When you think of steamboats, you probably don't think of Texas, much less the tiny inland town of Jefferson. But in the mid-1800s, Jefferson was the largest inland port in the United States.
For half a century, riverboats carried cargo and passengers into Jefferson from Baton Rouge, Louisiana via the Big Cypress Bayou and the Red River. Wealthy merchants and steamboat captains built fabulous houses, and luxury hotels sprang up along the waterfront.
With a population of 30,000 in its heyday, Jefferson was bigger than Dallas--and second only to Galveston as Texas' biggest commerce center.
But Jefferson's prosperity ended literally overnight in 1873. That's when the U.S. Corps of Engineers removed a natural dam near Shreveport, Louisiana, making the bayou unnavigable. After that, Jefferson languished for almost a century.
Restoration Takes Root
In the 1960s, a local women's garden club decided to restore Jefferson to its former splendor. One by one, the club bought historic properties neglected.
As we learned during a recent visit, the club slowly transformed Jefferson into the "Bed-and-Breakfast Capital of East Texas" and a thriving tourist center. This town of 2,300 boasts more than 60 B&Bs, plus 16 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We discovered lots of fun ways to enjoy its historic treasures. We enjoyed self-guided walking tours as well as rides on a city trolley, a mule-drawn wagon and a romantic horse-drawn carriage.
One of our favorites was the Historic Jefferson Walking Tour, which features more than 40 homes and buildings on two routes. Some of the buildings' interiors are open to the public.
We also enjoyed the Turning Basin Riverboat Tour, gliding over the basin where steamboats of old once turned around. (One-hour tours are offered from March through mid-December. Call 1-903/665-2222.
You can check out the basin itself near the Historic Riverfront District.
Owner John Nance has been providing these tours for more than 20 years. When we asked how steamboats squeezed through the tight spots in Big Cypress Bayou, he explained that sternwheelers, with a paddle on the rear, were narrower than side-wheelers.
To travel in old-fashioned style, hop aboard the narrow-gauge Jefferson & Cypress Bayou Railway (runs Thursday through Sunday from mid-February through January. 1-903/665-6400.
A reproduction steam engine pulls two cars, one open and one enclosed, on a 1/2-hour trip through the piney woods along the bayou. The enclosed car's warm wood ceiling and plush cranberry-colored furnishings make us feel as though we'd stepped into another era.
If you still have some "steam" left, Jefferson's main street is lined with antique and collectible shops. This is a favorite destination for collectors and nostalgia fans.
There also are several museums here, including Scarlett O'Hardy's Gone With the Wind Museum, featuring one of the largest private collections of memorabilia related to Margaret Mitchell's epic story of the Old South and the legendary movie of the same name. It's open Thursday through Saturday or by appointment, except holidays. Call 1-903/665-1939.
Jefferson is a classic example of how determined residents can resurrect small towns. Visit this Texas treasure for yourself and see what a small garden club can "grow"!
Fast Facts... Jefferson is in East Texas, roughly 55 miles northwest of Shreveport, Louisiana at the junction of State Highway 49 and U.S. Highway 59, and about 20 miles north of I-20. For more information, call the Marion County Chamber of Commerce at 1-888/ 467-3529.
More to See... Magical and mysterious Caddo Lake, the state's largest natural lake, straddles the Texas/ Louisiana border about 15 miles east of Jefferson. This natural wonder is a 26,800-acre maze of waterways, bayous and cypress trees, filled with an amazing abundance of wildlife--including 44 threatened and endangered species.
Caddo Outback Backwater Tours offers 1-1/2-hour personalized boat tours of Caddo Lake plus other sightseeing options.
For more information, call 1-903/ 789-3384.