INTO THE JEFFERSON COUNTY SCENE IN 1895 CAME Arthur Edward Stilwell, erstwhile successful insurance salesman, head of a transportation system and trust company, and believer in dreams, hunches, and the supernatural creatures that he called “Brownies” to build what he later described as “the only city ever located and built under directions from the spirit world . . . so recognized and acknowledged.”
Descendant of English and Dutch pioneers who had emigrated to America six generations previously, Stilwell was the scion of a family of builders who moved with the wealthiest groups of the day. His paternal grandfather, Hamblin Stilwell, helped construct the Erie Canal, built a part of the New York Central Railroad, and was one of the founders of the Western Union Telegraph Company. His father, Charles, was a leading jeweler of Rochester, N. Y.
When his Port Arthur experiences were many years past, he wrote, with collaboration by James A. Crowell, the story of his life. The facts that follow as to Stilwell’s early days, and such quotations as are ascribed directly to him, are on the authority of that autobiography.
He was a frail child, an invalid until he was seven. He was the first grandchild and the pet of his grandfather. Of this period, he later wrote:
My education was necessarily neglected. Eventually I reached the fourth grade . . . and as it turned out, this was as far as I ever went.
When the eldest Stilwell had business in New York, Arthur, after his health had improved, often accompanied him. They made their headquarters at the Astor House, and usually paid a visit to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, chief of the New York Central, at his office or home. Long technical discussions of railroad problems between his grandfather and the commodore never bored the boy. One day, following such a visit, his grandfather asked him at dinner what he was going to do when he grew up. Arthur replied, “I’m going West and build a railroad.”
It had a bearing on the youth’s future that another friend of Hamblin Stilwell, thirty years Arthur’s senior, was George M. Pullman, Chatauqua County cabinet-maker who had gone West, and in Chicago was building sleeping cars and accumulating a fortune.
Often left alone and given to letting his imagination roam, young Stilwell developed the belief in occult influences which was to dominate his life. His father and mother, he wrote in his autobiography, called it “a sixth sense.” He was not quite fifteen when he informed them one day that he had seen the girl he was going to marry, and they accepted his statement as fact. Presently he was able to tell them that the girl’s name was Jennie A. Wood, and they suggested that he bring her to call.
“I did so,” he wrote, “and my parents approved of her; but then I have always felt that this was no great accomplishment on their part, for I believed at that time and have always believed since that they couldn’t have done otherwise.”
At the age of sixteen, with a capital of $75, Stilwell ran away to St. Louis and found a job in the Southern Hotel billiard room, racking balls and playing with the guests. His stay was short because his skill with the cue was not sufficient to prevent there being “too many games on the house.” In a New York City novelty establishment, he secured work as a floorwalker. Then word came that his father, dabbling in Pennsylvania oil, had been financially ruined. His savings now having reached a total of $400, young Stilwell returned to Rochester, where he purchased a printing plant of two presses and several fonts of type, and engaged a young printer to help him in the shop and instruct him in printing. During the day, he solicited business, and at night, with his helper, made layouts. As a side line, he sold legal forms. Then he became a traveling salesman for a firm of stationers.
He observed that the time-tables of the New York Central Railroad carried paid advertisements, but that Southern railroads had no such system. He went to Richmond, Va.where Jennie Wood was now livingand made arrangements with leading railroads to print their time-tables without cost to them, he to retain advertising profits and be supplied with passes on their lines. With free train transportation and due bills from the hotels that advertised in the time-tables, he found a wholesale stationer in Baltimore who needed a salesman, and before he was twenty had an income of $2,000 a year. At Five Forks Courthouse, Va., he and Jennie Wood were married.
Deploring his educational limitations, Stilwell now concentrated on improving his vocabularybecoming, as he afterward wrote, a “word hound.” ‘Whenever anyone in his presence used a word with which he was unfamiliar, he looked it up in the dictionary and at his first opportunity fitted it into conversation. Never out of his mind was his intention to go West some day and build a railroad. He utilized his time-table connections to learn everything about railroads that he could. Meantime he became assistant state agent for an insurance company, and designed and obtained copyrights on several new insurance and annuity forms.
