Above: Many of the town’s early buildings today contain restaurants and shops, like Jefferson General Store. Jefferson General Store photo
Below: The stately Jefferson Historical Museum chronicles the region’s past. Jefferson Tourism Department photo
You might think you’re in a bygone 19th–century port city frontier, full of petticoats and parasols, newly prosperous merchants and gamblers, and old-fashioned Southern gentility. But the Jefferson, Texas, of today exudes so much of this timelessness that you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time.
This east Texas town set in the Big Cypress Bayou is the seat of Marion County, named for Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, who was known as the “Swamp Fox.” The town of Jefferson was named after our third President, and its prosperity was cemented as steamboats arrived from New Orleans in the mid-1800s. Thus, Jefferson became a boomtown where many pioneers found wealth in the cotton industry and other businesses.
The Greek Revival architecture of Jefferson developed during its Golden Era of the late 19th century, and many of those early, graceful buildings still line the original brick streets, operating today as antique shops, bed-and-breakfast inns, or restaurants.
What to See and Do
Start at the Jefferson Visitor Center, at 305 E. Austin, to pick up information on the city’s attractions, as well as some tips from local experts. From there, you might stroll down the street to 223 W. Austin and the Jefferson Historical Museum, situated in an impressive 1888 red-brick building, and offering four floors of local history. The collection includes Caddo Indian artifacts, early pioneer antiquities, art, a train display, and a Civil War exhibit.
Many historical homes are now open to the public and available for tours, such as Singleton’s Virginia Cross Home. The antebellum house, built in 1859, earned its name from its architecture that was patterned after the style in Virginia at the time. Furnished with period antiques, the home offers a tour at 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
The Grove, another historical home, was built by the Stilley family in 1861 and is said to be one of the most haunted locations in Texas. In 1882, T.C. Burke purchased the home, but moved his family out within one month due to disturbances. One-hour tours are given (call for current times and information), with special candlelight tours at Halloween and Christmas.
No visit to Jefferson is complete without a ride on the Historic Jefferson Railway, an antique narrow-gauge train that travels along the Big Cypress Bayou for a 40-minute narrated ride. It’s rumored that Bigfoot (also known as the Boggy Creek monster) has been sighted along the track, and the railway also offers evening ghost train rides. The railway’s Web site, www.jeffersonrailway.com, has more details about fall excursion dates.
Where to Stay and Eat
Jefferson is known for charming bed-and-breakfast inns, and gorgeous properties are sprinkled throughout town, many in restored historic homes. The Captain’s Castle is one of these.
In the 1870s, Capt. Thomas Rogers combined two landmark houses (one an elaborate bawdy house during Jefferson’s riverboat heyday) to form an estate for his family. Today, guests can stay in one of six rooms or a cottage suite as part of their Jefferson experience.
“There is so much history to take in and the slower pace of life gives you the opportunity to relax and restore from the stress of daily life,” says Angie Herlocker, who runs Captain’s Castle with her husband, Bill. She recommends a boat or carriage ride for visitors, as well as shopping for some of the high-quality antiques found at shops around town.
The Alley-McKay House, which dates to 1851, offers a casual and welcoming atmosphere.
“We are an informal inn,” said proprietor Hugh Lewis II. “You can come for coffee in your fuzzy slippers, and you don’t have to put your lipstick on for breakfast.”
When it comes to eating, there are several casual and fine dining restaurants from which to choose. The Austin Street Bistro has a gourmet lunch and dinner menu, with scrumptious bread and pastries made from scratch. Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club is a fun venue, offering a full Southern American menu and live music entertainment Thursday through Saturday nights. For an excellent selection of wine and beers, try the Black Swan Wine Bar & Café. Regular foodie events are scheduled at the Black Swan, and it also offers B&B suites.
Autumn is a great time of year to visit the area. The Trammel’s Trace Rendezvous (Sept. 14–15) aims to give a window into the past with living history demonstrations, Native American heritage celebrations, competitions, and artisan craft booths.
October brings plenty of ghostly festivals. Jefferson Historic Railway on weekends from Oct. 5–28 produces Terror on the Bayou, a Halloween festival with a Runaway Fright Train, CarnEvil Haunted House, and Screamin’ Corn Maze. There also are family-friendly activities.
For more frightening fun, check out the Historic Jefferson Ghost Walk, where historian Jodi Breckenridge takes visitors on a guided night tour of the most haunted small town in Texas. By the glow of lantern light, guests venture through alleyways and courtyards as she regales them with vivid accounts of tragedy, murder, and ghostly encounters. “Whether you believe in ghosts or not, everyone loves to hear a good ghost story,” said Breckenridge. Though she is a skeptic, she acknowledges that many eerie experiences have happened to her over the years, for which there are no logical explanations.
“Places with a lot of history or tragic history seem to be the best locations for hauntings and ghostly tales, and Jefferson is abundant with both,” she said.
Clearly an interesting town, Jefferson’s historical atmosphere is almost palpable. As innkeeper Lewis says, Jefferson got lost in 1940s America–and that’s not a bad thing.
Shelley Seale is a new contributor from Austin, Texas.