PALESTINE — Back in the 1800s, a small town called Magnolia sprang up near here as a destination for steamboats on the Trinity River. It was known as “the little St. Louis on the Trinity.”
Congress authorized the first survey of the Trinity River on Aug. 30, 1852. A report filed by the lieutenant of engineers, William H.C. Whiting, stated that river transportation was “practical during time of high water for about 600 miles, during low water 100 miles.”
According to a historical marker on display in Palestine, Whiting said, “The season of high water is generally about from the first of January to the last of June. The river, however, has been known to remain up for about 18 months.”
Whiting reportedly told Secretary of State Jefferson Davis in 1853 that the Trinity River was “the deepest and had fewer obstacles than any other river in Texas.”
The first steamboat to arrive in Dallas completed the trip on May 5, 1868. Crewmen on the steamboat faced danger and miserable conditions, the historical marker states. The channel of the river was shallow and narrow. Sand bars, log jams and some trees were always a grave concern, according to the historical account.
“Steamboats traveled only during the day and anchored during the night when insects and outlaws became concerns,” the historical marker states.
The first flat load traveled from Magnolia to Galveston in 1847, the same year that the first license to operate a ferry in Anderson County was issued for a ferry at the Magnolia crossing.
The diary of a traveler, A.D. Olphus Sterne, stated that Magnolia was at the head of navigation of the Trinity River and “an excellent place for a large business.” He predicted, “If one gets started, it may become a principal point on the river, such as Shreveport, is on the Red River.”
By 1863, a hotel known as Haygood’s Magnolia Tavern was operating. The owner had purchased a billiard table and bar fixtures.
In all probability, it began as a one-story structure, and was expanded to a two-story building situated on the bluff overlooking the river at the corner of Main and Dewberry streets, the historical marker states.
“It was set up on a high piling to protect it from the river’s flooding and has 12 rooms downstairs, a ballroom and a community gathering place upstairs, according to the historical account.
In 1870, board and lodging for a man and two horses cost $2 a night.
“During its heyday, the little town claimed 33 residential and business blocks with streets 60 feet wide,” the historical account states. The business district included a drug store, a law office, blacksmith shop, tavern, cotton gin, general merchandise and hotel. There also was a one-room schoolhouse and a Methodist church.
As many as six steamers docked at Magnolia at one time during the spring of 1867, according to a history. Supplies brought in on the freights were sugar, molasses, flour and barrels of whiskey, the history states. Return trips carried cotton and cattle hides.
“Although the steamers offered passenger service, residents of Magnolia seldom depended on the irregular schedules,” the history states.
One of the fastest river trips recorded was made in post-Civil War days with 800 bales of cotton on board. The steamboat made the journey from Magnolia to Galveston in four days, a trip that over land by wagon would have taken as long as six weeks, the history states.
But railroads made their debut and adversely affected steamboat traffic. The International Railroad from Austin reached Palestine in July 1872 and the Great Northern from Houston arrived in December. The railroad brought a great boon to the city of Palestine and Anderson County, according to historical accounts.
With the coming of railroads to Palestine, steamboat operations ceased and the town of Magnolia began dying. The voyage of the last steamboat on the Trinity River ended in 1873.
“By the end of the 19th century, there was little evidence left of the town’s romantic history,” the history states.