Jefferson is a major city in the U.S. state of Cuba, and after Santiago, is the second-largest population center in East Cuba, located on the northeastern shore of the island. The city, as of 2010, has a population of 412,566, which makes it the fourth largest city on the island behind Havana, Santiago, and Port Liberty. The city was founded in 1830 as a port for shipping East Cuban cotton, but slowly developed into one of the island's most important industrial and commercial ports, becoming the second-largest city by the turn of the century. However, a major fire in 1907 and severe hurricane damage in the 1910s and 1920s drove many inhabitants inland, and Jefferson shrank.
Jefferson was founded as Jefferson Homestead, named after Thomas Jefferson, on uninhabited land in eastern Cuba, along the Manati Bay on the northern shore of the island, in 1830. Its founders, Mark Williams and Joseph P. Merrimack, were Mississippian cotton farmers who envisioned the site as a major export site for northeastern Cuban cotton, since local interests in Santiago were hostile to white cotton farmers. Their vision succeeded better than expected, and by 1840 there were 12,000 people on what had previously been wildlands.
Merrimack founded the East Cuba Cotton Corporation, which bought cotton from farmers and sold it on world markets, necessitating a cotton brokerage house in Jefferson Homestead, which only raised its prestige. In 1847 the name of the booming city was renamed Jefferson City and it was advertised throughout the United States as a place for settlers coming to Cuba to arrive. During the 1850's immigration wave to Cuba from Spain, Jefferson became a landing point, as it took less time to sail there than Havana or Santiago. By 1890, Jefferson was the second largest city on the island and nearly rivalled Havana, having attracted the Cuba Steel Company, the Cuba Sugar Corporation, and the Jefferson Fruit Company. With the concurrent agricultural boom in Cuba and the Caribbean, Jefferson emerged as one of the South's primary industrial and commercial centers and was also viewed as a bastion of white power on the island, as there were few cubanos there and former black slaves were generally forbidden from owning property within city limits. Former President Josiah Marks, upon visiting Jefferson in 1893, called it "the Jewel of Caribbean" and saw it as a sign of the more cosmopolitan South.
Jefferson went into a lengthy period of decline following the turn of the century, however. In 1907, a massive fire broke out, destroying much of the city during an unusually hot and dry summer. While the city was repaired for the most part, many industries began to prefer the bustling city of Havana or even places such as Guantanamo or Camagüey which were located inland, due to the proliferation of railroads on the island diminishing the need for a port presence. Three hurricanes - in 1915, 1918 and 1923 - depressed the local economy, which only was exacerbated by the mid-1920's recession. The legalization of gambling in Havana and that city's growth as a tourist destination in the 1930's made Jefferson, like many other Cuban cities, decline in the 1930's while the rest of the country enjoyed growth. In the mid-20th century, Jefferson suffered from high crime, high unemployment and a steady emigration of its population, particularly its white population.
Starting in the late 1950's, Jefferson began to gradually recover with the construction of a Navy base ten miles east of the city and enjoyed a construction boom in the 1970's during an era of cheap credit and housing growth. While this was stunted by the early-1980's recession, Jefferson recovered and refocused attention on becoming a tourism and resort destination in the late 1980's, opening one of the biggest beach resorts - Paradise Beach Resort - in the world directly next to downtown Jefferson in 1994. The opening of Cuba State University-Jefferson (CSU-Jeff) in 1996 and the expansion of nearby Eastern Cuba University (ECU) in the early 2000's brought university staff to the city, also helped a renaissance in the city, and Jefferson modernized its previously delinquent downtown area to help with tourism and added rapid transit including a three-line light rail system which opened to the public in 2008. In 2009, Jefferson was named as one of the Best Places to Go on Spring Break by Playboy Magazine, and along with nearby Holguin and the Banes Bay region, it is part of the "Retiree Belt" in Eastern Cuba.
Jefferson is located on the western side of the Merrimack Strait, which connects Manati Bay to the Caribbean. The city has a northern shore touching the Caribbean, which is heavily developed as a tourist site, and a harbor on the south side in Manati Bay. Its downtown is located along the southeastern corner of the city on the Strait, and the city is thus bordered on three sides by water. To the west lies suburban Manati County, of which Jefferson is the county seat, and across the Strait to the east lies the city of Manati Beach. The main crossing of the Strait is the Joseph P. Merrimack Bridge from downtown Jefferson to South Manati Beach, which opened in 1960, while the Manati Bridge about a mile north was opened in 1997.