In the northeastern part of Texas, close to the Louisiana border, lie two towns that evoke another time. There’s lamplight-era, allegedly haunted Jefferson, a place where the Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi would feel at home, and lovely, mysteriously named Uncertain on Caddo Lake, which offers a glimpse of Texas as the dinosaurs knew it. Both are fewer than four hours away.
Jefferson peaked a few years after the Civil War, then settled into a rapid and uniquely genteel decay, at least for Texas. Today, the town, preserved in pre-Gilded Age amber, is something to behold, though only an echo of what it once was. For a time, from the 1840s to the ’70s, it was the most important river port west of the Mississippi, though calling Jefferson’s muddy Big Cypress Bayou a river is a bit generous. Its teeming, cosmopolitan wharves saw bales of cotton and stacks of timber and hides loaded onto steamboats and sent down the bayou to Caddo Lake, the Red River, the Mississippi, the world.
European furniture, fine liquor, well-heeled passengers, and construction materials all flowed into the town, bringing mansions, saloons, and churches in their wake. At Jefferson’s peak, only Galveston shipped more goods among Texas ports. Historians believe the town was home to 10,000 people, three times as many as Dallas at the time.
It was a classic one-two punch that set off Jefferson’s decline. Water levels in Big Cypress Bayou plummeted after the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a logjam on the Red River, and at the same time, two railroads bypassed the town. By 1890, 70 percent of its residents were gone. Today, there are only a shade over 2,000 Jeffersonians, but those who remain are passionate about their town. “There’s a mystique,” said resident Byron Aldredge. “It could have been New Orleans and didn’t quite make it, and it doesn’t feel like anywhere else in Texas.”
Where once the town had 22 saloons, today there are no fewer than 27 bed-and-breakfasts, virtually all of them housed in Greek Revival mansions that wouldn’t look out of place in New Orleans’s Garden District. I stayed in the 1851 Alley-McKay House on Jefferson’s Quality Hill and slept in the Lady Bird Johnson room. (Johnson, née Claudia Alta Taylor, was born on a plantation in nearby Karnack and attended school in Jefferson.) The Lady Bird room has 14-foot ceilings, a comfortable four-poster bed, an in-room library of antique history and law books, and a claw-foot tub.
Alley-McKay’s thirty-something owners, Hugh Lewis and Darla McCorkle, are a lot of fun. Lewis works at a newspaper up the road in Atlanta, Texas, but he used to be employed by the Jefferson Jimplecute. Yeah, the Jimplecute. (Apparently, the name is an acronym: “Joining Industry, Manufacturing, Planting, Labor, Energy, Capital (in) Unity Together Everlastingly.”) They delight in telling tales of Jefferson old and new, like the one about the town’s departed “Cookie Lady,” a home baker who peddled her cookies in the street to fund a round-the-clock hooch habit.
Needless to say, Jefferson is not one of East Texas’s many dry precincts. Fine wine is but one of the attractions at the Stillwater Inn, one of the town’s two high-end restaurants, where I enjoyed an excellent Pinot Grigio along with chilled crab claws in vinaigrette and herbs, farm-fresh green beans, and lightly breaded, pan-seared, then baked fluke. The fish is topped with lemon slices, Italian parsley in butter, and capers.
The Cork Yard, a new wine bar down on the riverfront, would not look out of place in Montrose or the Heights, nor would its wide-ranging selection of wines and bottled beers. It’s run by another of the town’s young power couples: behind the bar, there’s red-haired Kristin Aldredge, a mother of three who happens to be campaigning to become Jefferson’s first female mayor. Bearded, shaggy-haired Byron Aldredge—Kristin’s husband and business partner in both the Cork Yard and the nearby Steamboat Inn B&B—works the floor. He’s also a river guide.
One of Kristin Aldredge’s favorite aspects of Jefferson is its four distinct seasons, something that’s been appreciated by many a Jeffersonian, not least Colonel Benjamin Epperson, builder of the town’s grandest house—the 141-year-old attraction called, well, the House of the Seasons. Its wonders begin in the front yard, which features the second-largest magnolia in the state, as well as azaleas planted in the 1870s, when Jefferson itself was just as riotously in flower. The dome over the house’s entrance hall—with recently restored murals representing the seasons lit up by sunlight streaming through four colors of stained glass in a cupola above the dome—is one of the glories of Texas.
