Jefferson boomed in the mid-19th-century, like many cities of the time, because of a river. Jefferson was at the head of navigation on Big Cypress Bayou in the Red River Valley. It was the furthest point inland steamboats could travel in Texas. Since water travel was the easiest method of transportation, and steamboats were the only mechanized transportation, Jefferson became the gateway to the northen part of the state for both people and goods. It was the second largest immigration port in Texas, eclipsed only by the seaport of Galveston. People and goods continually flowed up the Red River from New Orleans, destination: Jefferson and the frontier beyond.
The first steamer chugged into Big Cypress Bayou in 1844, the Lama. Navigation this far was made possible by a massive log jam that backed up water in the Red River. Jefferson was the last point at which supplies, implements and all the necessities of a new home could be bought before heading to the frontier. Wharves were built along the bayou for half a mile and great brick warehouses were erected. The city had numerous wholesale houses for hardware, clothing, groceries and furniture, and an equally large number of retail stores.
Most of the immigrants to Jefferson were from other areas of the Deep South, and they brought their culture and fondness for Greek Revival architecture with them. Jefferson was an important center of production during the Civil War, with machine shops, iron foundries, boot manufacturers and meat packing. During Reconstruction, the immigrant tide from other southern states became a flood. Steamboats unloaded merchandise and immigrants. Endless wagon trains were made up in Jefferson. Thousands of westward-bound immigrants poured through the city.
In 1880, thanks in no large part to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Jefferson lost its riverport. With no reason to exist, the city was virtually abandoned. The long-term effect of this was a perfectly preserved historical district – the mid-19th-century commercial district and the Greek Revival residences haven’t been altered in almost a century. The entire swath of the city inside the historic district, comprising 56 buildings of state significance, is virtually the same as it was in 1880.
In 1941, the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club realized the significance of the unaltered town, and began restoration efforts. Today, the small town is a perfect place to walk. A 2½-mile stroll will take you past houses converted into quaint bed and breakfasts, historic hotels, clubs and restaurants in buildings that once housed bales of cotton, and former mercantiles still selling wares, but now antiques, gifts and Blackburn jams and syrups.
Start at the corner of Austin and South Market, near the heavy-red brick Old US Post Office and Courthouse with its high tower. This is where the coordinates lead and there’s plenty of street parking here, plus a grassy lot for overflow. This small, 1890 Romanesque Federal Building was designed by William Ferret. The first floor contained the post office and the second floor provided a courtroom and offices. The building now houses the Jefferson Historical Museum.
A block west on S. Market Street brings you to the Sterne Fountain, at the intersection with W. Lafayette. This fountain, donated to Jefferson by the Sterne family in 1913, was designed by New Yorker Guiseppe Moretti. The statue is Hebe, the Greek Goddess of Youth. At the northeast corner of this intersection is the 1907 Jefferson Public Library, one of the few Carnegie Libraries still being used for its original purpose – as a library. Jefferson was home to Texas's first artificial gas system, used both in homes and for street lights. Directly in front of the library is a historical marker that fascinatingly explains how the gas was manufactured and piped.
Turn left on West Lafayette, past the library, for two blocks, then make a right on North Jackson and a quick right onto South Line. You’ll notice that the grid pattern of the streets change their orientation here. The blocks you’ve just left were laid out by Allen Urquhart, the founder of Jefferson. The grid is laid out on a northeast-southwest axis, perpendicular to the horseshoe bend in Big Cypress Bayou. The blocks you’re entering were laid out by Dan Alley, who owned land adjacent to the Urquhart claim. This grid is laid out on a north-south axis without much regard for the streets’ orientation to the bayou.
On South Line, you’ll pass the Schulter House, an example of a two-story Greek Revival home, with a two-story front portico and balcony, ringed by a cast-iron railing and supported by huge but simple columns. You’ll see the pattern of the cast iron railing over and over again in Jefferson – it was locally made and a common feature of buildings in the town. Also note the Greek Revival doors; you’ll be seeing those again, too.
At the next intersection, turn left onto East Jefferson for four blocks, until coming to the Koontz House at the intersection with South Friou. Victorians became popular after the Civil War, but in Jefferson Greek Revival persisted in the doors, transoms and porch columns. This house has slender Victorian columns, but they support a heavy Greek Revival roof. Moreover, the door is Greek Revival, similar to the Schulter House.
Turn right on South Friou for one block, then right on West Delta. On the southwest corner of the next intersection, South Alley, is the Italianate House of the Seasons, a style unusual for Jefferson, with arched windows, railings, and a central tower. The central tower has four different colors of glass in its four sides, giving the effect of the four seasons, ergo the name. At the northeast corner is the Presbyterian Manse, one of the best examples of a Texas one-story Greek Revival house. The home has two four-column porches, an exceptional Greek Revival door, and a huge entablature (the roof of the porch, supported by the columns).
