When you visit Jefferson, Texas, you take a journey back through time to a bustling 19th century riverport. It was an era of prosperity and wealth, of petticoats and parasols, of Southern grace and romance. Today’s Jefferson is reminiscent of its heyday with antique shops lining the original brick streets, horse-drawn carriage tours, and even a trip on the bayou.
The rich and diverse history of Jefferson, Texas is told through numerous factual and romantic accounts, including those that describe its dramatic rise to prosperity during the mid 1800’s, as the states’ largest and most significant riverport. This period of prosperity has come to be known as “The Golden Era”. Jefferson erupted into a mid-19th-century boomtown with the help of a genteel, graceful society of successful and well-bred families, a host of nefarious opportunists and a rich assortment of eclectic individuals, while offering a supply point and doorway to settlers and immigrants looking for a new life. She was and remains, The Queen of the Bayou.
No one knows for certain exactly when Jefferson was founded. Many descriptions place the town’s birth date in 1836, however, further research points to the early 1840’s as the first time Jefferson was mentioned as a new settlement. Named in honor of the third President of the United States, the town appeared on an 1844 map of Bowie County. Recognized as the fifth oldest town in Texas, it is now the seat of Marion County.
There are two men who are widely credited as co-founders of Jefferson. Allen Urquhart was a professional land surveyor and ferry owner who acquired a significant tract of land between Big Cypress and Black Cypress Creek. As a surveyor, he had the foresight to recognize the potential of this land as an ideal place to grow a new town. Its navigable river system, Big Cypress Bayou, could bring boats eight miles further into land than previous ports allowed and its location at the bend of the bayou gave it another unique advantage: enough width in the stream to enable steamboats to turn around. In his plans for the growth, Urquhart designed the streets within Jefferson’s business district to face the water for easy cargo access both in and out.
While Allen Urquhart is recognized as the founder of Jefferson as a commercial center, it was real estate developer Daniel Alley who made his mark on the residential area of the town. Alley invested in a tract of land just outside the business district that he felt was perfect for developing a genteel, residential neighborhood. Alley established a real estate office in Jefferson and began plotting out the neighborhood he envisioned, later dubbed the Alley Addition. His residential streets ran along the compass points – north, south, east and west – in stark contrast to Urquhart’s streets that angled toward the wharf. A quick glance at a current map of Jefferson shows that the distinct angles of the street layouts remain the same today as those established by its co-founders.
The first steamboat to land in Jefferson was the Llama, owned by William Perry. The Llama’s route went from what is now Shreveport, LA, through Caddo Lake into Big Cypress Bayou and westward into Jefferson. Soon, cotton and other products destined for market, were being shipped down river, while a large complement of other commodities was brought back on the returning packet boats. By 1845, steamboats were regularly reaching Jefferson, some with as many as 130 passengers or more aboard. During the peak period of the 1870’s, packet steamers on their return trip to New Orleans carried upwards of 425 tons of goods or about 1800 bales of cotton each. At its high point, it was not unusual for Jefferson to receive upwards of 250 paddle boats per year. By the late 1840’s Jefferson had emerged as the leading commercial and distribution center in Northeast Texas and the state’s chief inland port, second only to Galveston in total tonnage. For more than 30 years, the port of Jefferson served as the primary entry point for settlers, immigrants and supplies from the east.
Extraordinary growth was occurring in Jefferson in the years following the establishment of the steamboat lines. Through dependable river navigation, steamboats departing Jefferson boasted a mere 4-5 day trip to or from New Orleans. Not surprisingly, the fashions, customs and architecture that marked the growing town of Jefferson would find great similarities to those in the trendy Louisiana city. The new homes being built in Jefferson began to resemble the Greek-Revival style seen in the refined neighborhoods of New Orleans; defined by their symmetrical, rectangular appearance adorned with balconies and column-lined porches. In fact, the many bed and breakfast inns located throughout Jefferson today are the same beautifully restored and maintained houses that were built during this time.
