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Haunted Jefferson: Ghost tours and spooky train rides

Ghost tours and spooky train rides bring chills and thrills to a bayou town.
Written by Sheryl Smith-Rodgers. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

Once known as the busiest inland port in the state, Jefferson entices visitors these days with luxurious B&Bs, antiques stores, outdoor activities, and—according to believers—an active community of ghosts.

Lights flicker on and off by themselves. Cigarette smoke scents an empty room. Shadowy figures move down hallways. Footsteps creak up a wooden staircase ... and no one’s there.

We’re not scared. Even though it’s October—think goblins, ghosts, and ghouls—we’re game to explore Jefferson, which has a reputation as one of the most haunted places in Texas. James, my ghostbuster/husband, hopes to meet some ghosts. Not me.

The reported apparitions—bearded men in black coats and mournful women in flowing skirts—likely hark to Jefferson’s heyday as a 19th-Century river port. In 1842, surveyors Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley named the town for former President Thomas Jefferson. Urquhart platted his streets perpendicular to Big Cypress Creek while Alley aligned his north and south, hence Jefferson’s unusual V-shaped layout.

In those days, the remains of a logjam called the Great Raft backed up the Red River north of Shreveport, Louisiana, and flooded the Big Cypress up to Jefferson. Steamboats from the Mississippi—loaded with cargo and passengers—would stop in New Orleans and Shreveport, then churn north to the town’s wharf. Commerce thrived, and many residents grew rich. They built magnificent homes and a fashionable downtown district resembling that of New Orleans. By the late 1840s, the city had developed into the state’s leading inland port.

Jefferson’s prosperity didn’t last, though. Steamboating nationwide eventually began to give way to the rise of railroads, and in 1873, the government blasted holes in the Great Raft. Upstream, water levels on the Big Cypress dropped, making navigation to Jefferson difficult. That same year, another blow came when the Texas and Pacific Railway, which went from Texarkana to Marshall, bypassed Jefferson. By 1885, more than half of the town’s population had moved away.

Today, remnants of those opulent days linger in the historic buildings and brick-paved streets that grace downtown Jefferson. Will we meet any ghosts? We’ll see. First, we want to check out downtown.

Strolling along Polk Street, we duck into Granny Had It, a shop in a 1940s-era building where owner Toncy Brown offers American-made antiques—Victorian furnishings, four-poster beds, porcelain dishes, and crocheted bedspreads. While we browse, Booger, the shop cat, stretches out on a glass counter. So ... has Brown glimpsed any ghosts in her store? “Nope,” she chuckles, “the cat would eat them if I did.”

Along the way, shadowy figures clamber onto the cars. They stare at us, then move on, triggering screams and shouts.

That’s not the case at the Jefferson General Store, built in the 1860s as a hardware store. Here, ghost encounters happen so frequently that the clerks have gotten used to it, says employee Whitney Wilson. “A few months ago,” says Wilson, “I was opening the store one morning by myself. I was in the back, and I heard little footsteps running through the store; it sounded like a child playing hide-and-seek. And another time, I saw a little boy leaning against one of the beams, wearing short red overalls, and he was barefoot. It always makes my hair stand up, but it’s not scary, because we see them all the time.”

The emporium’s wooden floor creaks as we peruse tie-dyed T-shirts, baskets of penny candy, Texas cookbooks, and nostalgic toys like marbles and popguns. I’m drawn to the old-fashioned soda fountain, where customers seated on red 1940s barstools savor five-cent cups of coffee and dishes of Blue Bell ice cream. Turns out that the soda fountain, complete with its original oak bar, was transplanted here from a café in Texarkana.

Onward, we venture across the railroad tracks to a complex of red tin-and-wood buildings called Old Mill Antiques. During our quick trek through the jam-packed mall, where more than 30 vendors have set up shop, we spot vintage linens, crystal glassware, costume jewelry, and walnut dining sets.

I ask owner Michelle Rushing if she’s ever bumped into any … ah … ghosts? “I’ve had things happen in my house, which connects to this complex,” she replies. Like what? “Oh, one time I had my hands full of things to bring in the mall and the door just opened slightly for me. I said, ‘Why, thank you!’ And then it shut.”

Mysterious things also occur at our lodging for the night, the Claiborne House Bed and Breakfast, which was built in the mid-1860s. Owners Elaine and Steve Holden tell us that one spirit resembles Captain V. H. Claiborne, the Confederate officer who bought the lovely two-story home in 1871.

“Steve and I have both heard footsteps and smelled cigarette smoke when there’s no one else in the house,” Elaine says, “and many of our guests have heard strange voices, footsteps, and even jangling keys. But nobody has ever felt a bad vibe.” The Holdens keep a paranormal journal for guests to document their own experiences—lights turning on and off, doors shutting, and heavy footsteps on the staircase.

Across the street from the 1851 Jefferson Hotel, a restored hitching post recalls Jefferson’s 19th-Century heyday as a commercial center. The hotel originally served as a cotton warehouse; many people believe it’s haunted. Lamache’s Restaurant, on the ground floor, serves Italian cuisine. For our first night out, we head to the Bull Durham Playhouse and Coffee Bar, where we have tickets to the dinner theater. In 2007, Jefferson residents Bill Smith and Andy Looney converted the 1852 brick warehouse—graced with arched windows and an ornamental wrought- iron balcony—into a community theater that specializes in melodramas and comedies. Tonight, we’ve come to see Transylvania Idol, a ghoulish spoof of the TV hit American Idol.

