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Boom And Building

( Originally Published 1940 )



AMID ITS STARKLY NEW BUILDINGS THE INFANT city of Port Arthur, like a young girl going to her first grown-up party, preened itself with hastily perfected improvements—including a 2,500-foot export pier—for a great excursion of home seekers that would make or break the Stilwell dream of a port metropolis here on Lake Sabine.

The first official excursion train of the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad left Kansas City for Port Arthur on April 5, 1897. Assembled aboard was a capacity crowd of prospective new residents for Port Arthur, and capitalists, real estate promoters, newspaper and railroad men. The trip was free; nothing had been spared to make the excursion enjoyable. There even was a string orchestra. Dining car menus included such delicacies as snipe, quail, plover, strawberries, and other rare items of food, supposed to have been obtained from the Gulf coast destination of the excursion.

When the train arrived in Port Arthur on April 8, those in charge rushed their visitors by carriages from the new station to the Experimental Farm, where the operators displayed potatoes ready for market, beans, peas, figs, oranges, lemons and limes, citrons, and pomegranates.

Two-thirds of the passengers decided to remain in Port Arthur, and would-be purchasers hurried to secure the best land. Profits as high as $100 a day were made by fly-by-night speculators. This curbstone brokerage caused so much controversy that the Townsite Company issued an edict that none but bona fide company representatives might handle sales.

On the same day that the first official excursion arrived, an event that was to affect the future of the town occurred in New Orleans.

Maj. James B. Quinn of the United States Engineering Corps, wrote a letter about the new canal to the town's backers in which he said:

There is nothing objectionable to the location of the canal so long as it does not interfere with the riparian rights of owners of lands adjoining.

From this statement was to come a series of lawsuits brought by Kountze Brothers, bankers of New York and Omaha, and others, which delayed and raised the cost of construction of Stilwell's canal from $700,000 to $1,400,000. But at the time, the letter seemed favorable and dredging work was pushed.

The new town was not without catastrophes. On August 22 the first major fire occurred in the blacksmith shop of Stewart and Rollins at Houston Avenue and 5th Street. Agitation for creation of a fire department followed, but so many other, things were happening that it was forgotten.

Fifty students registered for the fall term of school. The faculty was increased to include a male professor and a "lady assistant," both of whom were paid by popular subscription.

Saturday, September 11, 1897, dawned clear and bright, and the last spike of Stilwell's railroad, the Pee Gee as it was called, was driven amid great celebration. Excursion trains were run into Port Arthur from as far away as Lake Charles, La. Pleasure Pier was open; restaurants and saloons did an unprecedented business. There were parades and speech making, and by the end of the day most of the visitors had decided Port Arthur was the section's most promising town. Some went home that night. Others remained--to undergo a harrowing experience.

Early the next morning, while Port Arthur was still asleep, a tropical hurricane struck. The newly completed railroad roundhouse collapsed, killing four persons who had taken refuge there. Pleasure Pier was damaged; every residence was blown from its foundations and some were turned upside down; few houses had a whole window remaining. Water rushed five feet deep down Procter Street; cattle, hogs, alligators, snakes, and muskrats swam to higher land for safety.

Awakened by the scream of the wind, residents joined hands and aiding each other ran to Hotel Sabine, or to the new railroad station for shelter. A man named Lindsay took charge of matters at the hotel, where the water stood two feet deep on the first floor. Rounding up the few Negro employees, he put them to work covering windows with bedding and furniture.

When the storm had abated in the early hours of Monday morning, men with lanterns searched for the dead and injured. Apparently only ten persons were killed and a few more than that injured, but property damage was great.

The moment Stilwell received notice of the havoc he dispatched a relief train over his newly completed railroad, sending $15,000. Streets were quickly cleared of debris and damaged buildings speedily repaired. Business returned to normal, and the little village reassumed its air of prosperity.

Toward the end of the year, Andries M. Rutan and Benjamin S. Elmendorf took a voluntary census and found the population to be 1,100. It was decided that the town could be incorporated, and an election was ordered for March 29, 1898.

