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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"


The Story of Caddo Lake

by C. F. Eckhardt
Early Spanish and French explorers of the piney woods of deep East Texas didn't mention a large body of water in the area. They recounted creeks, which the Spaniards usually called arroyos and the French called bayous. They found and named rivers, and - for the most part - the Spanish names of these rivers have survived, if in somewhat dilapidated condition. The Brazos was originally El Rio de los Brazos de Dios - The River of the Arms of God - and the river we know today as the San Bernard was originally El Rio de San Bernardo. The one thing neither the Spanish nor the French mentioned was lakes.

In fact Texas did have three permanent lakes, only one of which was of any appreciable size. Sabine Lake is actually a landlocked, fresh-water bay. The other two lakes are much smaller. One is Espantosa Lake near Crystal City, which the Spanish knew well and feared. The word espantosa means 'haunted in a particularly horrible way.' The other, which was not discovered for many years, is Lost Lake or Hidden Lake, high in the Davis Mountains. It appears to be a portion of an underground river, the covering of which collapsed perhaps centuries, perhaps millennia ago. It is only about a hundred yards long and perhaps twenty wide, and at one time it was famous for the black bass it contained.

In 1811 one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history struck the central portion of the North American continent, with an epicenter near the town of New Madrid, Missouri. How powerful was it? It changed the course of the Mississippi and made that great river run backwards for three days, creating as a sort of afterthought Reelfoot Lake on the present Kentucky-Tennessee state line. Churchbells rang in Augusta, Georgia from the trembling of the ground, and brick chimneys fell in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It other words, as earthquakes go, it was, as Mark Twain might have described it, a sockdolager.

One of the many, many effects of the earthquake and its aftershocks - which lasted for three years - was a massive number of trees knocked down all the way from Michigan and Wisconsin to the Mississippi's delta in Louisiana. A lot of those trees went down in East Texas.

On a creek tributary to the stream now called Cedar Bayou, across the line in Louisiana, there was a beaver dam. Trees began to pile up against that beaver dam, creating a logjam several miles wide and several miles deep. Behind this logjam the waters of Cedar Bayou began to collect, eventually forming a vast, though shallow, lake in western Louisiana and East Texas. American settlers in the area named it Caddo Lake after the tribe native to the region.
Caddo Lake State Park TX
Caddo Lake
Photo courtesy Maryanne Gobble, November 2010
Caddo Lake was a godsend to trade in East Texas. In an area of extensive rainfall what roads existed became quagmires. However, rain merely assisted travel by water. First by rowboat, then by sailboat, and eventually by steamboat, Caddo Lake became the trade highway of East Texas. The major port on Caddo Lake, right on the shore so the steamboats could load and unload directly from the town, was Jefferson, Texas. In 1861 Jefferson was one of the most prosperous towns in Texas, shipping tons of cotton down Caddo Lake to the logjam, where they were transported overland a short distance to the Red River and then shipped down the Red to the Mississippi, loaded onto seagoing ships at New Orleans, and then shipped to Europe to be sold. Jefferson even had a railroad. Ambitiously named Southern Pacific, Jefferson's railroad was all of seven miles long, leading from the wharfs in Jefferson back into the pines. It existed to supply cordwood for the boilers of the Caddo Lake steamboats.

Everything went fine until 1874. Jefferson became a tourist destination, and among the signatures in the Excelsior House registration book is that of Roscoe Conklin. Though little remembered today, Conklin was considered the finest orator of the second half of the 19th Century. It was in that fateful year, so the story goes, that diminutive railroad robber baron Jay Gould visited Jefferson. He proposed to build a railroad in Jefferson - and, or so the story goes, it was his intention to lay tracks directly in the middle of the town's main commercial street.

Jefferson told the miniature billionaire - Gould only stood about five feet tall - that there was no way in the name of Perdition he was going to mar their beautiful town by running trains down its main street. Gould wrote "The end of Jefferson!" in the Excelsior House's registration book and left.

Those who study Gould's career insist he never set foot in Jefferson, Texas, in his life. Be that as it may, somebody wrote "The end of Jefferson!" in the Excelsior House's book, and shortly afterward Jefferson almost did end. For reasons unexplained to this day, the US Army's Corps of Engineers dynamited the logjam at the end of Caddo Lake, and in less than a week Jefferson was left-well, hardly high and more soggy than dry, but without its main source of commerce. Jefferson very nearly did die.

In the early 1950s, when my parents and I were returning to Austin from a trip to Athens to visit my mother's parents, I asked my father to take me to Caddo Lake, a place I'd read much about. "There's no Caddo Lake any more, son," he said. "There's not much there but a mudhole, and not much of a mudhole at that."

There the situation remained until the great water-impoundment frenzy of the late '50s and early '60s, in the wake of the Great Drought of the 1950s. A concrete dam was erected on Cedar Bayou in Louisiana, and once again a fairly large, shallow body of water was impounded behind it. First known as New Caddo Lake, this artificial impoundment is today, for the most part, simply called Caddo Lake.
Uncertain Texas - Caddo Lake
Photo courtesy Gerald Massey, 2010
Jefferson is still where it was, though the remains of the wharfs that once docked steamboats are a long way from the shore of the present Caddo Lake. It does have a railroad - the Kansas City Southern - though the rails don't run down Main Street. Jefferson exploits its past, and has acquired Atalanta, Jay Gould's private railroad car named for a Greek goddess. It, along with Excelsior House and much else, is exploited for tourism.

Yes, Texas once more has a Caddo Lake - but for those familiar with the historic Caddo Lake, it is but a pale imitation.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"May 12, 2006 column

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