Go left on South Alley for two blocks, then left on East Walker for two blocks to Owens. At Owens, make a right, and at the next intersection, East Dixon Street, sits Sagamore, another good example of an 1850s Texas Greek Revival one-story home. Turn right on Dixon for three blocks, turning left onto South Main. At South Main’s intersection with East Walker sits the Alley-Carlson House, yet another good example of the 1850s Texas Greek Revival one-story home. Go left on East Walker, crossing South Line back into the Urquhart grid. At the next intersection, turn left onto East Clarksville. On the northeast corner of East Clarksville and FM-134 is the Captain George T. Todd House. Captain Todd was a commander of Confederate forces during the Civil War. After the war, as Marion County District Attorney, he prosecuted the infamous 'Diamond Bessie' case, a shocking roadside murder committed by a Cincinnati jewelry heir. Continue on East Clarksville to the next block. On the northwest corner of North Walnut is a two-story, clapboard, Greek Revival townhouse built by Captain William Perry in the late 1850s. Capt. Perry, one of the first settlers of Jefferson, owned a shipping business on Big Cypress Bayou. He helped grow Jefferson as a river port by dredging a turning basin in the bayou.
Turn right on North Walnut, then right on East Orleans for three blocks to North Market. Turn left on North Market. At the next intersection, on the northeast corner, is the Sedberry House, a Victorian version of the Louisiana raised cottage with the Jefferson-patterned cast-iron railing. You can also see the persistence of Greek Revival detailing in the Greek Revival door. At the northwest corner is the Jefferson Playhouse. In a strange combination, this Greek Revival-Victorian building housed both the St. Mary’s Catholic School and the Sinai Hebrew Synagogue in two abutting structures.
Turn left on West Henderson for one block. At North Vale, on the northeastern corner, is the William Clark House. The original two rooms of this house were built by Jefferson's founder, Allen Urquhart.
On the northwest corner sits a Victorian house, the S.D. Rainey Home, built in 1880 by a cotton factor. On the southwest corner is the Beard House, an 1860 example of the influence Greek Revival played on architecture in Jefferson, even when the design was Victorian. Turn right on North Vale, and you’ll pass the 1884 First Methodist Church, which contains a bell minted from 1500 Mexican silver dollars. Adjacent to the Church sat the Brooks House, once a hotel (now gone). Both Diamond Bessie and her accused murderer, Cincinnati jewelry heir Abe Rothchild, stayed here while in Jefferson. Rothchild was freed after a sensational seven-year trial.
Turn left on East Lafayette. After crossing FM-134 again, on the left will be the First National Bank, modeled on the 1904 Rogers National Bank that sat on this site. The bank was founded by Thomas Rogers, a Confederate Capatain, and went through several incarnations until becoming the Fist National Bank of Jefferson in 1950. Continue on Lafayette and turn right on North Walnut. You’re in Jefferson’s commercial district. Turn right onto East Austin. Wharves lined Big Cypress Bayou behind Austin Street. Fronting Austin Street were the warehouses and mercantile establishments that stored the goods brought in from the wharves. At the corner with North Walnut is Planters Bank Building, a warehouse built in 1852 for shippers Patton, Henderson and Company. This building, with its round arched openings on the first floor, French doors with fanlight transoms, and cast-iron balcony, is a typical warehouse from the 1850s.
Continue on down East Austin. At the next intersection, FM-134, is the Marion County Courthouse on the Southwest corner. In front is a Confederate War Memorial. A marker on the courthouse details the history of Marion County, created in 1860, and the architectural detail of this Classical Revival courthouse, built in 1912. Adjacent to the courthouse is the Murphy Building, originally an 1850s cotton warehouse built by the Murphy Borthers, natives of Tennessee and cotton wholesalers. Since then, the building has been used for both county offices and as a city hall. At the end of this block is the Kahn Saloon, where Marion Try Slaughter launched his career as country music singer Vernon Dalhart. The saloon closed in 1907, when the county became dry, but Vernon Dalhart went on to become an early-20th-century pop star in the country music world.
Cross Vale Street. On the right side of Austin is the Brown Building. One of the first newspapers in Jefferson, and Texas, was the Jefferson Jimplecute. The name came from a silly acronym (all the rage in the 1800s) for "Join Industry, Manufacturing, Planting, Labor, Energy, Capital in Unity Together Everlasting" or "JIMPLECUTE." This building housed the newspaper, as well as subsequent newspapers serving Jefferson. On the left hand side of the street is a Livery Stable, which housed horses and buggies for public hire; an early form of a 'taxi.'
Further down the block, on your right, is the Jay Gould Railroad Car and Museum, a luxurious railway car belonged to Jay Gould, a railroad magnate. Why locals brought it here, as if to always remember the reason for their town's loss of importance, is a mystery. Across the street is the Excelsior Hotel. The Excelsior has been welcoming guests since its construction in 1858. Not much about this hotel has changed since. Famous people who have slept here include Presidents Grant and Hayes, John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, WE Vanderbilt, and Oscar Wilde. Down East Austin just a bit further is your starting point, the Old US Post Office and Courthouse.