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If you’re a student of Texas history and a frequenter of the historical markers that dot Texas’ highways, byways and back roads, you’re well familiar with Forrest Gump’s “box of chocolates.” You never know what you’re gonna get with Texas historical markers, which are announced by chocolate-colored signs along the roadside.
Such is the case along the scenic and hilly stretch of State Highway 294 as it breaks east off U.S. Highway 84, just northeast of Oakwood. The topography jumps and dips through a pine forest, and then appears a sign noting a marker.
Judging by its location in the middle of East Texas, you might wonder if it will detail a former oilfield, a cemetery or a spot where Davy Crockett once bivouacked. All are safe guesses—but not on target.
The marker announces that you’re at the site of Old Magnolia, or Magnolia Landing, a long-defunct inland steamboat port once referred to as “Little St. Louis on the Trinity.” This is a puzzle because the marker stands on high ground, and there’s no major waterway for miles.
The Trinity River, which otherwise trends sleepily and southeasterly toward the Gulf of Mexico in this part of Texas, deviates from its southward tendency near this spot and perks up like a defiant thumb, turning due north. Near the pad of the imaginary geographic thumb, about a half-mile downhill and south of the marker, sat Magnolia.
Named after an old magnolia tree that grew nearby, the community was first settled in the 1840s by folks from the Palestine area, about a dozen miles northeast. At its peak in 1863, the citizenry numbered almost 800, and the town boasted 33 city blocks, featuring a school, church, general mercantile, drugstore, cotton gin, two cotton warehouses, law office, blacksmith, ferry, chair factory, cemetery, and the two-story, 12-room Haygood Hotel, which housed a popular tavern on the second floor. The Haygood Hotel sat on pole stilts (in case of flooding) and offered lodging for a man and two horses at $2 a night. The Haygood tavern attracted revelers for miles around, and when its dance floor was full, gala dances broke out down on the river, staged on the decks of the docked steamboats themselves.
In Magnolia’s heyday, according to a 1955 article in the Dallas Morning News, it was not uncommon to see a half-dozen steamers (side-wheeler and stern-wheeler) tied up. The vessels would sound their horns 2 or 3 miles downstream to let folks know passengers and cargo were inbound, and the locals would travel into town to meet them. Besides passengers, the in-bound freighters delivered sugar, molasses, flour, barrels of whiskey and, occasionally, ice from Boston, Massachusetts (available at the Haygood tavern for 10 cents a pound). The outbound vessels usually carried cotton and cattle hides. The town warehouses were often stocked with thousands of bales of local cotton awaiting transport.
From early January to late June, the Trinity River crested, and the twisting thoroughfare bustled with steamboat traffic. Early Bird, a 184-ton side-wheeler carrying 800 bales of cotton, made the voyage from Magnolia to Galveston in a record time of four days, according to a November 20, 1947, article in the Palestine Herald-Press. But typically the journey up or down the waterway could take weeks, depending on the river level and occasional obstructions. Steamboats and their crews often sat in Magnolia for indefinite periods waiting for the river to rise. Sometimes low water levels caught vessels out on the Trinity, and they sat where they got stuck.
When the International-Great Northern Railroad arrived in Palestine in the 1870s, trade on the Trinity came to an unceremonious halt. The area’s riverboat romance was over, and one of the last steamboats to ply the waters delivered the steel that was used to construct a railroad bridge across the river.
Today, the historical marker and a handful of concrete slabs are the only indicators of Old Magnolia. The anchor of the 127-foot long, 144-ton, Trinity-trading A.S. Ruthven sits on display outside the Palestine Area Chamber of Commerce, but traces of the region’s steamboat past are best explored at the Museum for East Texas Culture in Palestine.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.