Meantime, Stilwell and his companies were encountering difficulties as their canal was pushed toward Sabine Pass. That town had been almost completely destroyed by the storms of 1872 and 1886, and the Kountze interests, which owned 1,200 acres near the Pass, had built a new town, called Sabine, about a mile southeast of the old one. Since they had failed to interest Stilwell in their property, they in turn were not interested in the construction of a canal that might bring Port Arthur into direct competition with their town, and at once started agitation to prevent successful completion of Stilwell's tidewater port.

Claiming that the new channel would fill the Pass end of their own canal with mud and silt from the Sabine and Neches Rivers—which the United States Government had built jetties to protect—they drew up the first of nearly a score of petitions which they presented to Federal courts and secured an injunction.

The Port Arthur Canal and Dock Company, faced with the possibility of defeat, decided to dredge the canal through its own land instead of through Lake Sabine, as had been planned. Work was started from Taylor's Bayou and continued to the Pass.

This time an injunction was granted the Kountze interests on the claim of the riparian rights which had been referred to in Major Quinn's letter, and work was stopped once more. In the meantime, the Dock Company was making good use of its 2,500-foot export pier at the foot of Houston Avenue. Freight was shipped to this pier, loaded on barges, which were towed by tugs, and then transferred to ships lying in the upper end of the Pass. All vessels were thus loaded and sailed on schedule, and by this makeshift arrangement, from January through April, 1898, thousands of bales of cotton, millions of feet of lumber, tons of raw zinc in 200-pound pigs, trainloads of flour, shelled corn and other items from the Mid-West, were exported. The business totaled 25,950 tons with a value of $1,177,000.

Port Arthur now experienced its first serious labor trouble. Capt. Christopher M. Flanagan, a fighting Irishman who, so local tradition says, "could eat a whole turkey and all the fixin's at one settin'," was responsible for the loading and unloading of all barges and trains. His men worked by the hour. There was no overtime; they worked until they finished. When the longshoremen struck for fixed hours, overtime pay, and a raise in wages, Flanagan was unable to meet their demands.

On the second day of the strike, with ship captains angry over the delay in their sailing schedules, and with docks freight-crowded, the clerks decided to shovel corn — which in those days came to the warehouses in bulk and was scooped into sacks — merely to pass the time.

Flanagan offered them sixty cents an hour to continue their work and load the waiting ships. They accepted the offer; ships sailed on schedule, the longshoremen returned to work, and presently a settlement satisfied all parties.

A year later, arrangements were made to load grain by machinery directly into ships' holds.

Several types of industry were undertaken by the Townsite Company in developing Port Arthur. Oyster beds were planted, a wharf built, and facilities secured to convey the bivalves to Kansas City and other Mid-Western markets. Mollusks were taken from the Lake, washed, placed in tank cars in fresh water and sent on their way. It was supposed that they would survive a thirty-hour trip. High speed schedules were demanded of the railroads to prevent deterioration, but the tank cars were top-heavy and accidents resulted. Shipments were stopped following several wrecks, and oysters were sold to local people at twenty-five cents a hundred. In 1940 all that remained of this promotional attempt were rotted piles of the old wharves along the waterfront.

Another source of income for the new railroad was the importation of sisal from Progreso, Mex., for reshipment to Chicago to be manufactured into twine and rope. The Spanish-American War halted this importation and it was not resumed.

The street transportation system, used to carry workmen to the export pier, was known as the Hobo Line. Pee Gee officials collected some condemned flat cars, placed canvas tops and sides on them and charged passengers ten cents a trip. The system lasted until 1910, when it was discontinued for more modern facilities.

Incorporation of the city was voted on March 29, 1898, and on May 21, the first election of officers was held; Nat R. Strong was chosen mayor defeating his opponent by one vote. The deciding ballot was cast by Rome H. Woodworth (for whom the boulevard was named, and who later became mayor), who had in his pocket the customary, previously-marked ballot and a check for $25. He accidentally deposited the latter in the ballot box, discovering his mistake too late to rectify it.

Although the town was now incorporated, fire insurance companies refused local policies because of inadequate volunteer fire protection. The board of aldermen established a series of cisterns at street intersections, and a hand pump was purchased by the city.

There still was much lawlessness. On June 20, 1898, Ordinance No. Six was passed, making it unlawful for anyone to carry "on their person or in their saddle or saddlebags, dirks, pistols, daggers, slung shot, sword canes, spears, knuckles made of metal or any other hard substance, bowie and all other kinds of knives sold for offense or defense." After a few arrests for violation of the ordinance, street brawls grew less frequent and settlers felt safer.

