Stepping into History
The Excelsior House Hotel in the historic district of Jefferson, Texas has quite a pedigree: Not only has this Texas State Landmark been in continuous operation since the 1850’s, but it’s also listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
If you are a history buff, you do not want to miss the Excelsior House Hotel. Sure, just like any accommodation these days, every room has a private bath, a television, and WIFI, but there’s something *special* about this east Texas venue, something I’ve never quite experienced at any other historic hotel:
I truly felt transported while staying there, as if I’d slipped back to the 1880’s for a day!
It wasn’t just me, the chronically daydreaming writer who loves imagining what it was like to live in other times; my husband, Larry, felt the “time shift,” too. In fact, we’ve been puzzling over the experience ever since our recent stay. We visited during the History, Haunts & Legends paranormal conference, where I gave a talk on Historic Cemetery Symbols) And while we’re still not quite sure what created this unusual sensation, we agree that the hotel’s history is certainly a major ingredient, so I’ll start there:
The history of the Excelsior House Hotel and the city of Jefferson are deeply entwined. In the mid to late 1800’s, Jefferson, Texas was a glamorous inland trading center, with all the virtue and vice that accompanies a port town.
During this boom, Jefferson’s population swelled to 30,000 and its port was second only to Galveston. The city sent steamboats laden with cotton, timber, beef, and more to New Orleans, and received a variety of goods in return. Its location in northeast Texas made the Port of Jefferson the northernmost stop in a trade route to and from the Big Easy.
Jefferson, Texas a.k.a. The Little Easy
Even today, the influence of New Orleans provides an enchanting overlay to the city of Jefferson. With its red brick streets, hitching posts, carriage rides, cast iron railings, and Greek Revival architecture, Jefferson’s historic downtown could easily pass for late 1880’s New Orleans in a Hollywood movie. The city has even been celebrating Mardi Gras for over a century! For this reason, some folks call Jefferson, Texas the “Little Easy,” and I can see why.
Built by a Steamboat Captain
The Excelsior House Hotel is built on property once owned by a steamboat captain named William Perry. This land was a gift from the City of Jefferson in 1846, a thank you for all the hard work Perry did to keep the Big Cypress Bayou navigable.
When you realize the importance of that bayou, the city’s gratitude is understandable. From the 1840’s until the 1870’s, Jefferson’s economy was heavily dependent on trade with New Orleans.
Excelsior House Hotel – ideal location for visitors
Although Captain Perry built a family home on the property the city gave him, its central location made it ideal for visitors. So while he had not set out to build a hotel, Perry began renting rooms to merchants who passed through town. Even today, with the Jefferson Historical Museum next door and the Jay Gould Railroad car and carriage rides directly across the street, the Excelsior House Hotel is ideally located for visitors. Many restaurants, antique stores, and a variety of family-owned boutiques and shops are also within easy walking distance.
From boomtown to time capsule
Meanwhile, back at the bayou: In 1873, the US Army Corps of Engineers dismantled a huge log jam downstream from Jefferson, Texas. The Great Red River Raft, as it was called, had been around as long as anyone could remember, including Native Americans. Unfortunately for Jefferson, removing the log jam shifted water levels throughout the region, draining so much water out of the Big Cypress Bayou that it was no longer navigable by steamboats.
As for Captain Perry, who knows? He might have become the east Texas version of Conrad Hilton had he not been murdered in 1868…
As the boomtown years faded and the city of Jefferson fell into economic decline, Captain Perry’s hotel passed from owner to owner. The good news is that a great number of historic buildings from that era remain standing in Jefferson, Texas. The city’s untimely demise is the modern-day tourist and history buff’s gain!
Saved from the wrecking ball
Even so, by 1961 the Excelsior House Hotel was in dire need of repair. In fact, the historic hotel might have met the wrecking ball were it not for the forward-thinking members of the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club. Not only did they purchase and remodel the building, but they continued to rent out rooms during the renovation, which was completed by the club members themselves.
So despite a few ups and downs, the Excelsior House Hotel has been in continuous operation since 1858, and the Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club continues to own and operate the hotel to this day.
The Excelsior House Hotel today
Today, the fully restored Excelsior House Hotel is an eye-catching whitewashed building adorned with cast iron railings in the heart of Jefferson’s historic district. The comfortable lobby features the original front desk, and is filled with hotel memorabilia. Rather like a small museum, the hotel features antiques throughout, many of which are leftovers from when Captain Perry owned the property.
Famous Clientele includes 3 presidents
Over the years, the Excelsior House Hotel has played host to many famous guests, including Oscar Wilde, Ladybird Johnson, and 3 US presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.) Don’t believe me? See for yourself; many pages from the hotel’s guest register are on display in the front lobby.
Excelsior House Hotel Tours
Whether you stay at the Excelsior House Hotel or not, a tour of the building is worth your time. Hotel volunteers also offer tours of the Atalanta, Jay Gould’s private railroad car, which is located directly across the street. Both tours are given by volunteers, so you will need to check with the front desk clerk to see if they are available during your visit or not.
