Of Ghosts and Gators
Destination - Jefferson
By Barbara Rodriguez
Moss-draped cypresses, swamp shacks and haunted hotels add to the eerie appeal of Jefferson.
Travel time from:
- Austin - 5 hours /
- Brownsville - 10.5 hours /
- Dallas - 2.75 hours /
- El Paso - 12.75 hours /
- Houston - 3.75 hours /
- San Antonio - 6.75 hours /
- Lubbock - 8 hours
The lessons won in three days’ exploring in and around Jefferson are sure: the family who (ghost) walks together stays (close) together; fried catfish is fried catfish is fried catfish, not; and the Caddo Lake you imagine you know today is not the lake you will meet tomorrow. All of which is to say, the once-bustling river port of Jefferson and the East Texas wetlands that surround it are not been-there-done-that destinations. You just never know what you might discover — or what, from gators to specters, might discover you.
In a notably damp, warm spring, the wildflowers are garden-club showy. The cool pools of bluebonnets around Fort Worth soon give way to a mottled orange and yellow palette of Indian paintbrush and buttercups, and further east, the most spectacular swaths of scarlet red clover blooms I’ve ever seen. Close to Jefferson, bright white dogwood blossoms and heavy swags of wisteria bade a scented Southern welcome.
We arrive at the Marion County seat late in the day — there’s just enough time to settle in before a sunset cruise on a paddle wheeler. Although Caddo Lake State Park in nearby Karnack offers cozy cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ’30s, Jefferson’s sobriquet (one of many) as the Bed & Breakfast Capital of Texas makes headquartering at an inn appealing. This is not a decision made lightly; dozens of early 19th-century structures have been painstakingly restored and opened to guests.
I settle on Pride House because it claims the title of first bed & breakfast in Texas. Also, owners Sandy and Dave Reisenauer welcome children, including spirited (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) 7-year-old boys. The 12-foot ceilings and king-sized beds offer a scale of comfort demanded by a large, slightly cranky, post-knee-surgery husband (and I mean that just the way it sounds). Built by a lumberman in 1889, the inn has a groaning-sideboard tradition of belt-busting breakfasts and decadent afternoon dessert buffets. That you eat often and well at the Pride House (pack clothes with elastic waistbands) is but one reason it is popular; the family-reunion-friendly accommodations are another. Rooms of all shapes and sizes answer lots of druthers, but the “Dependency” (former servant quarters) offers a fishing cabin atmosphere with nooks, crannies, a pot-bellied stove and balconies enough to please the most extended of families.
However, even the fancier digs of the main house stand up to romping. Impossible as it sounds, the steep stairs of the gingerbread confection didn’t even creak during a session of pajama bobsledding, such is the cement-like property of time-hardened, first-growth cypress. This house, built by sawmill owner G.W. Brown, boasts a triple-layer construction — 100,000 board feet of lumber. We won’t see such wood again. The old-growth cypress was quickly exhausted by early settlers.
Elliott and Jurgen scrabble for possession of a hamper filled with the delicacies of a French picnic intended for the cruise we may miss if the skirmishing doesn’t end (“Don’t let dad take the sausages!” Elliott wails). Winding across the Big Cypress Bayou toward Caddo — Texas’s only natural lake — Jurgen rhapsodizes over the undulating scenery’s similarities to the Alt Rhineland. It is one of the few times I’ve known a local landscape to draw so much praise; usually there are questions about snakes first. I see the similarities to Germany in the dark hollows of the mixed forest of loblolly, sweet gum, oak and sassafras. Near the dock of the Caddo Lake Steamboat Co., however, our European vision dissolves into a mist that’s pure bayou. The technicolor vista blinks into sepia. The bald cypresses — yet to fringe out this spring — line up along a narrow backwater like hoary, humped-back wizards cloaked in silver capes of Spanish moss.
The stillness of the ancient landscape is disrupted only by the huff and puff of the Graceful Ghost’s stoking engine. Captain Jim McMillen and his wife, Lexie, a former Mississippi riverboat captain, offer a variety of tours; but the twilight chuffing of the Graceful Ghost is as restorative as a trip to a spa. Babies are quickly lulled to sleep. The menfolk find their way below deck to inspect the engine and the women curl up in blankets as the pilots spin tales about the area’s history, flora and fauna. From the upper deck (ranks of padded seats) and below (rocking chairs) the view is primordial. Nutria paddle silently by as herons swoop across water the color of steeping tea. Seldom deeper than a few feet, the shallow lake’s water changes character from season to season. In the winter, it is window-glass clear as vegetation dies off and settles; in the summer, any water that isn’t heavily traveled is carpeted in the shady greens of spatterdock, duckweed and hyacinth.
