My husband grew up in far east Texas, near the Louisiana border in a very, very small town called Linden, TX. Linden is not know for much other than being the hometown of music artist Don Henley. The other weekend we drove out to Linden to visit some family graves and leave some flowers so we decided to drive just a little further east and stay one night in the historic town of Jefferson, Texas. For those of you that don’t know much about Jefferson, that is easily forgiven. It’s a tiny dot on the map of a very large state but back in the 1830’s Jefferson was the largest and richest town in all of Texas, which is hard to believe because it’s such a small, sleepy town now.
Jefferson is located on a bayou near Caddo Lake that is connected to the Red River that runs all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Back in the early 1800’s a log jam, known as the “Great River Raft” flooded the bayou and river enough to make them navigable by steamboats so Jefferson was a major port – almost as big as New Orleans. At one point, over 250 paddle wheel boats chugged to and from Jefferson each year delivering cotton bales and other goods and the journey from New Orleans to Jefferson could be made in only 3 to 5 days by boat.
However, in 1873 the Army Corps of Engineers decided to dynamite the logjam, which immediately lowered the water levels, the river became unreliable for navigation and Jefferson began a very quick demise.
The town has many large antebellum mansions in it that were built in the 1830’s and 40’s and were owned by wealthy merchants and many of them are open as B&B’s or for tours. As of today, it’s a cute little slice of Americana with a bricked main street, an adorable country store with lots of southern food goodies and a few decent restaurants.
The town has a few other claims to fame, including a Carnegie Library but is best known for two strange things. The murder and trial of “Diamond Bessie” occurred here and Stephen Spielberg was inspired to write the screenplay for Poltergeist based on a stay here.
Steve and I stayed in the historic Excelsior Hotel which is located on “main street” Jefferson. The hotel was built in the early 1800’s and their register books show the signatures of several historic figures, including former presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. We stayed in the Lady Bird Johnson room which has an old clock on the mantle that she gave to the hotel as a gift and her portrait is above it. You can see the room is very “old school southern.”
I won’t lie. The pictures online and my photos look better than it actually was. The last time we stayed here was probably 10 or 12 years ago and I can guarantee they haven’t changed the carpet or done any serious maintenance since then. It’s still a very quaint hotel but it was SO musty and dusty that my allergies went haywire – I was coughing and sneezing the whole time in the room. It also had a strong mildewy smell that was quite gross and the bathroom was so small and dated that it was just sad. It needs new carpets, linens, drapes and a fresh coat of paint badly. That being said, it was only for one night and they do make a really good southern breakfast in the morning.
The hotel is also famous for being the “Poltergeist” hotel. In fact, Jefferson has several buildings that are reputed to be haunted. I’m skeptical of ghosts but try to keep an open mind. The story goes that in the 1970’s Stephen Spielberg stayed here while filming a movie nearby. He came back to his room and flung his briefcase on a side chair. The briefcase didn’t just fall off the chair but actually flew across the room back at him. Naturally, this freaked him out but he went to bed anyway. He was later woken up by voices in his room that sounded like a young child asking him what he needed. At that point he was done, woke up the entire film crew and fled the hotel in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter, he wrote the screenplay for Poltergeist, apparently inspired by his stay in Jefferson at the Excelsior House.
Who knows if that is all true or not but there are many reports of ghostly figures being seen at the hotel, glowing orbs in the hallways and a chair that rocks all by itself from time to time. We didn’t see or experience anything during our stay but I wasn’t exactly looking either.
At any rate, Jefferson is worth a one-time visit but I would stay at the Stillwater Inn cottages next time which are more modern and cleaner. We did have dinner at the Stillwater Inn and I can vouch for it being an excellent dinner – even better than some high end meals we’ve had in Dallas and it’s location in a historic cottage can’t be beat. I also ended up coming home with several southern jarred goods, including hot chow-chow, ribbon cane syrup, black eye pea relish and fig preserves so all-in-all it was a pleasant visit.