But is the old theater haunted? “There are a few instances where strange things have happened,” says Smith. “But the biggest thing that got my attention was this: One evening, I walked in the door, and I felt a cold gust of wind in my face—not just like a cool breeze blowing, but like someone had stuck a fan in my face. Before I moved to Jefferson, I always assumed that some ghost experiences were genuine and some were people’s imaginations. I can tell you that the wind in my face was not my imagination.”

With a lot to think about, we drive to the Urquhart House of Eleven Gables, an 1890s Queen Anne-style home that’s now a bed and breakfast. Beneath a starlit sky, we join a crowd waiting to tour the mansion with Jodi Breckenridge, Jefferson’s “Ghost Lady,” who leads after-dark excursions to haunted spots around town.

“We’ve had some really weird things happen during our ghost walks here,” Breckenridge tells us once we’re inside, “like a door opening after I’ve pulled it shut.” Within minutes, someone gasps—the chandelier over the dining table just flickered! “That’s minor! Just watch,” Breckenridge teases before she leads everyone into the master suite, where she begins sharing eerie anecdotes.

“It’s very common for overnight guests to ask why the people upstairs are making so much noise,” Breckenridge says. “There are no rooms upstairs, only the attic. Also common is a strong smell of gardenias, followed by a stiff breeze. Some people claim they’ve seen a woman wearing a shawl when they smell gardenias.”

Our night at the Claiborne turns up no ghosts. After a sumptuous breakfast of strawberry soup and pecan‑crusted French toast, we tour The Grove, an 1861 Greek Revival‑style residence with a haunted history. Owner Mitchel Whitington, author of Ghosts of East Texas and the Pineywoods and other books about the paranormal, ushers us into the parlor, where he begins telling stories. At one point, he nods toward a Victorian-style lamp set on an antique sewing table.

“In that corner, you often have an odd feeling, like someone’s there with you,” he says. “A psychic told me that a lady who once lived here comes back to visit, and that’s her favorite spot in the house.”

In Jefferson, even the local beauty shop has an unexpected twist. At Beauty and the Book, hairdresser Kathy Patrick—assisted by the Pulpwood Queens, her tiara-wearing book club members—promotes big hair and ... literacy. Squeezed into a former 1927 service station, her outlandish shop–decorated with leopard prints and hot pink stripes–offers salon products alongside mysteries, novels, gift books, and, of course, ghost stories.

That night, we dine at Lamache’s Italian Restaurant, located downstairs in the Jefferson Hotel, where we’ve booked haunted Room 19. James settles on spaghetti and meatballs; I order the Pompeii, a delicious combination of shrimp, spicy Italian sausage, mushrooms, onions, and green peppers tossed with penne pasta.

Part of an annual Halloween event called “Terror on the Bayou,” the Runaway Fright Train takes thrill-seekers on a haunted jaunt through the Piney Woods.  The theme this year is “Urban Legends.” We’re amply fortified to experience “Terror on the Bayou,” an after-dark Halloween event held along the Big Cypress Bayou. At the concession, we get tickets for both haunted attractions: the Runaway Fright Train and the Creepy Screamin’ Corn Maze.

Aboard the PG-13 excursion, we take a seat in an open-air railcar. Steam billows from beneath the locomotive as we chug through the Piney Woods and listen to a hokey fairy tale, illustrated with spooky costumed characters and rail-side scenes. Along the way, shadowy figures clamber onto the cars. They stare at us, then move on, triggering screams.

Next, we venture into the moonlit corn maze. Do we go left or right? James leads the way. Uh-oh!—We jump when a masked monster appears in our path, then disappears between the stalks. Later, a hooded ghoul sneaks up from behind. Another one revs up a chainsaw. Then—the temptation’s too much—I poke James in the back. He jumps, then scowls at me. Payback comes in the underground Tunnel of Doom: I scream and run when someone steps out to grab us.

In bed that night, we sleep fitfully in our upstairs room at the Jefferson Hotel, which was built in 1851 as a cotton warehouse. We wake to find that no bureau drawers have been thrown open. The bathroom faucet is still turned off, and no one has turned on the TV during the night. Unlike previous guests, we’ve no anecdotes.

Back home, James finally broaches the subject a week later. Uh … did I see anything that night in Room 19? I shake my head.

Did he? James nods. “The dark figure of a man,” my husband replies solemnly. “He looked right at me, then darted into the bathroom.”

“The next time,” he vows, “I’m setting up my camera.”

Haunted Jefferson Essentials

Jefferson is 16 miles north of Marshall on US 59. For more information about lodging, dining, and attractions, visit the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, 118 N. Vale St., 888/467-3529.


Claiborne House, 312 S. Alley St., 903/665-8800 or 877/385-9236.

Jefferson Hotel, 124 W. Austin St., 903/665-2631 or 866/334-6835.


Lamache’s Italian Restaurant, 124 W. Austin St., 903/665-6177.


Beauty and the Book, 608 N. Polk St., 903/665-7520.

Bull Durham Playhouse and Coffee Bar, 124 E. Austin St., 903/665-6481.

Granny Had It, 114 N. Polk St., 903/665-3148.

Historic Jefferson Ghost Walks, 903/665-6289.

Jefferson General Store, 113 E. Austin St., 903/665-8481.

Old Mill Antiques, 210 E. Austin St., 903/665-8601.

“Terror on the Bayou,” 1602 Texas 49 East, 866/398-2038; Last three weekends in Oct., first weekend in Nov.

The Grove, 405 Mosely St., 903/665-8018.

Before you go: Web Extra: Ghosts, books and more from Jefferson

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