Saturday, June 4, 2011

Jefferson, Texas

It was Memorial Day weekend and the wife and I decided to head to deepest, darkest, East Texas. A place called  Jefferson, Texas, a stone’s throw from the Louisiana border and county seat of Marion County, named for Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War patriot who, you may recall, was known as the "Swamp Fox". The town was named after President Thomas Jefferson.
Historic accounts say Jefferson began as a river landing on Big Cypress Bayou between 1836 and 1840. Because Big Cypress was navigable by steamboat, Jefferson became a major port of entry from New Orleans. The land had been ceded from the indigenous Caddo Indian tribe. At that time, the river was blocked by a massive log jam more than 100 miles long on the Red River north of present Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Indians said that this log jam, known as the Great Red River Raft, had always existed. The Red River Raft acted as a dam on the river and raised the level of Caddo Lake and the Red River several feet. This rise of Caddo Lake and the corresponding rise in the Big Cypress Bayou at Jefferson permitted commercial riverboat travel to Jefferson from ports such as St. Louis and New Orleans via the Mississippi and Red Rivers. During that time, Jefferson was considered the second most important port behind Galveston, Texas.

That was until the Army Corps of Engineers came along in 1873. You see the Corps never backs down from a challenge and, using nitroglycerin, the Corps was finally able to clear the raft from the Red River. But now the natural dam was gone and this lowered the level of Caddo Lake and Big Cypress to the extent that riverboat traffic to Jefferson was no longer commercially feasible. Isn’t it like Uncle Sam to roll in and change something that the taxpayers didn’t want and make things worse for everybody? Thank God, those pesky logs are gone for good. I wonder if they did an environmental impact study before blowing up all the logs.

Caddo Lake is the largest natural lake in the south, and the only natural lake in Texas.  In the 1900's, when oil was discovered under Caddo, the oil companies built a dam to raise the level again but for a different reason. This allowed them to drill for oil and Caddo Lake then, sadly, became the site of the first over-water oil well in the world.

In its heyday, Jefferson thrived, buttressed by the lumber industry and the nearby discovery of iron ore.  the town was home to one of the state's first breweries and the world's first ammonia refrigerant ice plant. It also was the first in the Lone Star State to use artificial gas for street lighting.
On arrival, I immediately pointed the Rogue to the historic downtown and the 1912 Texas Classical Revival style Marion County Courthouse. The Courthouse is still functioning but is in need of repair. Birds have taken over the eves. The wood could use a paintbrush and the exterior brick could use a power washing. Court has been held in many buildings over time but the first official Courthouse was built in 1873. Next door was the Sheriff's Office and a really well done Veteran's Memorial for Marion County.

Contrast that to the 1889 Harrison County Courthouse in nearby Marshall, Texas. Harrison County came into being in 1839 and this is Harrison’s third Courthouse. Marshall, Texas was named after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Harrison was a Texas Revolutionary.

Jefferson is considered to be the most haunted city in Texas. It has been featured in several magazines, newspaper articles and the Travel, Discovery and SciFi channels. We took the Jefferson Ghost Tour   through downtown Jefferson. There are so many reports of paranormal activity in Jefferson it’s hard to keep up with our tour guide Jodi. The best stories involve her experiences on the tours as she or one of the tourists told her about things happening while they were at one of the sites. It was a holiday weekend and the tour had attracted a sizeable force of tourists. It was almost comical watching our gaggle of maybe 50 people plying the streets of a now dark Jefferson jumping at every snapping twig and giggling like schoolchildren at the rustle of trees as we walked up the narrow streets.

To prepare ourselves for the long night (and walk) we first dined at Lamache’s Italian Restaurant in the Jefferson Hotel. I had the sausage and peppers over linguini and Dianna had the Chicken Carbonara but neglected to note it included mushrooms. Great food and service got us out of there in plenty of time to join the Ghost Tour meeting a block away.

It's rumored that a room in the historic Jefferson Hotel, built around 1851, is home to a young bride who hanged herself there when the groom sent word the wedding was off. In shame, she ended her life in her parent’s room. Jodi said spiritual activity usually forms around objects, which were present, or in contact with the deceased.  Over the years several events have occurred which have generated paranormal activity in the hotel. In that time, furniture from the rooms have crossed into other rooms or, in one case, amplified when more than one object has been moved into a room with its own tragic history.
Hayes House has Lady in Blue ghost

Remember, this was a major port from its beginnings through the Civil War and was as wild and crazy a place as Dodge City back in the day. The Excelsior Hotel across the street has spirits in its rooms. Big Cypress Coffee House, which used to be the Kahn Saloon, was the scene of a grizzly double shooting death of a Deputy Sheriff and the man who killed him, was a saloon, brothel and a funeral home too. There were victims of riverboat disasters, Civil War dead, there was a Union Stockade where significant town’s people (Confederate sympathizers) were hung or died while in custody, unexplained hangings of slaves, heart-wrenching deaths of children due to yellow fever. This was like Ghost Central! I was expecting the Ghost Busters ambulance to wheel around the corner, with its wailing siren, any minute.

