A few pretty photos on the Internet and a list of local attractions didn’t prepare us for the reality of Jefferson, Texas. We were greeted by narrow streets lined with old-growth magnolia trees. There were elegant homes, both large and small, with wide front porches and gingerbread trim. It seemed almost everyone had planted flowers, and those who had not, had invested in plastic ones. Everywhere we looked, it was very green and colorful.
The buildings along the downtown streets retain their nineteenth-century facades. You sense there was a bygone era of great wealth. You can’t help but wonder why this tiny town, situated in the middle of the East Texas piney woods, possesses so much southern grace and charm.
We found the answer on Big Cypress Bayou
We were on our way to a vineyard when we saw a sign for a riverboat tour. We usually choose wine over boat rides on brown bayous, but as we crossed the bridge, we could see cypress trees shading the waterway. It looked inviting so we followed the arrow to a small shack.
That’s when we met Captain John Nance. He purchased his riverboats from the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park back in the 1980s. Typically, this waterway is a slow moving stream, but due to a release of water from Lake O’ the Pines to the north, the water level was up the day of our tour. It moved us along rather quickly.
Once on the water, we realized it wasn’t so brown after all. It was actually beautiful on Big Cypress Bayou.
Captain John told us all about the snapping turtles, three-hundred-pound gars, and alligators that inhabit the waters. Seems all of them can bite your foot off. This bayou may be pretty, but it’s not for swimming.
And this is Bigfoot territory too. Looking deep into the woods, it seems possible that mystical creatures flourish here. Jefferson hosts an annual Bigfoot conference each October. If you happen to be a cryptozoologist at heart, use this link and sign up. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2017-texas-bigfoot-conference-tickets-32303428424
Big Cypress Bayou holds the key to the past affluence of Jefferson, Texas. Captain John shared that story as well.
Big Cypress Bayou flows into the Red River. The Red River flows into the Mississippi. For centuries, there had been a logjam on the Red River that stretched for over one-hundred-and-thirty miles. In the early 1840s, steamboat captain, Henry Miller Shreve, cleared logs from below the jam to allow navigation from the town that bears his name, Shreveport, Louisiana, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It allowed large boats to travel down Big Cypress Bayou as well. Riverboats, two hundred feet long, moved cotton from Jefferson all the way to New Orleans. Supplies and settlers from New Orleans, traveled by boat all the way to the little port town of Jefferson. By 1845, Jefferson’s inland port was the second largest in Texas (after Galveston) and Jefferson was one of the state’s largest cities — a booming and prosperous place.
Prosperity lasted until the early 1870s when the Corp of Engineers attacked the logjam with a newly developed tool – nitroglycerin. Their goal was to improve navigation on the Red River all the way to Arkansas. Clearing the logjam changed the Red River Valley forever. Water levels dropped. On Big Cypress Bayou, navigation became difficult and the town of Jefferson slowly fell into decline.
Fortunately, for those of us visiting now, tourism flourishes. Today, Jefferson bears the label, “Bed and Breakfast Capital of Texas”.
We had a wonderful time in Jefferson. Can’t wait to tell you the rest.