We nibble croissants and digest the story of the Big Raft — the fate of the behemoth Red River log jam is modern Jefferson’s Genesis, its equivalent of the Big Bang. Miles in circumference, the faraway jam swelled connected waterways enough that by the 1840s, Big Cypress Creek invited serious navigation. A steady stream of steamboats from Shreveport and New Orleans soon made Jefferson’s port the commercial center of Northeast Texas. But in 1873, engineers blew the raft to bits — along with Jefferson’s big-city dreams. The destruction of the raft was equal to pulling the plug on Cypress Bayou. The waterways drained away, and railways to Marshall and Dallas subsequently replaced the riverboats. By 1885, Jefferson’s population, by some reports in the tens of thousands during its heyday, shrank closer to today’s figure of 2,100.
Jefferson has been saluted as outstanding in Texas for many things: first gas streetlights, most ghosts, one of the first breweries. I’d like to nominate it for the state’s Quirkiest Street Plan. In 1842, founders Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley (who should be ashamed of themselves in perpetuity) came to loggerheads over the town’s street plan. Call it a compromise, but each simply preceded each to his own preference. Urquhart laid out his side of town along the bayou, with streets at right angles to Big Cypress Creek. Alley’s parcel has streets running toward the points of the compass. The collision of visions created the city’s unusual, V-shaped layout. It’s a monument to pigheadedness that, until you figure it out, can be disorienting.
Jefferson’s streets are clear sailing compared to the maze of 26,800 acres of interconnected waterways, bayous, sloughs, oxbows, channels, islands and cypress thickets that make up Caddo Lake. The next morning we were back in the water, but this time mere inches above it. The chuffing of a steamboat and its historically romantic perspective is beguiling, but a Go Devil boat is where the water meets the moat. We set out early with guide John Winn, a Huck-Finn-cum-Peter-Pan-cum-wood-elf character who grew up exploring the backwaters on paddle power, claiming the moldering duck blinds camouflaged among the elephant-footed cypress as clubhouses and hideouts. In this area, they’re grandfathered under the auspices of TPWD’s management system (which also allows annual public hunting of deer, turkey and feral hogs by permit). Once the blinds go, they’re gone forever. But for now, the few remaining, silvered with age and swaddled in moss, offer a glimpse into another time and a unique vantage point of a stellar native habitat for wood duck. Winn knows the swamp shacks as well as he knows every beaver dam, alligator hole, heron nest and fallen tree. What looks trackless and inscrutable to us (and to the scores of kayakers and canoeists who get lost every year) are as familiar to Winn as the palm of his hand. But if you need directions, use the local parlance for the landmarks, like Hell’s Half Acre and The Big Hole; don’t reference lake road numbers — he won’t have a clue where you are.
A self-taught naturalist — the former fishing guide wearied of catering to folk more interested in their egos than in nature — Winn’s eyes have been opened to the delicate balance through his experiences (which include both lightning and cottonmouth strikes). He’s seen most all of the 71 species of fish that make Caddo’s population the most diverse in Texas, and he’s guided birders to a twittering good number of the more than 200 birds.
Leaving the main boat road, we stop on “Carter’s Lake,” where the thick silence is like a warm hug. Slowly, the sounds of bird chatter and frogs swell around us. Winn rattles on knowledgeably in answer to any query. He punctuates his lesson on the unseen diversity around us by reaching through the carpet of duck weed to pull out a handful of water millet and parrot feather. My son sits sentry in the bow until I ask about a leggy yellow blossom that Winn identifies as bladderwort. Elliott bounds forward with an enthusiasm that threatens to dunk us all in the drink and launches into a breathless lesson: “That’s bladderwort all right and here’s how it works. Do you see those whiskery roots — those are feelers and when a water flea or bug approaches they signal the plant to take in water and the insect is sucked into the plant where it is eaten.” He takes a breath and says emphatically: “All in the blink of an eye.” A bit stunned, we blink back at him. “It’s in a book I read on insectivores,” he says proudly. It is a vibrant illustration of book learnin’ meets real life.
