It’s easy to imagine Jefferson in its glory days of the mid-19th century: steamboats meandered gracefully up the Red River to the big Cypress Bayou, unloading optimistic settlers from the east to a new land of possibility in the west.
Those who stepped off the riverboats discovered a bustling city – the state’s leading inland port at the time – where people converged with the shared goal of finding opportunity. Some were there to strike it rich through business, while others were simply content to start their lives anew.
The streets of this burgeoning boomtown contained a kaleidoscope of cultures – socialites departing first-class steamboat cabins, entrepreneurial East Coast shop merchants, newly freed slaves and wide-eyed pioneers all saw Jefferson as the first stop on the wild frontier.
By 1870 Jefferson had a population of 4,180 and was the sixth largest city in Texas, according to The Handbook of Texas Online. Between 1867 and 1870, commercial trade grew from $3 million to $8 million, and by 1870, only the port of Galveston exceeded Jefferson in volume. Jefferson reached its population peak in 1872, when the census reported 7,297 residents.
But 1873 was a fateful year for Jefferson. Two events occurred that would eventually tarnish its golden years.
First was the destruction of the Red River raft, a natural dam on the river above Shreveport, LA. Although the raft’s removal made the upper section of the Red River navigable, it lowered the water level of the surrounding lake and streams, thereby making a steamboat trek to Jefferson nearly impossible.
Perhaps even more significant was the 1873 completion of the Texas and Pacific Railway, which bypassed Jefferson en route from Texarkana to Marshall. Though the trains reached Jefferson the following year, the emergence of railroad cities like Dallas and Marshall and the overall shift to rail-based commerce spelled the end for Jefferson’s steamboat era.
Jefferson experienced a brief resurgence in the 1930s when oil was discovered, but the new industry did not have a dramatic effect on the economy. As early as 1940, the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club began looking at tourism as a way to preserve and promote Jefferson’s historic assets. Tourism has been the town’s most important economic base ever since.
With more than 100 state and nationally recognized historic structures, Jefferson has effectively preserved the residential and business properties that recall its heyday as a riverboat boomtown.
Come visit, relax with us, and delight in Jefferson’s history, beauty and charm … stroll along red-brick streets lined with 19th century buildings … discover the stories, myths and magic of this once booming town on a narrated tour by boat, carriage, or walking tour … explore the extensive, sometimes eccentric collection at the Jefferson Historical Museum … worship in one of Jefferson’s beautiful old churches … tour historic homes … shop for hidden treasure in Jefferson’s numerous antique stores and malls … and enjoy a variety of great food and drink in one of the old port town’s excellent restaurants.
The Hale House Inn is just a stroll from historic downtown Jefferson and a short drive from mysterious Caddo Lake, golf courses, fishing, water sports, and the American Rose Center. With ample activities and interests, Jefferson has become a popular destination for a relaxing weekend getaway.
– portions taken from “Jefferson – Step Back in Time”,
Texas Historical Commission