Out of a bygone era: The Excelsior House

The most infamous story about Jeffersonthe only reason I’d heard of the tiny East Texas town, really—involves Steven Spielberg. Per legend, the director was traipsing across Texas, location scouting for his 1974 film The Sugarland Express, when he decided to stop at the Excelsior House Hotel. It took only a few hours in Room 215 before ghosts had him hightailing it 20 miles to the nearest Holiday Inn. Supposedly the encounter inspired Poltergeist.

Spooked visitors are disturbingly common in Jefferson. Locals maintain the town is lousy with spirits, and a cottage industry has accordingly assembled to cater to ghost hunters. Practically every hotel boasts a haunting; the Historic Jefferson Ghost Walk, which includes a stop at the Excelsior, attracts enough visitors to run twice a week, year-round. A few clicks on the tour’s Facebook page reveals a trove of Blair Witch–style photos capturing ghostly specters in period garb. The shots are just grainy enough that one squints and wonders: Photoshop, or phantom? With my friends John and Texas in tow, I ventured north four hours on US 59 to hear these stories for myself.

The nice lady at the Excelsior’s front desk remained tight-lipped on the Spielberg matter when we checked in at the historic hotel. Oh no, the clerk said in response to our ghost inquiries, those are just stories. Perhaps management instructed her to be coy; as we dropped our bags upstairs on our walnut sleigh beds, a small plaque on the nearby desk informed us of the wi-fi password, “Casper123.”

Our quarters, the fabled Room 215, seemed the best chance for spiritual rattling, and we quickly discovered the “Jay Gould Room” carried even greater significance here in town. Historical markers dotting the old-timey main thoroughfare informed us that Gould was a notorious robber baron who hoped to run his railroad through Jefferson. The story goes that after locals rejected his proposal, he charged into the road and issued a curse: Grass will grow in your streets and bats will roost in your belfries. He signed the Excelsior’s guestbook “The End of Jefferson.”

Room 215

Whether or not the curse was real, misfortune did befall the town. Jefferson owed its thriving river port to a logjam of trees, sticks, and stumps thought to have formed a natural dam nearly a thousand years ago. The so-called “Great Raft” raised the level of nearby Caddo Lake and rendered Jefferson’s Big Cypress Bayou navigable to river traffic from St. Louis and New Orleans. Then in 1873—the year after Gould’s tantrum—the U.S. Army Corps arrived with a modern marvel called nitroglycerin and made the logjam go boom, after which water levels plummeted as much as 10 feet. Jefferson quickly became a high-and-dry ghost town.

In recent decades the place has made a comeback, helped in no small part by the booming ghost economy. And there was definitely something foreboding in the air as my fellow travelers and I strolled out from the hotel and down the street, squinting through the golden-hour sunlight into the windows of dusty antique shops and kitschy boutiques. No signs of spirits—yet.

It was my friend Texas, by far the most paranormally inclined of the trio, who beckoned us toward the shop with a sandwich board advertising “EMPATHIC TAROT READINGS.” Inside we met Karen, the promised empath. Wearing a fabulous cheetah-print shawl, she gave Texas, an aspiring tarot reader, some useful advice on interpreting cards. She also affirmed the existence of the town’s spirits. “These Jefferson ghosts usually mind their business,” she assured us.

Image: Texas Cook

It was time to join our fellow paranormal tourists on a street corner for a ghost tour. The bespectacled leader, longtime Jeffersonian Jodi Breckenridge, informed us that our meeting spot—the old Kahn Saloon—was the site of numerous deadly bar brawls in the town’s heyday. Jodi pointed to an area near our feet where patrons have been known to see phantom blood spatters, and the upstairs, now guest rooms, where visitors have shared tales of a haunted smart speaker that hurls itself across the apartment. The three of us exchanged looks of disbelief, although the rest of the crowd appeared totally rapt. 

We perked up as the tour moved down the block toward the Excelsior. “Anyone staying here tonight?” Jodi asked. We raised our hands. She explained that she’d devised an unscientific scale for rating a location’s haunted-ness, and that we were in luck—our lodgings ranked an outrageous “15 out of 10.” Jodi launched into the story, explaining to the crowd how Spielberg had arrived in Jefferson late one Monday evening and set his luggage down on the room’s rocking chair, only to have the chair throw the suitcase back in his face. “Is that rocking chair still there?” she asked in an ominous tone.

“Yes!” Texas squeaked.

Jodi smiled, and went on. During the wee hours, after Spielberg had gone to bed, he was awakened by a little boy in old-fashioned clothes asking if he was ready for breakfast—hence the director’s early checkout. Hearing this, Texas started to freak out. “That’s our bed next to the rocking chair!” she hissed.

Clearly pleased to be getting a rise out of us, Jodi led us to a haunted mansion, then a haunted bridge, before the tour had an unexpected hiccup. The train that bisected the town had struck a car up the tracks and stalled out, blocking our way; the tour would have to be cut short before “the most haunted part,” Jodi informed us.

Texas and I grumbled at the lost opportunity to confront the paranormal. John, meanwhile, rejoiced as we detoured to the nearest bar, confirming our suspicion that he was on this trip exclusively for the thrill of sitting in a bar where he could still smoke indoors.

Back in Spielberg’s dungeon, Texas brandished her tarot deck, wanting one last opportunity to commune with the beyond. Ever since our chat with Karen, she’d been worrying that she shouldn’t have left the deck in the room, where the dark energy of child spirits might imbue her cards with negative vibes, or something. The three of us sat cross-legged on the bed as she spread them out to do a reading. As I pulled the first card and flipped it over, Texas screamed.

Staring up from the bed was the Ten of Swords—a card, she stammered, that indicated an unwelcome surprise was in our future. She gazed over her shoulder at the rocking chair sitting mere feet away. John and I poo-pooed her concerns. It was late, it was just a card, and it was time to go to sleep. Each of us brushed our teeth and slipped under the covers.

Hours later I awoke to Texas grabbing my arm in a sweaty vise grip. “Do you guys hear that creaking?”

Traveler's Tips

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Eat & Drink

  • The namesake menu items at The Hamburger Store are indeed worthwhile, but the main attraction at this kitschy mainstay is the delicious cherry pie. 903-665-8302
  • Cheap drinks and classic bar food rule at Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club, a converted-warehouse watering hole. Don’t miss Friday karaoke night.
  • Historic Kahn Hotel & Coffee House, your best bet for a latte, just so happens to be one of the top 10 most haunted buildings in Texas, a former saloon still visited by some of the town’s most colorful spirits. 
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