After its fall, Jefferson didn’t quite become a ghost town, but it is a town full of ghosts, and home to two ghost tour companies. The Grove, another historic home, is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Texas, and the town hosts an annual paranormal conference now in its 13th year. The local obsession with shades and spirits should come as no surprise; there are probably more residents in Oakwood Cemetery than anywhere else in this proud and beautiful town.
Eighteen miles east of Jefferson sits Uncertain, gateway to Caddo Lake and home to its own sort of paranormal activity. Caddo, which straddles the Texas-Louisiana border, is Sasquatch country. Since the late ’60s there have been hundreds of sightings of the furry humanoid on these shores.
The town abounds in vacation cottages and peculiar/wonderful road signs like, “This section of highway maintained by the Church of Uncertain Youth.” In fact, everything about Uncertain is uncertain. Nobody knows how the town—population: 94—got its name. The best guess is that its original surveyors were not sure whether they were in Texas or Louisiana. Nobody can say for sure how or when Caddo, Texas’s only natural lake of any consequence, formed. And, once you’re out among the lake’s cypress islands and wending through its sloughs and inlets, you can never be sure where you are. Also uncertain is Caddo’s future: the lake has been invaded by salvinia, a noxious, life-throttling, Amazonian weed that scientists have learned to contain but not eradicate.
Dining is limited to downhome grub such as barbecue and assorted swamp fare, which is not to say there aren’t delicious options. Lafitte’s Caddo Grocery looked inauspicious but served up a killer pork-rib sandwich with a choice of two kinds of sauce: “Texas red sweet” or a more Dixie-esque mustard-based variety. At the Riverbend Restaurant, I had a feast of divinely fried catfish fillets, baked potato, smoky chuck-wagon beans, spicy coleslaw, and spectacular jalapeño hush puppies that, accompanied by a glass of wine, came to about $20. (Appetizers include a basket full of fried alligator and frog legs.)
I’d heard that Uncertain was the Marfa of East Texas, a sort of artists’ colony set among the pines, oaks, and cypresses on the tea-colored lake, but a Jefferson native laughed at that characterization. “An artists’ colony,” she scoffed. “More like a drinking colony.” And yet, while there do seem to be more taverns than art galleries in town, at the ramshackle 1908 Johnson Ranch Marina (the state’s oldest), where Ernest Tubb crackles over outdoor speakers, I did spot two random Andy Warhol soup cans, one the size of a trash bin, the other a tiny car.
Johnson Ranch is a great place to heave off for a personal or two-person boat tour of Caddo Lake’s confounding mysteries. (For larger groups, there’s another Caddo tour option: the Graceful Ghost, a real-life wood-burning paddlewheel steamboat.) My guide, Angie King, pulled up to the dock in her Go-Devil, a two-seater flat-bottomed boat, and off we went across the 35,000 acres of murky water, slaloming around the solemn, twisted, Spanish-moss-draped cypresses.
The lake was teeming with turtles, coots, blue-winged teal, and wood ducks. Great blue herons, somehow clumsy and graceful at once, lumbered onto hunting perches, their beady eyes seeking fish and snakes. King pointed out an osprey’s bulky nest atop a cypress, spoke of the return of the bald eagle to the lake, and spun tales of Caddo’s history. Back in the old days, one side of the lake was in Marion County, the other in dry Harrison, so beer boats would travel from there to the dancehalls a few dozen yards away.
One such dancehall remains, crumbling in ruins across from Johnson Ranch, and King says a still of it is featured in the opening credits to the HBO series True Blood. It turns out Caddo is a fairly bustling film hub and has been for years. Since the Texas side of the lake looks more like Louisiana than a lot of Louisiana, filmmakers in search of a swamp often wind up in Uncertain. The most acclaimed film made there likely remains 1981’s Vietnam allegory Southern Comfort; the most recent to make it theaters is 2011’s Shark Night 3D, which seems unlikely to ever get the Criterion Collection treatment, although it does feature man-eating freshwater sharks with cameras strapped to their heads. (Don’t worry: I saw just as many great whites in Caddo Lake as Bigfeet in Uncertain.)
King says the film crews have been thicker on the ground than ever, and tourism is booming—she’s always busy, as are the other guides, and property values on the shores have soared. Salvinia remains Uncertain’s most challenging uncertainty. There is one certainty, though: you’ll have a good time here.