The air has a quiet only found on Sundays. Shops are closed. Streets are deserted. And in all of the quiet of Jefferson, Texas, there is a whiff of intangible activity. I begin to stroll the small settlement that was once a boomtown when the first steamboat arrived on the Big Cypress Bayou. By 1845, steamboats could reach New Orleans from Jefferson, making the city the port of entry for many into Texas and a thriving cosmopolitan destination. Appropriately, Jefferson is my port of entry for seeing what Texas looked like circa the 19th century.
I roam the streets of the “Riverport to the Southwest”, set up on the Big Cypress Bayou in the Cypress Valley of Northeast, Texas. With a twist of Texas spirit and deep southern charm, I begin at the Excelsior House, supposedly the oldest hotel in East Texas. Its famous guests include Presidents Grant and Hayes along with poet Oscar Wilde. It is easy to see why the old hotel has landed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I wouldn’t mind pulling up a seat to have a chat with Oscar Wilde. And yet again, in the silence of Sunday, those dreams of conversing almost feel possible.
You are never far away from Jefferson’s Golden Era. Murals around town don’t let you forget that this small, sleepy city today was once a contender with New Orleans. From 1845 to 1875, the city thrived like most port cities, deeming the time period the Golden Era. Gamblers, riverboat men and their harems would carouse about town, setting the stage of 19th century living in the Republic.
In fact, much of Jefferson resembles New Orleans in miniature. From Greek revival design to second story wrought iron balconies, Jefferson has the uncanny ability to suggest there could actually be a place like Nola in some small stitch in time.
The water was the Jefferson’s connection to commerce but the railroads were a looming threat. By 1873, a log was removed for the Big Cypress Bayou, reducing the city’s connection. Navigation to Jefferson ended. The railroad extensions throughout Texas reduced Jefferson’s appeals further, squandering its market area. Jefferson was no long the port of beginnings in Texas.
The city’s contempt for the railroads is clear in the Atalanta railroad car sitting right in town. The luxurious private car hails from 1888. Rail baron Jay Gould wanted to bring the railroad to Jefferson, but the city decided to put its bets on the river traffic instead. The lone car furthers the quiet of a Jefferson Sunday.
The connection may have dried up and the railroad might have taken away Jefferson’s importance, but frankly I don’t know any difference today. Jefferson’s rise and fall may have come and gone, but the traces of the past still remain, including the Jefferson General Store. Chalk full of every odd and end imaginable and every candy you could think of, the Jefferson General Store feels like stepping back into a age where there truly were one stop shops.
Established in 1873, the Jefferson General Store is a place you could spend hours with and still not see it all. A family waits for an ice cream soda as I grab a brown bag to fill with candy that I haven’t seen in years. It may be from 1873 for all I know, but the road back home is long and sugar is necessary.
I pass by the Sterne Fountain, featuring the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe. It was a gift to the city by the Sterne family, a prominent family during the town’s Civil War days. Perhaps Hebe is the reason that this place is frozen in its youth.
Once the largest inland riverport in the United States, few even know about Jefferson today. However spend a quiet Sunday roaming its streets and Jefferson wouldn’t let you leave without knowing its past. And strangely, the past in Jefferson doesn’t feel as though it has come and gone. The old Jefferson is still here, frozen in its youth.
Have you been to Jefferson or a place that seems frozen in its youth?