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Defeating Depression

( Originally Published 1940 )

BUILDING BOOMS, LONG A FAMILIAR EXPERIENCE in Port Arthur, took a spurt after the port was opened to all railroad lines. Plans were made for the construction of a new Mary Gates Hospital; the Lutherans secured a permit for a $96,000 church building; Forrest Goodhue, Beaumont capitalist, announced he would build a ten-story hotel costing $550,000, and immediately Dr. Edward W. Vaughan declared that he, too, would construct a ten-story, 140-room building to cost slightly more than $500,000 and to be known as the Vaughan Hotel (present Hotel Sabine). Contracts for construction work totaling $530,432 were awarded on the Thomas Jefferson High School Building in Lambert Addition, while property on Procter Street sold for more than $1,000 a front foot.

The formal dedication of Memorial Armory took place on June 15, 1928, following a parade through the business streets. A month later the new Masonic Temple was opened to the public for inspection.

Arthur E. Stilwell, founder of the city, died in New York on Wednesday, September 26, and the citizens of Port Arthur sent a "simple tribute" in the form of a "large floral wreath, 7 feet high and about 36 inches in diameter." One of his biographers wrote:

Stilwell died . . . an old man with blasted hopes, yet he left behind him upon his death railroads and a number of towns. . . . Stilwell was the last of the great empire builders and no living man did more for the Southwest. He increased the wealth of that section of the country at least a billion dollars . . . founded 40 cities and villages, colonized over 600,000 acres of ground .. . built 2300 miles of new railway. . . . The two largest oil fields ever brought in in the United States were on Stilwell roads — the well at Spindletop and the Yates field, the first on the Kansas City Southern. . . . Arthur Stilwell wrote several books including "Universal Peace," "War Is Mesmerism," and "The Light That Never Failed."

During this year the United States Government completed the construction of approximately three and a half miles of jetties and mattresses, to prevent mud and debris from entering the ship channel.

Station WPA of the Gulf Refining Company was taken over by the Radiomarine Corporation of America on New Year's Day, 1929, arrangements being made, however, for the oil company to continue to have unlimited ship communication.

During that month Port Arthur became rose-conscious, when the Port Arthur Rose Garden Club, organized July 19, 1928, to "study, foster and encourage rose culture," laid out a municipal garden in the two Ioops on Lake Shore Drive. One hundred and fifty-four rose beds were planted, with five-foot red gravel walks and three-foot grass paths leading through the garden. In the middle was a five-pointed Texas star, and in the center of the plot an illuminated drinking fountain. Money for this work was obtained from a series of sales of rose bushes.

Immediately after Gov. Dan Moody had signed a bill permitting the erection of a seawall around the city, the United States Government began work on a project to widen the ship channel in three places. This and the recently completed jetty and mattress construction cost approximately $2,000,000.

The Vaughan Hotel was officially opened on July 15; the opening of the Hotel Goodhue followed on August 22. On October 6, Eddingston Court, showplace apartment building group, with its stone caves, "caves of the winds," and sunken gardens, was opened.

To increase taxable property, during that year, Port Arthur made strenuous efforts to bring the new Griffing Residential Park into the corporate limits. Griffing residents, on November 13, voted to incorporate as a separate municipality, and secured a temporary injunction a week later against Port Arthur officials, maintaining that outstanding bonds would damage property holders' rights in the territory if it should be annexed. On November 27, the Griffing injunction having been dismissed the day before, Port Arthur voted every item of a municipal $1,305,000 improvement program, approved construction of the protective seawall, and annexed Griffing, Edgemore, Del Mar and Lakeview additions, increasing the city's territory approximately forty per cent.

Griffing residents, undaunted, elected their own officials on December 28 for their newly created municipality, and on May 3, 1930, secured another injunction to prevent Port Arthur from further interference with the new town.

By that time, construction of the $1,750,000 seawall to protect more than $32,000,000 worth of property from possible ten-foot storm waters was advancing rapidly. Five miles of the wall fronting on Lake Sabine were being placed on concrete facing, while dredging of the channel to Beaumont, Orange, and Lake Charles placed the spoil on the east bank of the Canal to a height of fourteen feet, offering further security.

Upon completion of the new Gulf Highway, mayors of Port Arthur and Galveston exchanged greetings by the first motor coaches to travel the route. An official celebration was held on May 17, when thousands of residents of both cities gathered at the gaily-decorated Bolivar Ferry Landing.

The homecoming of the first Port Arthur soldier to fall in the World War took place on May 20, when the body of Rudolph Lambert, for whom the local American Legion Post was named, was brought to the city and, after lying in state, was buried with full military honors in Greenlawn Memorial Cemetery.

Late in the afternoon of June 11, following a terrific blast that rocked houses and broke plant windows, a million-dollar fire swept the Texas Company refinery, killing one and seriously burning thirty-five others. The fire raged for fifteen hours, and destroyed about two-thirds of the company's agitators, a pumphouse, and a boiler house.

As the depression began creeping across the United States, Port Arthur felt its first effects when business opened on Friday morning, July 18. Pasted across the front door window of the Gulf Bank and Trust Company was a notice that the institution, being insolvent, was in the hands of the bank examiner of Texas.

