Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Karnack

By Peter Simek 6.3.21

In an out-of-the way corner of East Texas, a stone’s throw from the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Big Cypress Bayou, is a small Texas town that has enjoyed an auspicious history.

Karnack’s unique story begins with its name, which is believed to have been chosen because early settlers said the town was about as far from Caddo Lake as the ancient Egyptian temple complex of Karnack was from the city of Thebes. It wouldn’t be the first time a little mystery and prestige would mingle in the story of the town.

An Early Trading Depot

By the end of the 19th century, East Texas had emerged as an important crossroads for several thriving industries, including cotton. Karnack, founded along a stretch of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway, was a trading depot for these commodities. It’s first post office opened in 1898, though the town only boasted a few dozen residents. Its fortunes would rise after the discovery of oil in East Texas. A general store opened, as well as a gristmill and a cotton gin. By the 1920s, the town was home to more than 200 people.

Karnack Texas
Courtesy of ZUMA Press Inc Alamy

The Birthplace of Lady Bird Johnson

In 1912, Claudia Alta Taylor (later Lady Bird Johnson, the future wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, and the first lady of the United States) was born in Karnack. She grew up a few miles south of Karnack in an antebellum mansion, one of the oldest homes in the area and said to be haunted. Its previous owner had a 19-year-old daughter named Oonie Andrews who, as the story went, was struck by lightning and killed inside the house. Although Johnson never saw the ghost, she did confess to “feeling a sense of apprehension and unease in the house as a child.”

Karnack Texas
Courtesy of Everette Collection Historical Alamy

A Military Manufacturer

After Johnson grew up and moved away, Karnack’s fortunes took another turn. In the 1940s, the Monsanto chemical company opened a factory near the town to manufacture TNT for use in World War II. By the end of the war, the plant had produced an estimated 414 million pounds of TNT. Several companies would take over operations of the plant during the Cold War, producing pyrotechnic devices such as flares and ground signals. But the product that would thrust Karnack back into the spotlight was rocket-fuel motors that were used to power nuclear missiles. In 1989, after the United States and the former Soviet Union signed a nuclear treaty that provided for some nuclear disarmament, Karnack became the unlikely setting for the destruction of several nuclear rockets.

Karnack Texas Caddo Lake
Courtesy of Big Pines Lodge

A Gateway to Caddo Lake

With the heady days of the Cold War behind it, Karnack has returned to its roots as a sleepy and pleasant unincorporated rural community. It enjoys visitors on their way to enjoy the natural wonders of Caddo Lake, some of whom stay at the Big Pines Lodge, which has reopened after a devastating fire destroyed it in 2009.

If you find yourself passing through Caddo, be sure to swing by Lady Bird’s childhood home, which still stands as an exemplar of early Classic Revival architecture. And when you’re there, make sure you say hi to Oonie Andrews.

Spooked? Click here to discover five more haunted places in Texas.

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