UNCERTAIN, Texas (KTAL/KMSS) — Danny Sullivan knows his hometown’s history even better than he puts on. As the owner of Mudport Backwater Tours in Uncertain, Texas, he makes a living at putting on stories about the history of the largest cypress forest in the world.
“Have you ever been to Whangdoodle Pass? How about Blackwater Jacks, Kitchen Creek, or Stumpy Slew?”
Sullivan asks the questions faster than you can answer them, which is easy because you likely can’t answer them.
Sullivan’s tours are consonate-heavy and so comical you can’t help but wonder whether he’s telling a joke or the truth. Some of the names he throws out during his tours sound like they can’t be real places.
But these are real places, and these are real stories.
“There used to be an old house called the Whangdoodle House,” said Sullivan after killing the boat motor mid-tour. Late-summer heat was trying to ruin the day, but the massive cypress forest was so accommodating that the temperature didn’t matter much.
Captain Danny knows the trick to staying cool when it’s hot outside is not to wait for the wind to cool you down. His policy is that the faster you go, the windier it feels. He loves rip-roaring across the lake, but when he stops the boat, points, and grins, you can rest assured you’ll learn something that probably isn’t found in Texas history books.
Sullivan is a proud storyteller–the kind that has to get good at it early in life because he was surrounded by storytellers when he was a kid. He makes a perfect tour guide.
Uncertain’s legendary folk tales
“Want to see where two creeks cross?” Sullivan asked a tour group on Caddo Lake.
“Where creeks cross?” asked one of the tourists in the boat.
“Yeah. They cross,” Sullivan said with a grin as he pointed the nose of the boat toward such a place. He was heading to Stumpy Slew.
In this swamp, once part of The Great Swamp, time doesn’t matter as much as wit and wisdom. Locals get a sense of pride when they talk about places like Johnson’s Ranch or Dick and Charley’s Tea Room.
But Sullivan prefers to talk about The Great Swamp.
There are creatures in this bayou that can kill a person, Sullivan says. But those creatures have plenty to do and aren’t looking for a fight.
(Except for Bigfoot. Don’t mess with Bigfoot, he says.)
Maybe the folklore around Uncertain is part of the charm, or perhaps the charm isn’t meant to be charming. Maybe the stories just are what they are and aren’t asking for permission or forgiveness for their irregularity. As Mark Twain once said, the truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to be possible, and truth doesn’t.
In Uncertain, Texas, Fact, and Fiction are so closely kin that it’s likely they’re double cousins.
Immense beauty in what remains of The Great Swamp
Three steps. That’s how many times you have to move your feet into the door of the state’s oldest freshwater marina before you begin to look around and question your own career choices. Should you have bought your small-town’s general store before it closed down in 1998? Is there any possibility that the lure of a peaceful autumn night in the woods, with thunder rumbling in the distance, is the sort of thing that never gets old?
Caddo Lake is so beautiful that it makes you question everything, including the way you were raised to think that bayous are dangerous, eerie places when, in fact, they are breathtakingly beautiful.
Don’t believe that bayous are beautiful? Check out this portion of Captain Danny’s tour of what early American explorers called The Great Swamp.
The tour group neared where the creeks crossed, and the Captain stopped again.
“Alligator Bayou is muddy, and Kitchen Creek is clearer,” he said as he pointed down. “It’s a battle of currents. You can see which current is stronger here, where they cross, in the color of the water.”
“That’s a Wood Stork,” pointed out the Captain. “They came to the lake with Hurricane Ike, and they’ve stayed around. That’s the biggest of our shorebirds on Caddo Lake.”
After the group visited the nesting site of Giant Osprey, an incredible sight to behold, Sullivan explained why the land on one side of the boat is called Towhead Island. He says it got the name because it was the only place on the entire steamboat run between Shreveport and Jefferson where steamboats would become broadside to the south wind.
“Towhead was a camp, and they would tow the steamboats until they were righted,” he said. “That south wind would pin you up against the bank.”
The Captain says that the old Steamboat captains didn’t much care for getting broadside to the wind.
What steamboats, you ask? Captain Danny was happy to explain why steamboats were once in The Great Swamp.
He said that before 1871, Jefferson, Texas, and Shreve’s Port, La., were linked together by steamboats, but there was just enough water in the swamp that stretched between the two cities to keep the steamboats afloat for most of the year. Sometimes, there wasn’t even enough water to keep the steamboats floating, and that’s why the federal government of the United States decided to step in and build a deep ditch that would allow for the year-round passage of steamboats.