Yet despite general business conditions, the city, by October, resembled a construction camp as public projects amounting to $3,000,000 were being pushed to completion. On the $1,750,000 seawall job, 175 men were employed. About fifteen miles of dirt levees were being thrown up around the city to protect it from back water. From Houston Avenue south for a distance of 1,700 feet a steel seawall had almost been finished. Work on the $250,000 Pleasure Pier bridge had been well advanced. Fifty-three miles of permanent paving, costing $109,000, were being laid within the city, as welI as cement sidewalks and curbs in parks. Water and sewer extensions amounting to $100,000, and $310,000 worth of storm sewers were being put down.

The State of Texas announced on April 3, 1931, that it would contribute $325,000 for bridging the Neches River at the Port Arthur-Orange highway. The counties were to pay the other half

It was on April 9 that a bill providing for a sub-courthouse for Port Arthur had become a law through the signature of Gov. Ross Sterling. The Port Arthur News said:

It was approved . . . and filed to become immediately effective. . . . Under the sub-courthouse law . . . the county can spend $150,000 on the structure.

Bonds to this amount were voted in a county-wide election on August 1, and ultimately a site was purchased, and the building—the only one of its kind in Texas—was completed in 1936.

Of one of the buildings to be replaced, when the announcement as to the site was made, the Port Arthur News said:

The Plaza Natatorium, a fashionable watering place in the days when excursion trains brought their loads of curious to witness the oil boom at Spindle Top, soon will be effaced as a Port Arthur landmark. Picture postcards of the once stately building, with flags flying from the roof gables, in early days traveled over the nation with their messages of greeting from visitors in Port Arthur. . . . Long unused, it has fallen into disrepair and was becoming the prey of vandals.

One of the worst water-front fires in the history of the city raged through the night of July 1, when an explosion and resultant blaze aboard the Gulf Refining Company Shenango spread to another barge alongside, then to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Courier. A string of box cars was next in line, and sparks from the burning ships set fire to the coke loading rack across the turning basin. Five smaller craft were destroyed.

Revision of the city charter was voted in another election on August 15, in one of the lightest polls ever recorded in the city. A commission of fifteen was authorized to do the work. On August 20, in an effort to save money, the city commissioners voted to save $20,743 annually on the street lighting bill by cutting off fifty per cent of the lights.

Official recognition of completion of the seawall and Pleasure Pier bridge was made on October 17, 1931, with a parade nearly two miles in length. At the end of the line of march at the new bridge, Senator Thomas Holbrook of Galveston made the dedicatory address in which he said:

These projects — the seawall and bridge — should not be considered simply as the greatest achievements in Port Arthur's history. They should be considered as paving your way for the city's next advancement.

Then gold and silver coins from a flower-draped receptacle were scattered on the bridge, a long garland of moss across the entrance was cut and officials and participants crossed to the man-made island. The seawall was christened with sand from a large ocean shell as part of the ceremony.

Opening of the Manufacturers' and Jobbers' and Jobbers' Agents Exposition was held on February 1, 1932, in the Tyrrell Building (now the Bluestein Building) with 10,000 persons in attendance. The purpose of the exposition was to provide "inspiration for the support of a program to decrease unemployment here by increasing business enough through circulation of Port Arthur dollars in Port Arthur."

Four days later, the city, for the first time in its history went on a scrip basis in meeting wages and salaries. The Port Arthur News described the event:

Scrip issuance on general funds payrolls followed exhaustion of the fund through pledging of tax receipts by the city to secure loans aggregating $103,000 made by the bank (First National Bank, city depository) to the city. . . . Length of time under which payment to employes affected will be on a scrip basis is purely conjectural, depending on tax receipts.

Hundreds watched the U. S. Frigate Constitution (Old Iron-sides) on Tuesday, March 8, 1932 as, towed by the United States mine sweeper Brebe, and escorted by two tugs, she moved up the Sabine-Neches Canal to Beaumont. Four days later she returned to Port Arthur, and after much maneuvering tied up at the Mexican Docks. The Port Arthur News said:

In the same gusty weather in which she rode into Boston harbor 120 years ago . . . the U. S. Frigate Constitution nosed into her docks here. . . . While lines were being made fast to the docks, fire hose attached, and gangplanks fastened into place, the American Legion drum and bugle corps paraded on the docks, executing drills and playing numbers. Bunting was flying from the spars of the British tanker, Trentbank, docked in the Texas Company Island terminals.

Between the first appearance of the ship and her return to Port Arthur, the city held an election that was described as "the most outstanding majority for the city manager form of government in the history of Texas." The Port Arthur News of March 12, 1932, declared:

Seven City Commissioners today formally laid hands to the task of bringing the municipal government out of its dizzy plunge into extravagance and debt. . . . Mayor Logan and commissioners Williams and Regan affixed their names to the document that automatically clipped off their titles and removed them from office. It was a resolution directing the mayor to send to Austin the certified copy of the charter. . . . With the formal certification of results by the outs going commissioners, the charter was adopted definitely placing Griffing Park, Lakeview and Old Griffing out of the city limits.