To care for the ever-increasing number of newcomers, a steam table that attracted much attention was added to the kitchen of the Hotel Sabine. A new organization appeared, the Liars' Club, composed of businessmen, contractors, and railroaders, who met each evening in the lobby of the hotel and spent the time telling tall stories. Women residents organized the Women's Self-Improvement Club, which met weekly.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, 100 men met at the school building and formed a military company. Meantime, the Townsite Company proceeded with its plans for Port Arthur. Another new industry appeared, a fish-oil plant near the present-day Mexican Docks. Often a dozen fishing vessels simultaneously unloaded their slippery, silvery cargoes on the receiving platforms of the company. Owners of the plant became involved in an argument with the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad regarding switching charges; and when it was refused use of the railroad tracks, the plant was dismantled and taken elsewhere.

Amusements were not overlooked in the new city. The theater building at first stood in Sour Lake but when word of the boom at Port Arthur reached that town, Horace L. Rodgers, owner, tore it down, shipped it piece by piece to Port Arthur, and reassembled it at the corner of 4th Street and Austin Avenue. Road shows were so infrequent that in the intervals, the building was converted into a skating rink. It was a cold, barn-like structure, exceedingly drafty. When Keltner's Band played Port Arthur in the winter of 1898, the thermometer stood at seven degrees above zero. During their first appearance, the kilted musicians caught such severe colds that engagements were postponed for several days.

On November 11, 1898, the first plat of the town was filed for record at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont, and a census was ordered. The population had jumped to 1,800. Port Arthur had a school with 180 pupils in attendance, Methodist and Lutheran churches, two banks, one privately-owned electric light plant, one privately-owned telephone company, a brick plant, twenty miles of graded streets, nine miles of wooden sidewalks, a grain elevator with a capacity of 50,000 bushels, 300 business and dwelling houses, a natatorium, one pleasure pier and pavilion, the Hotel Sabine, an export pier, the Grand Terminal Depot, and seven miles of rice canals, with a pumping station. The city had received its first official seal, had purchased a fire engine, and awarded a contract to dig fire wells.

During the week of January 1, 1899, the Townsite Company reported large sales of property; the Port Arthur Mexican Steamship Company, operating a freight line to Mexican ports, shipped Lake Sabine sand to Progreso for building purposes; a warehouse 90 by 700 feet was being built by the Dock Company; and aldermen were advocating municipal ownership of utilities.

Hotel Sabine was the pride of the townfolk. The Port Arthur Herald, March 30, 1899, thus described it:

This hotel ranks among the best in the South, and its reputation is well deserved. Its site is magnificent, overlooking as it does beautiful Lake Sabine, a vast stretch of water on the bosom of which the sun light sparkles and the rays of the moon paint a silver sheen. From the outside of the hotel grounds which form a beautiful park filled with rare tropical plants, the pleasure pier extends for a distance of a quarter of a mile into the lake. The hotel and pier are brilliantly lighted with arc and incandescent lights. . . . In the main building, which is three stories high, there are thirty sleeping rooms and a large parlor. The annex contains forty sleeping rooms.

The Port Arthur Ship Canal was taking shape rapidly. A Kountze injunction, which the Canal supporters hoped would be the last one, had been dissolved late in December. So, on January 10, 1899, the crews of two dredges, the Florida and the R. P. Clark were put to work at each end of the Canal. By the morning of February 1, 6,200 lineal feet had been excavated, leaving a balance of 7,500 feet to dredge.

And now the Kountze brothers appealed to Gen. Russell G. Alger, Secretary of War, resulting in orders temporarily suspending dredging operations. This latest action was based on the claim that the Canal would convey the waters of Taylor's Bayou directly into Sabine Pass, and that the silt from this bayou would be deposited between the Sabine Pass jetties.

Robert Gillham, chief engineer of the Canal Company, placed silt-testing instruments from the mouth to the source of Taylor's Bayou. He soon announced that if all the silt that could be found in the bayou could be carried into the jetties, it would take exactly 100 years to deposit one foot. These facts having been presented to General Alger, he, on February 16, removed the restraining order. Backers of the Canal were happy once more. They estimated that the work could be finished by March 10.

