WHEN MY HUSBAND, KIT, SUGGESTED we go to Jefferson for the weekend, I thought to myself, “What is in Jefferson and where in the world is it?” I knew it was somewhere in East Texas, but I wasn’t quite sure where, so I got out a map. I discovered that it’s in the middle of nowhere, in a part of the state where I had never been. This East Texas was not the East Texas I had traveled to before, when my sister graduated from Stephan F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches. What I didn’t quite realize until that moment was just how big East Texas is.
The drive between Austin and Jefferson proved a good six hours—the same amount of time it takes us to get to my parents place in South Padre Island, almost the very southern tip of Texas. The difference between the two, obviously, is the scenery. When we head south, we expect to see miles of crops and flat land. Going northeast, we were ecstatic to see lots of pine trees. But it wasn’t just the trees that were different. The communities seemed different, older maybe (or at least the buildings looked older). We finally arrived at our destination just before dusk. Jefferson is a beautiful old town full of rich history and architecture. It’s a place where you can relax and lose yourself—basically, just what we needed.
Our first stop was our hotel, the Excelsior House, which has been in continuous operation since the 1850’s when it was built by riverboat captain William Perry. Perry, one of the town’s earliest settlers, arrived with the first stern-wheeler in 1844. Riverboats in Jefferson? Back in those days, the city (named for Thomas Jefferson by its founders Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley), which sits on Big Cypress Creek, was the second-largest port in Texas (Galveston was number one). Big Cypress Creek had been cleared for navigation and steamboats from New Orleans would come up the Mississippi River into the Red River and through Caddo Lake and up Big Cypress to get to Jefferson, where cotton and other goods would be waiting for transport. In 1867 Jefferson became the first town in Texas to use artificial gas for lighting purposes. But in 1873 two events led to the decline of Jefferson: the Red River Raft, the natural dam on the river above Shreveport, was destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Texas and Pacific Railway from Texarkana to Marshall (bypassing Jefferson) was completed.
Today Jefferson is known for its many historical buildings, in fact, about sixty are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the Excelsior Hotel. The Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club purchased the hotel in 1961, and volunteers restored it to its former grandeur. The brick structure boasts fifteen guest rooms and features a ballroom and dining room. Famous guests who have stayed at the hotel include Ulysses S. Grant, Oscar Wilde, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Diamond Bessie Moore. We were booked in the elegantly appointed Jay Gould Room; legend has it that the railroad magnet deliberately bypassed the town because he was angered by the town leaders’ lukewarm response to the railroad. Supposedly, he wrote in the register of the Excelsior that the railroad would mean “the end of Jefferson.” Actually, Gould didn’t buy the Texas and Pacific until the early 1880’s and didn’t visit Jefferson until much later—debunking the rumors that he placed a curse on the town.
Once settled, Kit and I decided to look around and find a place for dinner. Since we were in downtown, we simply had to walk from quaint antiques shop to quaint antiques shop. A colleague had recommended the Stillwater Inn, so we opted to drive over (it was a good two or three long blocks away, mind you). We were instantly charmed by the hard woods and pale walls, the cozy dining rooms, and the stylish ambience. The food proved even better than we had expected; the duck was sublime, the best we’ve ever tasted anywhere. We tucked in early in preparation for a big day of sight-seeing, hanging out, and having fun.
Kit went for a bike ride early in the morning while I took one of the many walking tours through town. I started at our hotel—easy enough—and made my way by the Atlanta, the private railroad car of Jay Gould, before stopping at the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum. The three-story building is filled with donated artifacts ranging from Winchester rifles and handmade children’s clothes to German dolls and Caddo Indian arrowheads. Outside, I noted the huge magnolia tree that was planted as a seedling by Lady Bird Johnson. Next I passed the Sterne Fountain and the Carnegie Library, one of four libraries in Texas built with funds from Andrew Carnegie, and a couple of churches before deciding I was too hot and hungry to continue. I retraced my steps back to the hotel to wait for Kit to return from his ride. He got lost and had a flat tire, but arrived safely about an hour later. By that time, I had walked around town several times and pretty much knew my way around. We grabbed a sandwich and lemonade before making our way to the Jefferson and Cypress Bayou Railway. Old Engine Number 7 took us along the Cypress Bayou as we passed cypress and pine trees and took in the beautiful scenery. About thirty minutes later, we were back in town and ready for some serious antiques shopping. We went from store to store and browsed around but didn’t buy anything. One place had dusty Pearl Light beer bottles for sale. (Kit and I haven’t figured out why old beer bottles would qualify as antiques, but what do we know?) After a milkshake at the hopping local drugstore, we moseyed back to the hotel and freshened up a bit before heading to Caddo Lake. Our paddlewheel boat ride on Caddo Lake proved to be the highlight of our trip. It was only a short drive—about thirty minutes— to the departure point on Caddo. We took a cooler of water and snacks with us and waited on the top deck of the old boat. Finally, we made our way out to the main lake, hissing with steam as we went along. Caddo Lake is like no other lake I’ve ever seen; it was completely different from what either of us were expecting. It was magical, beautiful, eerie, and soothing. Sometimes the lily pads were so thick we couldn’t even see the water. We passed cypress tree after cypress tree—the gray trunks seeming to be an extension of the dark, murky water. As our tour guide told us about the natural dam that was destroyed causing the water level to drop, I felt like I was in another world. It was hard to imagine a life filled with cell phones, computers, and other modes of communication out on the lake, where life seemed so isolated. We were truly transformed—if only for a little while.
We docked as the sun was setting and made our way back to downtown Jefferson. After we got cleaned up, we went to Lamache’s Italian Restaurant, a block away from the hotel, and ate delicious lasagne and cheesecake and listened to a guitarist play cover songs of the Eagles. Kit and I took a short stroll around town, hoping to walk off some of our dinner, before calling it a night. The next morning came early, but we felt relaxed and rested—just what we needed in preparation for the long drive home.