There is a great place to discover Jefferson history in the 1888 Jefferson Federal Courthouse and Post Office. It is jam packed with memorabilia and artifacts from Jefferson’s colorful past. The basement has a vast collection of turn of the century (that is 19th Century) tools and household items. The first floor has historic accounts of Marion County and East Texas in general. I loved the first computer delivered in Marion County exhibit.

It is an IBM 5110 from 1978. The 5110 featured a desktop unit, which housed a central processing unit, a keyboard and a 4-inch monochrome screen. Main memory held 16K bytes of data. It had a magnetic tape and two 10” disk drives. This baby could store as much as 204K bytes of information per tape cartridge or 1.2 million bytes on a single diskette; for a total online diskette capacity of 4.8 million bytes. It was purchased by a local C.P.A. for (are you ready?) $20,000.00. That included a printer (I wonder how much those cartridges set you back). Wow. Other floors had period guns, quilts and a replica of a period doctor’s office.
Downtown is a little rundown but the business owners have done their best to make it bright and inviting. If you like antiquing, this is the place for you. Antique and architectural resale stores were everywhere. Make sure you stop at the Jefferson General Store on Austin Street for all your old time candy, ice cream and soda fountain favorites.

My Kind of Syrup

Oh...Chocolate Fudge

Jefferson has always had a strong connection to Lyndon Johnson and his family. Lady Bird had lived briefly in Jefferson in her early youth, attended school and summered here with relatives. She and the former President visited here often and their signatures are in the Excelsior Hotel registry. Speaking of the registry, recalling that Jefferson was a serious crossroad for much of the time up to the 1870’s, there are original signatures for President Grant, President Rutherford B. Hayes, George and Laura Bush and Astronaut James Lovell. The Excelsior is the second oldest hotel in Texas next to the   Menger Hotel in  San Antonio, Texas. The Menger has its haunted history as well where Captain Richard King, founder of the King Ranch, appears now and then entering his room, the King Suite.

Another infamous ghost of the Excelsior and celebrated town scandal is the story of Bessie Moore, a “woman of the evening” whose murder in the woods outside of Jefferson, Texas propelled her to the level of local legend. She was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head in the early afternoon of Sunday, January 21, 1877. Her accused killer was her lover (and husband), Abraham Rothschild. He was tried twice and got off both times (before double jeopardy). Diamond Bessie (as she was known) had done well by herself and had amassed a small fortune in diamonds she often wore. The murder was turned into a play and towns people put in on every year during its annual Pilgrimage Festival. Bessie was buried in Jefferson's Oakwood Cemetery it is rumored under six slabs of concrete because Bessie was supposedly buried with all her jewelry.

And there is the obligatory town fire known as the “Million Dollar Fire”. Recall that most of Jefferson consisted of businesses and warehouses supporting the port operations so it’s no surprise that on July 1st, 1904, a huge fire raged through town, which, rumor has it, was only halted when the townsfolk began dynamiting buildings to reduce the fuel and snuff the fire out. Really, that was the only option? I’m thinking there was a whole bunch of people with too much access to explosives in that town. As you can imagine, most of the town was decimated with a huge loss of life and property. Yep, more ghosts too.

Ok, let me digress and interject that during this world wind of happy history absorption, we did actually stay a couple of nights and had some fun too. We had made arrangements at a bed and breakfast called Chez’ Lafayette. Miss Beth has a neat little place on Lafayette Street within walking distance of downtown Jefferson. Some have labeled Jefferson the “Bed and Breakfast Capitol of Texas” with good reason. There must be a zillion bed and breakfasts. It seems like every other home has a sign beckoning you to stay the night. We spent two gloriously air-conditioned nights (it hovered in the high humid 90’s) in the “Granddaughters Cottage”. A nicely appointed room away from the main house and Ms. Beth served up breakfast each morning. The best part was meeting and learning about our hostess and the other guests. It is right next door to one of only three Carnegie Libraries in Texas that still functions as a library.

We spent Sunday morning driving into  Shreveport, Louisiana just over the border. Tried to enter a Casino but had to leave because of cigarette smoke inhalation. I held my breath, walked into the Casino, slipped a twenty into a $2 dollar slot, pulled the handle five times and left. We returned back to Texas and drove to Caddo Lake, the only naturally occurring lake in Texas created by the draining of the Red and the Sabine Rivers. Lots of Bayous, moss draped trees, expensive homes and boating enthusiasts. We stopped for a late lunch at River Bend Restaurant in a place called Uncertain, Texas. The River Bend had a limited menu, which included frog’s legs and alligator. I was assured the alligator was batter fried and tasted, yep, you guessed it, like chicken. We had the rib eye steak, baked sweet potato, beans, cole slaw and Jalapeno Hushpuppies on the screened in patio over Big Allan Pond on Big Cypress Creek, which was excellent.

We returned to the cottage hot and ready for the air-conditioned comfort of our room. After a good night’s sleep, we rose to eat a final breakfast and rowdy conversation with our fellow travelers and got some inside tidbits from Beth about Jefferson families and politics. We then loaded up the Rogue and headed back to Frisco on Memorial Day looking forward to our next trip.