The rest of the morning may rocket by in the outside world, but we poke about in pockets of deep shade and brilliant sun, once crossing over an alligator bubbling contentedly in the silt. Winn notes the beavers’ many supply stations and says he has witnessed a significant change to the animal’s diet over the years. He believes that the beaver now eats far more soft water plants, increasing the need to hone its teeth on the bald cypress. Large numbers of striped and scarred trees around the dams illustrate his point.
Late afternoon, we are back in town, where we bump around until dark, when we join a dozen other folks for Jefferson’s famed Ghost Walk. Hosted by a staffer from the historical museum (a self-described coward who says she has skittered away from her charges more than once), we meet tourists from the Netherlands and Canada. Among us we speak five languages — but shrieking in fear needs no translation. The walking is limited to two blocks around the very haunted (and proud of it) Jefferson Hotel and a brief diversion above town to a shuttered and rather sinister mansion with a history of woe.
The thrills and chills begin at once. Clustered around a former hotel just above the bayou, we hear a tale of fire, hidden treasure and other mayhem. Recently restored and for sale, the building’s tall windows and wraparound verandah had my husband and me talking crazy talk of relocation earlier in the day. It is a wonderful property, catty-corner to the famed Hamburger Store (stop in for pie, if nothing else). After dark, it seems, well, a little less welcoming. Before we climb to the second-story balcony, members of the group with digital cameras are happily shooting into the darkness. One young woman quietly says, “I’ve got orbs.” Jurgen, on crutches, is happy to have an excuse to remain below. As I peer into a dark second-floor window, Elliott, a good 10 feet away, indignantly shouts, “Mom, don’t push me!” When he turns and finds I am nowhere near, I see his eyes widen. He bolts down to his father’s side. Slightly shaken, I decide to take one more look in a window — just as it rattles violently. As first one shutter, then another, slams shut, I make my run for the stairs. Nothing else encountered that night proves quite as inexplicable — or exhilarating.
A morning drive to nearby Lake O’ the Pines, 18,700 acres of water impounded by the Corps of Engineers in 1956, brings back memories of my dad trying to level our travel trailer on the swishy, soft red soil so we could hurry up and catch copious stringers of fish. The tidy parks are timeless; I almost expect to see my 12-year-old self on a copper-brown Schwinn, my first gear bike. When we return to Jefferson, we occupy ourselves with the surprising Historical Museum and sneeze through several good antique shops. When our feet start aching, we hire a carriage to horse around town with Dan Walker, a former Alaskan cowboy who adopted Jefferson six years ago. Walker is a horse-drawn encyclopedia on the city’s history and architecture. Prince, born to pull a beer wagon, plods the course without much guidance, but has little patience for stopping.
On our last night, we head out to Big Pines Lodge, the catfish restaurant outside Uncertain (named for the roads) that is a gotta-go-to in these parts. Something about the velveted darkness of the lakeshore, so unlike the night’s envelope at home, defines my best memories of camping. Inside is the sort of mare’s nest of tables that recommends the best sorts of family eating establishments. Service is fast and friendly as waitresses deliver towers of all-you-can-eat catfish platters that prove to me there’s more than one way to fry a cat. Crispy with seasoned cornmeal, the flaky fish is as sweetly flavorful as I’ve ever eaten and comes with mounds of jalapeno hushpuppies that seem more closely related to light and lanky churros than lumps of fried dough. Over dinner, we speak of the lake’s record catch, a 16-pound bass. Elliott says, “Tell me again why we didn’t bring our fishing poles.” As we drive out of town, he asks about the bromeliad known as Spanish moss, “Why is it called that, when it isn’t a moss or Spanish?” I promise a return trip as the answer to both questions.
For More Information
- Caddo Lake State Park
- Caddo Lake Steamboat Co.
- The Pride House
- Caddo Outback Backwater Tours
- Historic Jefferson Foundation
For a good overview of area attractions, call the Historic Jefferson Foundation to request a copy of The Jeffersonian: (903) 665-7064.
- Marion County Chamber of Commerce
888-GO RELAX; 903-665-2672
- Jefferson Carriage Co.
The carriage rides may be caught on Austin St., just west of downtown, across from the museum.
- Big Pines Lodge