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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal

Part 17:  A Town Called “Queen of the Bayou”, Episode 1


In the piney woods of east Texas, about 21 miles from the Louisiana border, is a town of small population, but possessing a rich and varied history. Its beginning came just a few years after the Texas War for Independence. Founders were partners Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley. They saw the potential in land that was close to Big Cypress Bayou and Caddo Lake, both providing a navigable waterway to the Red River. The opportunity for successful commerce was enormous.

Different accounts offer different start-up dates, so the early 1840s must be accepted as close enough. Urquhart’s interest was in arranging the business area of town, while Allen envisioned a genteel, residential neighborhood inhabited by refined and cultured citizens. The men named their new community Jefferson, for the third president, of course. He’d been responsible for the federal government’s acquiring the Louisiana Purchase, a sizeable chunk of land on which to expand the fledgling country. Urquhart’s and Allen’s new town sat just outside that land in the Republic of Texas.

The two men did a good job of advertising for settlers, but their town really owed its burgeoning success to a giant logjam. This was located miles to the north on the Red River, near the modern-day site of Natchitoches, Louisiana. The local Caddo tribe called the logjam, The Great River Raft, and they believed it had existed since the beginning of time. Their assumption was a bit off. Current scientists are more inclined to post its start to around 1200 A. D.

For centuries, the Raft had acted as a dam on the river, substantially raising the water levels of the Red, Big Cypress Bayou, and Caddo Lake, making them all quite deep and wide. The lake was possibly double the size it is now. Those high levels are what turned the connecting waters into water highways, just as Urquhart and Allen figured.

The first steamboat to utilize the route was the Llama, in about 1844. Its journey began from a location south of the Raft on the Red River, near present-day Shreveport, Louisiana. The boat then went along the bends of Caddo Lake and onto Big Cypress Bayou. In just a few miles, it reached the new, inland port of Jefferson.

Riverboat captains soon learned that they could take their vessels farther south, following the Red to the three-river intersection with the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi, which would eventually bring their boats to New Orleans. In a short while, a sizeable number of boats were navigating this route between Jefferson and the Crescent City, transporting passengers and goods in both directions. Boats could make the trip in 4-5 days, considered very fast in that era. Other inland ports sprang up — Swanson’s Landing and Port Caddo on the Texas side, Mooringsport on the Louisiana side. They all did thriving business, but Jefferson was the most successful. It became second only to Galveston as largest port in Texas and was nicknamed, Queen of the Bayou. As settlers developed productive farms, especially in cotton, Jefferson"s importance grew in shipping the harvested crops to market.

In only a year, steamboats arrived regularly at the Jefferson port, each carrying 130 or more passengers. Some were seeking land to buy and farm, while some were looking for work at the wharves. But many were the wealthy of New Orleans, simply looking for a pleasant excursion. The boat owners accommodated with elegant furnishings and delicious meals cooked in the boats’ kitchens. Even more, townsfolk in Jefferson invested in the expanding tourist trade. They built luxurious hotels, among them, the Excelcior in 1858, which now holds the title of the oldest, continuously-run hotel in Texas, and the Haywood, ten years later. These places became the centers of social life for the elites who purchased the fashionable houses of Jefferson.

As one might expect, the growing population covered all social classes from the rich businessmen, to small-time merchants, to construction workers, to laborers at the wharves. Such a mix was bound to bring saloons, brothels, and crime. There were fights in the saloons, robberies on the streets, and shootings that generally ended as murders.

At the Kahn Saloon, frequented by rich and poor alike, one story related that a deputy and a customer managed to shoot and kill each other (!), just inside the front door. Witnesses had no idea what the fight was about.

Then there’s the story of an older woman who ran the brothel upstairs. During the melee of a robbery, she and her 7-yearj-old son were caught in the crossfire, dying instantly. So sad. And who could forget the story of a young couple who eloped to Jefferson, the girl’s father hot on their trail. When he found his daughter and her intended at the rear area of the upstairs, the two men went to fisticuffs. Yet another inadvertent consequence of conflict, the men crashed into the bride-to-be. She went flying out the open window, fell to the street below, and met her untimely demise. The girl’s father grew even more enraged, swiftly dispatching the young fellow, too. And this was only one saloon!

The town policemen were busy just keeping order, while the cemetery swelled with new inhabitants. Jefferson wasn’t exactly the Wild West, but it surely experienced many raucous days and nights.

By 1860, the town’s population had reached 4000, regarded a large city, and during the years of the Civil War, it was a vital supply point for the Confederacy. Obviously, the Union generals saw that as a problem, though they had bigger issues to address. Jefferson continued on, without a single attack. By 1865, the war was finally winding down and once again, Jefferson came to the forefront of Union interest. Those troublesome Confederates had to be punished! Union officers devised plans to set the town on fire and burn it to the ground. Then, surprise! In the waning days of conflict, those plans were scrubbed and Jefferson was saved. No one knew why, but townsfolk were definitely pleased.

Despite the regulations of Reconstruction, the town made an early return to prosperity. By 1870, over 200 new buildings were in progress. Moreover, the wharves and fire equipment were improved and a modern water system was installed . An amazing fact, the population reached a milestone of 30,000. Jefferson was then the 6th largest city in Texas!

In 1872, a particular man embarked from a riverboat, onto a Jefferson wharf. He sported a thick beard, a trendy fashion of the day, and wore an expensive suit. He walked into town, probably with his head held high, shoulders squared, and demonstrating a highly confident gait. His name was Jay Gould. Hailing from New York, he was a financial speculator and owner of multiple businesses. It was well known that he was one of the notorious robber barons, none of whom held to honorable principles. The same as the others, Gould had gained a vast fortune through sly and shameless means.

His current focus was on railroads and obtaining a monopoly. Already, he owned the Union Pacific, the Mission Pacific, and the Texas Pacific. He’d come to Jefferson to investigate plotting a line of the Texas Pacific to run next to the town, and perhaps negotiating with city officials for the right-of-way.

Discussion and bargaining soon began between Gould, the officials, and prominent, local businessmen. Did he lay the charm on thick? Did he list the fine benefits that his railroad would provide the town? Did he offer to pay a substantial sum for the railroad right-of-way? Maybe. Maybe not.

Even so, the locals at the table must have recognized that the presence of a nearby railroad would decimate their riverboat trade. They straight-out rejected Gould’s offers and therefore, not a smidgen of agreement between parties was reached.

Accustomed to getting what he wanted, Gould was livid. He stomped from the failed meeting and onto the main road. Then he delivered this prophetic message. “Grass will grow in your streets and bats will roost in your belfries!”  He returned to his room in the Excelcior Hotel, grabbed his carpetbag, and headed to the wharves for passage on the soonest departing riverboat. He had signed the Excelcior’s guestbook, The End of Jefferson.

But was it? Could one prideful, self-seeking man have the ability to predict the downfall of an entire town?


Stand by. To spare you an overly-long read at one sitting, this historical tale will be continued next month. . .



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