The new city manager, Robert Cooper, who had held that position at Albuquerque, N. Mex., began his duties on April 18.

Dedication of the new Rue des Soldats (Street of the Soldiers), adjacent to the ship channel and below the levees, occurred on Memorial Day, as civilians, soldiers, and veterans paid tribute to the city's war dead. Describing the event, the Port Arthur News said:

The service . . . climaxed a three months' beautification drive sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Hamilton Smith Post No. '797, to plant oleanders the length of the scenic drive. . . . Gov. R. S. Sterling, counseling his listeners to "smile through" the attendant unstabilized economic situation . . . delivered the principal address.

Oleanders, in groups of six plants that have white blossoms and six of pink blooms, line the levee for the twenty-four blocks of driveway that wind along the canal in one of the most colorful of the city's boulevards.

Interurban service between Port Arthur and Beaumont was discontinued on August 15, and hourly bus service installed. The Port Arthur News on August 7, commented:

Interurban service was begun Dec. 16, 1913. . .. During the time of its existence, the interurban line has lived up to its slogan "speed with safety" with no passenger fatally or seriously injured. . . . Total of 9,077,472 passengers have been carried and the interurban . . . has traveled approximately 6,624;75'7 miles. Passenger Car No. 1 made the first trip over the road at 9 a.m. Dec. 16, 1913. Without juggling schedules, the same car has made that trip each anniversary of the inaugural journey.

Beaumont interests, by the first of October, were protesting the United States Post Office and Federal Building proposed bridge across the Neches River, 3,500 feet above Dryden Ferry on the Port Arthur-Orange road. But the War Department ratified plans for the structure late on the afternoon of December 26, 1933, ending the opposition of Beaumont and Standard Oil Company interests.

Meantime, twenty-nine sportsmen banded together as the Port Arthur Hunting Club, Inc., receiving a charter on November 17. Twenty-four members lived in Port Arthur, three in Beaumont, one in Nederland and one in Houston. The club acquired a two-year lease on 30,000 acres of the great marsh southwest of Port Arthur; the preserve was in the form of a ribbon about seventeen miles long, extending from Knight's Lake past Star Lake. Two camps for members were provided, one on McFaddin's Beach, the other a houseboat on the Intracoastal Canal, fifteen miles from Port Arthur.

First of the Federal subsistence homestead colonies to be established in Jefferson County was started in January, 1934, when it was announced that a 205-acre tract had been selected on the West Port Arthur highway, approximately two miles west of Nederland. Since the colony of fifty families was located midway between Beaumont and Port Arthur, it was named Beaux-Art Gardens.

During the first week of September, Drake Plaza, on Stilwell Boulevard between Procter Street and Lake Shore Drive, was dedicated in honor of Rollin L. Drake, former superintendent of the Texas Company case and package department, who died earlier in the year at Tulsa, Okla. Services were held in front of Memorial Library, while Judge Raymond Murray "eulogized the former Port Arthur citizen and his work on civic projects."

Residents listened to a ten-hour broadcast from Station KPAC on Sunday, October 14, as they "were exhorted . . . in the manner of an old-time revival . . . to furnish enough money from private pocketbooks to carry on the fight for a bridge." The broadcast originated when C. S. Flanagan and other members of the Chamber of Commerce asked the Rudolph Lambert Post of the American Legion to assist in carrying on the "fight for the new Port Arthur-Orange Bridge." "It takes money," the committee said, "to gather engineering data and to send men to Washington and Austin to present this data. Now, we need $2,500 to carry on this fight, and we've come to ask you to help us raise it." The veterans worked out a plan for appeals to be made by radio; and when donors responded by telephone, the veterans would drive out and collect donations.

On the Friday prior to the broadcast a football game was played in Lake Charles, La., in which the Port Arthur high school team participated. When hundreds of Port Arthur fans driving to the contest arrived at Dryden Ferry, they found a traffic jam. The little twelve-car ferry shuttled busily back and forth trying to get everybody across in time, but motorists waited hours for their turns. So, when requests for bridge donations were made, the Legionnaires found response greater than they anticipated. Contributions ranged from 25 cents to $5. Most of the fund was raised on Sunday, and within three days, the remainder was secured.

The first all-welded tug constructed in Port Arthur was launched on October 25. The Samson, built by the Gulfport Boiler and Welding Works, was sixty-seven feet long, with a seventeen-foot beam. Drawing between six and seven feet of water, the vessel, powered by a six-cylinder Diesel engine, was constructed for the Sabine Towing Company, at a cost of $50,000.

Four days later, drivers of the Eastern Texas Electric Company walked out in a strike involving wages and working conditions, and bus transportation came to a standstill. Pickets were thrown around company offices and car barns at the corner of Houston Avenue and 7th Street. Busses belonging to an allied concern, the Beaumont-Port Arthur line, stood idle. Privately owned automobiles and taxis were put into service transporting businessmen and employees. Two days later, both the companies and employees agreed to arbitrate and bus lines resumed service.

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