In the West, especially in Kansas and Nebraska, business conditions were depressed. Farmers were unable to meet expenses, mortgages were foreclosed, corn was so cheap that it was burned for fuel. Stilwell decided the time had come for him to go West and get on toward his railroad building, which he believed should be to a Southern port as an outlet for export shipments, with a substantial reduction of transportation costs. “I had a hunch,” he wrote. “All the small successes I had gained thus far in life had found their beginnings in hunches. All the more important things I was to do in later years came about the same way.”
He had saved $25,000 hardly the capital needed by a railroad builder. He increased it by creating a trust company that sold houses and lots on the endowment policy plan. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, he had a million-dollar organization in full operation with headquarters in Kansas City, and his salary was $6,000 a year.
The next six years were busy ones. He launched the Kansas City Suburban Belt Line, constructed the Grand Central Railway Station, completed Fairmont Park and engaged William Jennings Bryan for a $100 fee to speak at its opening, said to be the first remuneration “the Boy Orator of the Platte” received as a lecturer. Finding that the Missouri Pacific Railroad in the Kansas City yards was using land without knowledge or permission of the owners, he proceeded to buy the property, which brought him to the unfavorable attention of the Gould interests. He purchased coal mines at Hume, Mo., and started building his dream of the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad.
His plans, as the railroad construction moved southward, were based upon having his terminal at Galveston and buying the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad, which ran from Shreveport to Houston. He negotiated with the Galveston Terminal Company, secured an option on the Houston, East and West Texas road, and called a meeting of his board of directors to act upon its purchase.
Then, according to his autobiography, he had a dream and received a spirit message which commanded him not to purchase the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad but to build directly south from Shreveport through the forests of Louisiana and locate his terminal city on the north shore of Lake Sabine, connecting it with deep water by means of a canal. This he was instructed to dig on the west shore of the lake, putting the earth on the east bank to protect the canal from any storm. His mentors in the dream, he wrote, prophesied that Galveston would some day be destroyed. Stilwell maintained that in this vision he saw a “perfect map of the canal, docks and turning basin just as they exist todaynot the slightest change.”
With associates he visited Sabine Pass a few days later to examine the property of the Kountze interests, then started toward Kansas City on the Sabine and East Texas Railroad, which skirted the west shore of the lake. Stilwell thus recounted what followed:
I turned to Mr. Taylor, pointing to the north shore of the lake four miles away and said, “There is the future terminal of our road. Here will be the docks,” pointing to the land where they exist. I was so convinced of the Brownies’ plan that I did not stop the train to investigate further, but the following week sent competent real estate men to purchase the land on which Port Arthur is now located. We paid the princely sum of $7 an acre. . . .
When Stilwell’s directors met, the vote as to purchasing the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad was unanimously negative. After advantages of the land-locked harbor on the north shore of Lake Sabine were pointed out, the directors subscribed $2,000,000 and authorized work to begin immediately. Wrote Stilwellincidentally explaining why the city is called Port Arthur:
“My faith in the Brownies’ directions had enabled me to carry conviction to the directors and as if by magic there arose great elevators, warehouses, docks and piers and the prosperous city of Port Arthur, to which the Brownies told me to give my first name.”
With thousands of acres under their control, the directorate organized the Port Arthur Townsite and Land Company, financed by Dutch capital. Four thousand acres were set aside for the city. A subsidiary organization, the Port Arthur Canal and Dock Company, purchased “all that land between the townsite of Port Arthur and Taylor’s Bayou.”
During the winter of 1895, the town site was platted, and scores of engineers were at work on Stilwell’s canal. Port Arthur was enjoying its first boom, with fifty persons employed on company projects living in hastily erected tents and rude shelters, which were replaced by the town’s first boarding house. Among these workers was a sixteen-year-old youth, Robert E. Wood, who afterward was graduated from West Point, became a brigadier general, and in 1940 was Chairman of the Board of the Sears, Roebuck & Company.
Supplies were hauled by wagon over the marshland from Beaumont. It took at least an entire day to complete the round trip. The route was so badly marked that it was dangerous to travel at night and drivers were in constant danger of becoming lost. To better conditions and give the little town an outside contact, a railroad was built on an old grade of the Sabine and East Texas. The only early business of the road, completed in 1896, was that of hauling supplies to Port Arthur.