Gracious staff and old world charm
I thoroughly enjoyed the Excelsior House Hotel! From the moment Larry and I stepped inside, I could tell it was going to be a memorable stay. The atmosphere was welcoming without being intrusive, by which I mean that the hotel staff left us to our own thoughts until we asked questsions. (I mention this because I have certain friends who claim they could never stay at anything other than a big chain hotel because they are afraid the staff at a privately owned venue will follow them the whole time!)
The entire staff, from the desk clerk to the servers at breakfast, was extremely courteous. It nearly felt as if they had taken an old school etiquette course! Each one I spoke to was knowledgeable and exuded a well-deserved pride in their hotel and its history.
Transported in time by the Plantation Breakfast
The Plantation Breakfast was an enchanting surprise, and not simply because it was mighty tasty. In retrospect, Larry and I agree that this experience was another key ingredient in making us feel as if we had stepped back into time. So even if you’re not an early riser, or a habitual breakfast eater, I highly recommend making an exception for the Plantation Breakfast at the Excelsior House Hotel.
The Plantation Breakfast offers a taste of the Old South, literally and figuratively. During our stay, the menu consisted of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits, biscuits, and orange blossom muffins elegantly presented on fine dining ware.
When I wandered downstairs that morning, I wasn’t quite sure where breakfast was served, so I asked the front desk clerk, who ushered us to a nearby sitting room. “Help yourselves to a cup of coffee,” she instructed, “they’ll call you into the ballroom shortly.”
I don’t know about you, but in the life I lead, I am rarely “called” into any room, let alone a historic ballroom with a French chandelier, marble busts, oil paintings, two grand pianos, velvet couches, and a cypress wood floor. We were the only ones dining at that hour, and with the wait staff bustling around us as if they were our house servants; well, it was delightfully disconcerting.
I felt like Scarlet O’Hara
I truly felt transported, as if I’d suddenly become Scarlet O’Hara overnight. It’s hard to describe, but it was a lot of fun. (Plus, those orange blossom muffins are to die for!) I felt as if i were in a costume drama and that everyone else was in character!
After our meal, Larry and I lingered in the ballroom, snapping photos and pretending the Excelsior House Hotel was our family home. It was easy to imagine galas, meetings and other festivities taking place here over the years. In fact, you can still host your own if you wish! The ballroom is available for those wishing to host receptions, luncheons or other special events, and the hotel courtyard is a popular site for weddings.
So the next time you are in east Texas, I highly recommend a stay at the historic Excelsior House Hotel! Read on for how to book a room, and for tips on visiting Jefferson, Texas, including when to visit and what to see and do while you are there:
Plan your stay at the Excelsior House Hotel
For more information about the Excelsior House Hotel including room rates, available dates, and how to book a room, click here. (And when you book your room, be sure to tell them that Tui sent you!)
Address: Excelsior House Hotel, 211 West Austin Street, Jefferson, Texas 75657
Jefferson, TX – What to see and do?
As I mentioned earlier, the little town of Jefferson is chock full of fun things to see and do, and the Excelsior House Hotel is right in the middle of it all! Not only is this little town full of antique shops, museums, and restaurants, but consider taking a guided trip down the bayou, or enjoying a mug of 5 cent coffee at the Jefferson General Store.
Jefferson, TX Festivals – When to visit?
Jefferson, Texas makes a great getaway any time of the year, but you may want to plan your trip around one of the many festivals that take place here throughout the year, including:
Jefferson Candlelight Tour of Homes – This annual event offers candlit tours of historic homes led by docents in period clothing (think top hats and hoopskirts!)
History, Haunts & Legends – This twice annual East Texas paranormal conference takes place each April and each November. It was the main reason for our stay, actually. I was invited to give my Historic Cemetery Symbolism talk there, and decided to turn my stay in Jefferson, Texas into a much-needed writing research trip.
Jefferson Pilgrimage – This is a weekend long historical celebration in which Civil War buffs use the entire town as a backdrop for elaborate reenactments, including the Naval Battle of Port Jefferson, and the Diamond Bessie Murder Trial Play.
Burn Run – Motorcycle Rally This annual fall biker rally raises money for burn victims.
Mardi Gras Upriver – Jefferson, Texas has been celebrating Mardi Gras
Marion County Fair – A good old-fashioned East Texas county fair.
Taste of Jefferson, Texas – Lively annual celebration of regional restaurants.
Want to read more like this?
To read about more weird, offbeat, and overlooked places, check out my best-selling travel guide:
UNEXPECTED TEXAS: Your Guide to Offbeat & Overlooked History, Day Trips & Fun Things to do near Dallas & Fort Worth.
For ghost hunting hot spots, check out my best-selling travel guide to haunted places:
PARANORMAL TEXAS: Your Travel Guide to Haunted Places near Dallas & Fort Worth.
For a strange-but-true tale of Texas history, check out this bizarre piece of West Texas history:
The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber
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Tui Snider is an author, speaker, and photographer who specializes in North Texas travel, cemetery symbols, and haunted lore. As she puts it, “I used to write fiction – but then, I moved to Texas!”
Snider’s best-selling books include Paranormal Texas , Understanding Cemetery Symbols, and 100 Things to Do in Dallas - Fort Worth Before You Die.