Jefferson has played an important role in the early development of the state. Center of culture and refinement, of stern-wheelers, wagon trains, and ox-team freighters, Jefferson was once the pride of a great empire around which revolved graceful living, southern charm, prestige, and. productivity. The town's bygone glories cannot be forgotten, and today Jefferson is a most eloquent reminder of an era long since vanished.
Situated on Big Cypress Bayou, Jefferson early became a riverport town, and, in fact, has been described as the "Riverport to the Southwest." The boats came up the Mississippi River into the Red River, through Caddo Lake, and up Big Cypress to what was known as, and still is termed, the "Turning Basin" where the stern-wheelers loaded and unloaded cargo. One of the' early settlers of Jefferson was Captain William Perry, owner/builder of the world famous Excelsior Hotel, who arrived with the first stern-wheeler in 1844.
At a time before railroads came to North Texas, all towns and farmers were dependent on port cities to import and export their goods. Jefferson had the distinction on being the only dependable port in North Texas. Also in Jefferson's favor, cotton was the basis of the economy and came in large, bulky, 500-pound bales which, without a railroad, had to be shipped by boats. Jefferson all but monopolized shipping from an area that extended over 200 miles west, including the cotton rich "Black Land" north and south of Dallas. The State of Texas, born in 1845, was a new incentive for an immigration rush into the area. People of all classes and professions, singly or in companies, by land, sea, and river, pushed in to Texas. Land was cleared, cabins built, and crops planted. Some wealthy planters migrated to Jefferson, settling on the bayou, and with their families and slaves, began to create a new cotton kingdom. Jefferson received the lion's share of the early immigration movement and soon became an East Texas metropolis. A natural barrier in the Red River, called the "Great Raft" routed water into Cypress Bayou, reopening the channel enabling the steamboats to go as far as Jefferson. Elegant stern-wheelers from the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers churned into Jefferson, earning the town the title of "Gateway to Texas". At the height of this bustling movement, the riverport town of Jefferson was second only to Galveston in the amount of tonnage shipped from Texas. During the Civil War, Jefferson became very important to the Confederacy as supplier of meat, hides, food staples, iron, monitions, and leather goods.
The years after the Civil War became Jefferson's heyday with people coming from the devastated southern states seeking a new life. In 1872, there were exports in the thousands of dry hides, green hides, tons of wool, pelts, bushels of seed, several thousand cattle and sheep, and over a hundred thousand feet of lumber. For the same period, there were 226 arrivals of steamboats with a carrying capacity averaging 425 tons each.
Then began the "great decline." There have been many causes cited for the loss of prosperity, population, and businesses. It is felt strongly that one of the principal reasons for Jefferson's decline is that in 1873 the U.S. Corps of Engineers removed the Great Raft from the Red River above Shreveport, dropping the water level in Big Cypress Bayou to the point that shipping was uncertain and no longer financially profitable. With the coming of railroads, shippers of merchandise no longer depended on waterways.
Today, Jefferson is a quaint small town featuring tour attractions reminiscent of its heyday. Its streets are lined with antique and gift shops stocked with unique treasures. Horse-drawn carriages and trolleys tour along the original brick streets. Just one block away from downtown are riverboat tours of Big Cypress Bayou, the same waterway once traveled by stern-wheelers. Evenings in town offer live theater productions, as well as a variety of dining choices. Retiring for the night in Jefferson offers the opportunity to experience any of the over 60 Bed and Breakfast establishments, including the Excelsior Hotel.
The City of Jefferson is perfect for a weekend get-a-way, a honeymoon spot, meeting/retreats, or a one-day family outing.