“If we start to sink, just stand up,” jokes John Nance as he motors his 28-foot-long boat out into the placid green waters of Big Cypress Bayou. This squiggly East Texas tributary may not be deep, but it has quite a history. If the towering cypress trees that crowd the riverbanks could talk, they’d be able to tell us how Jefferson—the quiet town just fifteen miles north of Marshall where I’ve come to spend a relaxing weekend with my mother—was once a bustling port, second only to Galveston in size and grandeur. Luckily, John, who is the proprietor of Turning Basin Bayou Tours (200 Bayou, 903-665-2222), has thirty years of experience, a quick wit, and a microphone. As we cruise along, he points out great blue herons and tells stories of Jefferson’s heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, when massive steamboats would arrive from New Orleans, drop off settlers and supplies, and then carry cotton back east.
By the time our hour-long excursion is over, we’ve heard the tale of the largest alligator gar ever wrestled to shore (more than three hundred pounds!), several Civil War anecdotes, and how the Great Logjam Clearing of 1873 changed everything: with cranes, saws, and dynamite, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dislodged a natural dam in the Red River that had kept the water in Jefferson high enough to accommodate steamboats year-round. When the water levels dropped, so did the city’s population.
John and his fellow residents don’t seem to mind that Jefferson didn’t become a Houston or a Dallas. In fact, burned-out urbanites from Houston and Dallas now flock here to relax. In addition to two of the oldest lodgings in the state—the Excelsior House Hotel (211 W. Austin, 800-490-7270) and the Jefferson Hotel (124 W. Austin, 903-665-2631 )—the city lists 33 bed-and-breakfasts on its website. We choose the Delta Street Inn (206 E. Delta, 877-665-2929 ), a twenties-era prairie-style home that has five rooms and matches my preferred guests-to-doilies ratio (few to none). After showing us to our king-size room upstairs, which has a balcony bigger than the bathroom, owners Pam and Bob Thomas suggest we try the Stillwater Inn (203 E. Broadway, 903-665-8415 ) for dinner, because it’s the most popular white-tablecloth establishment in town and is currently serving an excellent double-cut pork chop with ginger-peach chutney. They are right on both counts.
The next morning we fall into a spirited conversation with the other Delta Street Inn guests about how comfortable our beds are. All talking ceases, however, when Bob brings out plates of Pam’s cheese grits and thick slices of French toast with bacon. The carbohydrate boost soon comes in handy as my mother and I power our way through half a dozen antiques stores in Jefferson’s historic downtown. Though I conjure up the self-control to walk away from a vintage emerald cameo brooch at Gold Leaf Antique Mall ( 122 N. Polk, 903-665-2882 ) and some nice-looking camouflage coveralls at Jefferson Antique Mall (223 N. Walnut, 903-665-8852 ), my resolve eventually breaks down. At Walnut Street Market ( 121 N. Walnut, 903-665-8864 ), I snag a small library’s worth of vintage hardbacks. My hunting instinct kicks into high gear when we walk into Old Mill Antiques ( 210 E. Austin, 903-665-8601 ), a red-tin barn that has more than 20,000 square feet of objects to sift through. I spy a long, rusty weather-vane arrow sticking out from underneath a pale-green settee. Oh, and it’s half price? I can’t believe my luck.
I also can’t believe I’m hungry again. We consider our options: catfish po’boys at Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club (107 W. Austin, 903-665-7121 ), chicken and dumplings at Kitt’s Kornbread Sandwich and Pie Bar (125 N. Polk, 903-665-0505 ), or brisket and ribs at Joseph’s Riverport BBQ ( 210 N. Polk, 903-665-2341 ) (we have a winner!). Back at the B&B, Pam has homemade chocolate chip cookies for us and another great suggestion: that we go for a boat ride on nearby Caddo Lake. We drive thirty minutes east to Karnack to meet John Winn, a well-known backwater guide (1869 Pine Island Road, 903-789-3384 ). He asks if we want the “swampy” tour or the “really swampy” tour (easy call), and off we go in his narrow Go-Devil boat. We’re soon covered by a canopy of cypress trees, some up to ninety feet tall, dripping with Spanish moss. We glide by tiny frogs hopping on lily pads, a pair of snowy egrets, and a fortresslike beaver lodge, but no alligators. John says we’ll have to go out at night to see those. This sounds both terrifying and exhilarating. I know what I’ll be doing on my next visit.
Sitting at the breakfast table, we realize there are still some things we want to see. Like ghosts. Given its plethora of historic buildings, Jefferson has become something of a hotbed of paranormal activity. We meet local author Mitchel Whitington on the steps of the Grove (405 Moseley, 903-665-8018 ), a white 1861 Greek Revival–style house that’s thought to be the most haunted place in town. It’s also his home. On weekends, he and his wife, Tami, offer tours to visitors. As we move from room to room, Mitchel shares stories of inexplicable happenings and spooky sightings. Fair warning: the ghosts in the den are known to pat the bottoms of unsuspecting guests.
Mitchel’s stories stoke my curiosity enough that we head over to the red-brick 1890 federal courthouse that’s now home to the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum (223 W. Austin, 903-665-2775 ). There are hundreds of items, from Indian arrowheads to the bell from an ill-fated steamboat . I find an intricate bird’s-eye-view map of what Jefferson looked like in 1872. Though the bayou may no longer be bustling, it’s comforting to see how much the past is still part of the present.