was brought here where, though lovingly preserved and protected near Jefferson's historic waterfront, it sits somewhat forlornly, empty of furnishings and sans its trucks which gives it a rather odd low-slung appearance.


(2015) Enlarge Jefferson Historical Society and Museum
Jefferson's economy did not die immediately, but rather began a steady decline from which it has never recovered; today the population hovers around 2,000. Somewhat ironically the United States government built the magnificent structure above to serve as a combination post office and Federal court building in 1888 on Austin Street; today it houses the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum. Jefferson's decline proved to be a boon for historical preservation as many buildings such as this as well as very many Victorian homes built as far back as the 1840's were left in neighborhoods largely untouched by "progress" and development to molder until their rebirth following WWII as Texas' bed-and-breakfast capital.


(2015) Enlarge Polk Street
Like most American towns and cities of the era, Jefferson's streets were named for its pioneers and statesmen of the day; above is the main NE - SW route, Polk Street, named for James K. Polk, President during the town's founding. The commercial buildings remaining here in the heart of historic downtown postdate the Civil War but are very much in the style of those present then. In the distance Polk St. crosses Cypress Bayou in the area of the turning basin in the post at top of this page; at the far end of the row of buildings stands the 1920's Marion County Courthouse complete with its Confederate Monument on the corner.


(2015) Enlarge Early Jefferson Lodge Building, now McGarity's Saloon
Two of what were once many similar period warehouse buildings remain on Dallas St. which was the last before the bayou where piers extended across marsh land to the riverboat landings. Above is the ca. 1860 building built as a livery but which during the war held a Confederate hat factory. As postwar McGarity's Saloon it flourished until 1868 when its proprietor was indicted for "retail sale of vinous liquors," "permitting gaming," and having a "disorderly house." This structure was nearing collapse around a century later when it was rescued as a restoration project of the local high school.

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