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Jefferson and Vicinity (Marion County)

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Between 1850 and 1873, Jefferson was one of the most important commercial and immigration centers in Texas and the largest inland port, surpassed only by Galveston in commerce and industry. Jefferson is located beside Big Cypress Bayou, a navigation route that flowed east for forty miles through a chain of lakes and waterways to connect with the Red River in Louisiana. The massive log jam on the Red known as the Great Raft, clogging the river and backing water into tributaries and lakes, had raised Big Cypress Bayou’s water level to a height that made it navigable for sternwheelers from the Mississippi River.

Allen Urquhart, a surveyor from North Carolina, located the 640-acre town in 1841 on a bend of Big Cypress Bayou, and Jefferson first appeared on a Texas map in 1844. Urquhart’s formal plan, drawn in 1846, shows streets running parallel to the bayou to take full advantage of the riverfront for warehouses, and avenues perpendicular to the water’s edge to facilitate easy dispersal of cargoes from the steamboats. Jefferson’s cofounder Daniel N. Alley purchased a 586-acre tract in 1845 adjoining Urquhart’s on the northwest for a residential development that became known as “Alley’s Addition.” He oriented his streets on a north–south axis, intersecting Urquhart’s along Line Street, where the two tracts met at 45-degree angles.

By 1845, Jefferson’s position as a primary shipping point for agricultural exports and distribution center for northeast Texas was firmly established. Steamboats were regularly making the trip to Shreveport and New Orleans, transporting Texas cotton downstream and returning with supplies and manufactured goods. Wagon trains were organized as thousands of westward-bound immigrants poured through the city. The architecture of Jefferson’s houses began to resemble the Greek Revival houses of New Orleans, with fancy millwork, hardware, and ornamental iron from that city.

During the Civil War, Jefferson was one of the leading supply depots for the Confederate Army in the Trans-Mississippi Department, supplying shoes, beef, and cannon balls from Jefferson’s busy factories. This economic boom continued well into the Reconstruction period. Between 1860 and 1873, Jefferson quadrupled in size (from 2,000 to 8,000), ranking it the fifth largest city in the state.

In 1873, two unrelated engineering projects that had been underway for decades were completed, having a cataclysmic impact on Jefferson’s economy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permanently removed the last segment of the Great Raft on the Red River, sending a free flow of water through the Red’s main channel. The raft’s removal eliminated the backwater that had raised the level of Big Cypress Bayou, and the water receded, leaving Jefferson beyond the reach of river traffic. The second event was the completion, also in 1873, of the Texas and Pacific Railway line between Marshall and the recently platted town of Texarkana. Even though this new rail line passed through Jefferson, it diminished the city’s importance as a transportation center, especially after Marshall was linked with Dallas. Jefferson’s monopoly over the trade of northeastern Texas was broken, sending the city into an economic decline from which it never recovered. Today, Jefferson is a well-preserved architectural museum, a languorous showcase of plantation houses, mansions, cottages, churches, and commercial buildings highlighting a lost, but crucial, era in the development of Texas. With its proximity to Dallas (about 170 miles), Jefferson is an attractive weekend getaway, with many of the historic houses operating as bed-and-breakfasts.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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