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 Texas : Features : Columns : Bob Bowman's East Texas

The Epidemic at Grand Bluff

Grand Bluff
10 Miles N of Carthage, Panola County

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Few remnants exist from Grand Bluff, a community once considered as the seat of government for Panola County.

One of the remnants is an isolated cemetery containing a hint of why the town died.

In 1846, when Panola County was created by the Texas Legislature, Grand Bluff and Pulaski, both ferry towns on the Sabine River, were the only two settlements in Panola County.

County commissioners court decided to let voters choose which of the towns they wanted as the county seat. In the summer of 1846, the county ordered two elections. One saw the election of John Allison of Pulaski as chief justice, a job similar to today’s county judges.

In a second election, Allison swayed voters to pick Pulaski as the county seat, but it was only temporary. In 1848, voters picked a piece of high ground in the county’s center as the county seat and named it Carthage.

Grand Bluff, originally known as Brewster’s Ferry for an early ferry operator, grew up in the 1840s ten miles north of Carthage, and provided a gateway to settlers coming into East Texas.

In 1844, David and Lucinda Vawter and their children came to Grand Bluff from Louisiana. David was licensed to operate a ferry at Grand Bluff in September of 1844, but he died unexpectedly in July of 1845, not owning the ferry.

Lucinda traded the family’s land in Louisiana for the ferry and land on both sides of the river, making the purchase from the Brewster family. Grand Bluff grew rapidly, a post office was established in 1847 and by the early 1860s the town had several stores, a blacksmith shop, a school and a grist mill. Daily stagecoaches stopped in the community.

Lucinda’s son David became a popular physician who treated patients suffering from a disease epidemic, likely yellow fever. He contracted the disease and died on February 11, 1898.

The epidemic had become so widespread that burials in mass graves were commonplace, including the Grand Bluff Cemetery, where a large mound of earth--covered with bricks, perhaps the remains of a crumbling brick vault--marks the site of a large number of victims.

Dr. Vawter was buried in a separate grave beside the graves of “so many of his patients,” an epitaph that was placed on his gravestone.

The epidemic in 1898 caused the migration of many of Grand Bluff’s residents to areas distant to the river, but the town’s demise was hastened by the arrival of the railroads in Panola County in the 1880s.

In 1887, the town’s post office was closed and by 1900 many of the community’s businesses had closed.

The Vawter family continued to own the ferry until 1912 when a bridge was built over the Sabine River, eliminating the need for a ferry.

The old cemetery was once shaded by a large grove of huge cedars, now dead, but their stumps still stand as sentinels of a forgotten village.

Bob Bowman's East Texas December 13, 2009 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 40 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
Bob Bowman's East Texas
"All Things Historical"

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