In 1860, Jefferson’s population had expanded to nearly 4,000. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the long, on-going rift between North and South came to a culmination. The voting citizens of Marion County unanimously opted for the secession of Texas from the Union. The men of Jefferson volunteered for military service in great numbers, pledging their allegiance to the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Jefferson served as a vital supply point for the South until the Port of New Orleans fell under blockade by Northern naval forces.
The town had been scheduled for destruction and to be set ablaze by the advancing Northern troops, as had been the eventual fate of many of her sister cities during the last days of the War. Thankfully, Jefferson was spared this indignity, aiding its early return to prosperity, even in the wake of Reconstruction. By 1870, it was recorded that over 200 new buildings were in the works. Funds were made available for town improvements including upgraded wharves, fire equipment and a modern water system. The town reached its peak population just a few years after the Civil War and is reported to have exceeded 30,000. During this time, Jefferson was the sixth largest town in Texas.
Sadly, in 1873 two events occurred that would forever change the future of Jefferson. First, the Red River Raft was finally removed by the US Corps of Engineers, due to it being arbitrarily deemed a navigational hazard. The raft was actually a huge, natural log jam that had clogged the river for centuries, flooding the bayous and raising the water level to a height that made it passable to Jefferson. With the raft’s removal the main course of the Red River was opened, draining the bayous and lakes, making the trip to Jefferson difficult and undependable. The second and decidedly more drastically impactful incident, was the completion of the Texas and Pacific Railway, running from Texarkana to Marshall, bypassing Jefferson altogether. Although another railroad line was extended to Jefferson the following year, the rise of other important rail cities, like Marshall and Dallas, brought an end to Jefferson’s Golden Era. By 1885 the population had fallen to some 3,500 inhabitants, with many of its businesses moving to Marshall, Dallas or Shreveport.
The city proudly boasts many firsts, with two in particular. In 1867, Jefferson became the first town in Texas to use artificial gas lighting, generated from retorts, which extracted gas from burning pine knots and heavily sap laden pine logs locally known as rich lighter pine. A year later, ice was being made artificially in commercial quantities accounting for yet another first. For a short time, Jefferson supported a railed trolley system similar to those in use in New Orleans. The city’s grand hotel, The Excelsior has been and remains in continuous operation since its opening in 1850 and the second oldest in Texas to be in uninterrupted service.
During the late 1870s, Jefferson was given a serendipitous distraction from its trying economic troubles by the sensational murder trial of Diamond Bessie Moore. Moore (her real name was Annie Stone), who was reputed to have been a famous prostitute, arrived in Jefferson by steamboat in January 1877 with her gregarious and flamboyant partner, Abraham Rothschild. Soon after their landing, the attractive, petite woman who wore lavish dresses and a surprising array of diamond jewelry adornment came to be nicknamed “Diamond Bessie”. Bessie and Abe were last seen walking together across the foot bridge over Big Cypress Bayou, bound for an afternoon picnic, but shortly thereafter, Abe was seen returning alone. A few days later, Bessie’s body was discovered tragically murdered in the woods along the nearby bayou, with all of her jewelry missing. Abe Rothschild was ceremoniously charged with the crime and his trial became one of the most notorious and widely followed court battles of that time period. Rothschild was eventually, although suspiciously, found not guilty. The sensational trial is reenacted each year in May, in conjunction with the town’s annual Pilgrimage. Diamond Bessie Moore rests in Jefferson’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Today, Jefferson is a serene but vivacious historic town, a genuine artifact of the thriving riverport town it once was. It is home to more state registered historic structures than anywhere else in Texas, many of which are also listed on The National Registry of Historic Places. For more than 60 years, Jefferson has been best known for its annual Pilgrimage event, hosted by The Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club, featuring a revolving yearly selection of beautifully restored and period furnished mid-nineteenth century homes, which remain as authentic and loving tributes to the city’s past. Jefferson is truly, The Queen of the Bayou and a unique and special treasure to be shared, discovered and explored.