Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989 Page: 30
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By Sharon Stewart
JLA tapestry of events forms the backdrop
to the present popularity of tourism in
the northeast Texas town of Jefferson, but
it is the romantic era of the steamboat from
1841 to 1876 that most defines the charm
of this small, energetic town.
Founded in the days of the Republic of
Texas, the frontier town was named for
President Thomas Jefferson. It quickly
became a vital inland steamboat port,
bringing passengers and goods from St.
Louis and New Orleans up the Mississippi
to Shreveport via the Red River, northward
to Caddo Lake and Big Cypress
Bayou. It was at this furthest point of navigable
passage that Allen Urquhart and
Daniel Alley laid out a commercial and
grand residential plan for a community of
cultural and ethnic diversity, as evidenced
by the influence of the congregations in
the town. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist,
Episcopalian, Catholic and Jewish
residents constructed churches and a synagogue
that today still invite visitors to
worship and appreciate the period architecture.
The riverfront district was a colorful
blend of bawdy saloons, warehouses and
hotels to accomodate the itinerant throngs
that passed through Jefferson, a steppingoff
point for westward expansion. As many
of the dock hands were illiterate, a unique
method of routing cargo was devised using
playing cards to mark the shipments. Jefferson
was dealt the King of Spades.
Aside from the emotional and political
ramifications, the escalation of a war economy
during the Civil War had great impact
on Jefferson. Area foundries manufactured
cannonballs, and the shoe industry flourished
as never before in the effort to outfit
the troops. Despite the bitter indignities
30 HERITAGE * WINTER 1989
Austin Street, Jefferson. In the foreground is the famous Excelsior House, which has been in continuous
operation since the 1850s, featuring New Orleans style decor and "plantation" breakfasts for guests. In the
background stands the Jefferson museum, open daily.
that Reconstruction wrought, Jefferson
enjoyed a time of unsurpassed prosperity
and opulence. The Queen Mab Ball was
part of Jefferson's Mardi Gras celebration
in the 1870s, drawing as many as three
hundred train cars with guests from surrounding
areas. It was also a period of
invention. Jefferson was the site of the first
ice plant in Texas, and the Jefferson Gas
Light Company produced the first artificial
gas in Texas by burning pine knots for the
gas iron retort street lights.
The Excelsior House hosted many gala
events. Built by Captain William Perry,
who also brought the first steamboat to
Jefferson, the hotel has been in continuous
operation since the 1850s, when it was the
social center of Jefferson, and remains so
today. Purchased in 1961 by the Jesse Allen
Wise Garden Club, the Excelsior House
was restored and lavishly furnished with
antiques. One of many noteworthy guests
of the hotel was the railroad tycoon Jay
Gould who purportedly cast a curse on
Jefferson that "grass will grow in your
streets and bats will roost in your belfries."
It is ironic that his personal railroad car, the
"Atalanta," is now stationed across from
the Excelsior. The fabulous car once travelled
with its own cow for fresh milk, and
today is overseen by the Garden Club who
purchased and restored it in 1954.
The advent of the railroad coincided
with the decline of the steamboat era. The
legend of Jay Gould's curse is a great part of
local lore because Jefferson stubbornly resisted
the railroad expansion, and it was the
final removal of the Red River Raft by the
Corps of Engineers in 1873 that signaled
the waning of the "Belle of the Bayou's"
The expansion of the railroad and the
subsequent development of Dallas as a new
trade center further isolated the once
thriving port of Jefferson. The tenacious
decision of the townspeople to fight the
WALKING \ TOUR
FOCUSES ON JEFFERSON
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989, periodical, Winter 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45430/m1/30/: accessed June 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.