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Jefferson devolution

Jefferson, the county seat of Marion County, Texas, became an inland port after the first federal Red River raft (massive log jam) removal in the 1830s. The town was platted at Big Cypress Bayou just west of Caddo Lake, where a deep water basin emerged, ideally suited for steam boat traffic.

Jefferson flourished as a port city; many pre-Civil War emigrants entered Texas here, and lots of buildings west of the Cross Timbers in the REd River Valley were erected with materials imported from Jefferson. But in 1873, a second federal raft removal cleared the log jams that had kept Jefferson in high water. Gradually, Big Cypress Bayou reverted to a much shallower body of water, with a diminished turn basin for the steam boat landings.

A popular legend about Jefferson is wrong, though. The citizens of Jefferson were not opposed to a railroad, and Jay Gould, the nefarious owner of the Missouri Pacific, didn't hope that "grass would grow in the streets" because the city wouldn't fork over enough bond money. In fact, the city of Jefferson believed that both the port and the railroad would continue the economic boom. After all, St. Louis, Shreveport, and Cairo had both river ports and railroads and were growing by leaps and bounds. What killed Jefferson's prosperity in the early 20th century was the loss of its port and the Texas and Pacific Railway, which bypassed Jefferson in favor of Marshall, twenty miles to the south. The T&P extended their line into Jefferson soon enough, and the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked to keep Big Cypress Bayou navigable, but the damage was done. This slow but inevitable decline in shipping spelled disaster for Jefferson, which saw its economic fortunes wane by the late 19th century.

You can witness Jefferson's devolution through Sanborn maps that focus on Dallas Street, which parallels Big Cypress Bayou. While Jefferson is a wonderful tourist destination today, the maps show just how much of old Jefferson was lost between 1885 and 1911.

Bird's eye view of Jefferson in 1872, with its deep water port along Big Cypress Bayou, a tributary of the Red River, in the foreground.

The 1885 Sanborn map of Jefferson shows the many buildings next to Big Cypress Bayou.

By 1901, Dallas Street had lost most of its businesses as Big Cypress Bayou shrunk.

Ten years later (1911), Jefferson used Big Cypress Bayou as a source for city water, not for commerce. Also, note the railroads that now dominated trade in the city.

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