On March 9, George M. Craig, manager of the Port Arthur Townsite Company, Gillham and other company officials were sitting on the porch of the Hotel Sabine, watching the dredges pushing toward each other.

A messenger dashed up to them shouting that a United States Engineer's boat was approaching. The group was electrified. This had happened so often that they knew another injunction was about to be served.

Craig advised Gillham and the others to leave at once and let him handle the situation. Gillham sent word to the railroad yards to have his private car prepared. He and his assistants departed the hack way, just as the engineer's boat tied up at the Pleasure Pier.

Charles Quinn, Federal engineer in charge of the Sabine area, climbed out of the boat and walked toward the hotel. Craig, who knew young Quinn, went down to meet him and immediately became the perfect host. He asked Quinn to have a drink with him, which the young man agreed to, although somewhat taken aback by this cordial reception. The two men talked about many things, but not about the Canal. Every time young Quinn reached toward his pocket, Craig insisted upon his guest having a cigar or another drink. Finally, when Quinn said he could smoke and drink no more, Craig insisted that they lunch together.

After lunch Quinn thanked Craig for his hospitality, pulled out a telegram, and asked Craig to read it. As had been expected, it contained orders from the Secretary of War, addressed to Mr. Gillham, to stop work on the Canal.

Quinn said the dredges must be stopped at once, and Craig, pointing out that the telegram was not addressed to him but to the chief engineer, asked if he would mind delivering it to the dredge captains. The young man departed, feeling that he had accomplished an unpleasant task in a most agreeable manner.

In a short time the dredges ceased their excavations. Craig demanded an explanation; the dredge captains said they understood that they had his orders to stop.

"I have no authority to stop you," Craig said. He suggested, "You'd better start those dredges at once if you expect to finish this job by tomorrow morning," and mentioned a bonus of $100 for each crew if they completed their work by that time.

The Canal was finished at dawn.

An enthusiastic impromptu celebration was held by residents who had lined the pier all night waiting for the event.

Formal opening of the Canal took place as scheduled, on March 25, with officials of affiliated companies, including Stilwell and nearly all the stockholders of the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad, present. Members of the legislatures of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and other Mid-Western States were also on hand. It was Port Arthur's greatest celebration.

Five months later the St. Oswald, a British ship, drawing 17 feet of water, steamed up the Canal and docked at the grain elevator—the first steamship to reach Port Arthur.

The Beaumont Journal on August 18, 1899, said:

Yesterday was a day of jubilating at Port Arthur, the occasion being the arrival of the first steamship at that port, which came up through the canal to the grain elevator. The vessel will load with grain, taking on half its cargo at the elevator, and the remaining cargo further down the canal.

While the ship was at the dock a baby was born to Mr. and Mrs. John Carr, British subjects living in Port Arthur. The infant was taken aboard and christened Edith St. Oswald Carr by the master, William B. Curtis.

Having loaded 75,000 bushels of grain, on September 7 the vessel dropped down the channel where 1,382,000 pounds of flour, 322 tons of staves, and 300,000 feet of lumber were taken on. The cargo was consigned to Rotterdam. When the ship sailed, it drew 26 feet of water.

Finding that ocean-going vessels could safely navigate their new ship channel, the Port Arthur Canal and Dock Company announced that it would be "completed to a depth of twenty-six feet within the next sixty days. Vessels will then complete their cargo at the Port Arthur docks and elevator."

In the meantime Stilwell's railroad had become so useful that more cars became necessary. Timber men, coal dealers, and others had their books filled with orders, but were unable to ship their products.

Since part of Stilwell's plan had been to provide transportation for products of the Middle West, he began searching for more cars. He remembered his friend George Pullman, who had agreed to help because of his early friendship with Hamblin Stilwell. Arrangements completed, Pullman asked Stilwell to meet him in Chicago, but the latter had so much business that he was delayed. When

he alighted from his private ear several days later he heard newsboys crying:

"Extra! Extra! All about the death of George Pullman!"

That was the first of a series of setbacks to befall Stilwell. On Easter morning, 1899, he picked up a newspaper and found to his amazement that his railroad and trust company had gone into the hands of a receiver because of a $44 printing bill that an auditor had overlooked.

Then into the story of Port Arthur came John Warne — better known as Bet-a-Million—Gates.

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