“They dug Government Ditch, and it was completed in 1871, six years after the Civil War and at the tail end of reconstruction,” said Captain Danny. “Government Ditch was like Caddo Lake’s Panama Canal. Instead of going all the way around, they just cut right through from point A to point B. It was a shortcut for the steamboats to get from Shreveport to Jefferson.”
Sullivan said each bale of cotton on each steamboat was taxed a nickel for traveling on the government trench, and some of those boats carried a thousand bales.
“That would have been $50 a load for the tariff. There was a company that kept it open because it was such an important means of commerce.”
In those days, even though the Civil War had already ended, cotton was still king because it was the backbone of East Texas agriculture. The closer the farms were to the river, the less the farmers had to use wagons to move and sell the cotton. But the Captain says that in those days, there was no dam to keep the water levels high, and as the rains came up, they filled up the lake and the bayou. As the rains stopped, the route between Shreveport and Jefferson dried up.
The U.S. Government’s brilliant idea to dig a watery pathway that would work year-round to keep Shreveport and Jefferson connected worked, and the steamers reliably carried freight to and from the port towns and cities connected to the massive swamp, but then something crazy happened.
Those were the days when the Industrial Revolution was roaring into full production, and cotton couldn’t come out of East Texas fast enough. Jefferson, Port Caddo, Swanson’s Landing, and Mooringsport were full of cotton brokers and warehouses. Cotton was leaving in bales and returning in bolts of cloth.
But then dynamite was invented.
Some say that dynamite destroyed the economy of places like Oil City, Uncertain, Karnack, and Jefferson because a powerful businessman was out to kill Jefferson.
Others say that humanity didn’t understand enough about hydrology yet to realize that clearing the remainder of the Great Log Jam out of the Red River would destroy The Great Swamp.
Still, others said the government knew it would destroy the port of Jefferson if they cleared the excellent log jam in the Red River.
There’s a little truth to be found inside each of these rumors.
It’s often said that Captain Shreve removed the great log jam and created the city of Shreve’s Port (Shreveport) in the process, but there’s much more to the story than that simple concept. Shreve’s removal of an innumerable number of logs that had jammed the Red River for approximately 1000 years was but the start because he didn’t remove all of the jammed logs–just up to Twelve Mile Bayou.
In 1873, the Army Corps of Engineers used a new invention–dynamite–to clear the rest of the jam that had been irritating settlers and explorers for hundreds of years.
But with the clearing of the log jam, massive sections of The Great Swamp began to shrink. Port towns and cities between Shreveport and Jefferson, Texas, were suddenly left high and dry.
But after the water drained, many of the towns between Shreveport and Jefferson experienced something unexpected: a pearl rush.
“There was a miniature gold rush here of people looking for pearls,” said the Captain.
Sullivan said that necklaces could sell for up to $20 each during the pearl rush.
Want to see what a freshwater pearl necklace looks like? Click here.
After the pearl rush came the oil rush, but that’s another story.
As the tour nears the end, Captain Danny takes the group to a hilarious place where the folklore makes all who pass by chuckle. It’s a tearoom, but it’s probably unlike any tea room you’ve visited.
Dick and Charlie’s Tea Room sat on the wet bank of the bayou, but across the water on the opposite shore (within eyeshot) was the dry side of the bayou. Dick and Charlie’s little tea room wasn’t for ladies, and that much was apparent from both the dry and wet shores. The place, which was no more than a glorified shack, was a gentlemen’s bar. But the tea room had a polite undertone meant to be both comedic and invisible to the law, for those were the days of liquor being illegal in one Texas county and legal in the next. And yes, those two counties were separated by the bayou that didn’t voice her opinion about whether things outta be dry or wet.
As all stories go when it comes to liquor being prohibited, the laws eventually changed, and the business that once killed off anti-liquor laws soon faded into only remembrances.
But on the Captain’s tour, you’ll see that locals keep this sign up to remind passers-by that laws don’t always make sense. And they make a perfect point, too.
These things, and much more, are found on Caddo Lake near Jefferson, Texas. If you’re fortunate, you might dive down into the bayou and find yourself a perfectly rounded, pink pearl.
Or maybe you’ll see Bigfoot and spend the rest of your life trying to make others believe you’re not crazy.
And that’s just part of why they named this place Uncertain, Texas.