A saloon and a bakery sprang up almost overnight. Procter Street, now a main thoroughfare, and named for Col. William Procter, of soap manufacturing fame, was indicated by two long plowed furrows, thrown up on both sides of a dirt street. In rainy weather, planks placed end to end were the only means of passage. Workmen not only contended with the inconveniences of a new town, but wherever they went wore two pairs of trousers, two shirts, heavy gloves, boots, and netting about their hats to keep off hordes of ravenous mosquitoes. This condition was made worse by droves of cattle roaming at will over the town site, followed by swarms of the pests. Inside a few stores, sulphur was burned to protect customers.
Among the pioneers who purchased lots in Port Arthur in the spring of 1896, was Joseph Bash, the town’s first merchant. He selected a location in the 300 block of Procter Street, paying $225 for it. As afterward admitted, he thought he was “skun,” but dauntlessly erected a combination store and living quarters. Returning to Beaumont he placed his goods in charge of teamsters for an overland trip, while he and his family traveled by rail to West Port Arthur, three miles from the new town. The last part of the trip was completed in a wagon.
The Stilwell interests worked rapidly, for they knew that a successful town promotion must have everything ready before home-seekers arrived. By March, 1896, the first export pier of the Canal and Dock Company was under way, the Hotel Sabine, the Pleasure Pier, and the Natatorium had been started. Deep water wells had been drilled, although nothing had been done about drainage.
Knowing that settlers would be interested in the soil’s fertility, Stilwell induced Frank H. Hammon, superintendent of the Darby Fruit Farm at Kansas City, Mo., to come to Port Arthur in November, 1896, and set up an experimental farm. Hammon selected a site of 320 acres, now in Griffing, and laid them out in vegetable and flower gardens and fruit orchards. Two large beds were planted in tobacco.
Climate and soil were conducive to rapid growth, and soon efforts of the plant wizard were heralded throughout the United States. Pamphlets, brochures, and advertisements were sent to land company agents for distribution. Effectiveness of this advertising campaign became evident a year later, when every arriving train was jammed with home seekers. Much earlier, however, they had begun to arrive in small groups. Those who came in January looked down on the “pilgrims of February” as newcomers, both classes combining to awe the “tenderfeet of March.”
In March, 1897, the Townsite Company issued a folder widely distributed throughout the United States. It said:
Some of the principal improvements at Port Arthur are the Sabine Hotel, beautiful in architecture, first class in equipment, and a delight to every guest; the Natatorium, the finest in the south, main bathing pool 68 x 81, depth 3 to 8 feet, supplied with fresh running water from an artesian well, flowing 400,000 gallons daily. This new Alhambra, finished in Alabaster white is complete in every feature for both medical and pleasure bathing, and the magnificent Lake pavilion, situated out in the water a thousand feet from the shore, is a most popular resort for surf bathing and boating.
Port Arthur was ready for large, well-planned excursions, although casual visitors showing an interest in the new town, were already being “royally wined and dined,” free of charge. Col. James Furlong of Kansas City, nationally famed as a host, became manager of the new hotel.
Although residents were becoming more numerous, alligators and snakes, which endangered the lives of children playing in the so-called streets, were as much in evidence as the new inhabitants. A visitor, later describing early days, said:
At best, Port Arthur was a gloomy place, the abode of hogs, mos- quitoes and cattle, and at night droves of rats took possession of the dark wash-boarded streets, and in the day time, they made “whoopee” under the trunk lines of wooden sidewalks.
Peter Stock’s Port Saloon on Procter Street bore the invitation, “Anchor Here,” and extending down the sidewalk was a trailer sign announcing, “We Want 1,000 Men to Unload Schooners.”
One of the earliest organized excursionsthe first “official” excursion being scheduled for a few weeks laterarrived in Port Arthur on the morning of March 18, 1897, under the supervision of Billy Edwards and Edward J. V. Moffet.
The editor of the Port Arthur Herald, who had been in town only two weeks, made a successful effort to have his first issue ready for distribution when the excursion train came in. On the train itself the Port Arthur News was born. Its Washington hand press was set up in a baggage car, and its initial edition was run off there on March 17, the day before the train reached its destination.
With his background of a fortnight’s residence, the Herald’s editor was able to write more authoritatively about the city than his rival. He welcomed the arrivals warmly. Under the headline, “To the Excursionists,” he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen. . . . Port Arthur is yours, or at least as much as you are able to pay for. . .. Take everything you fancy except the townsite. . . . Keep off the grass. Don’t shoot at the mosquitoes. This is the closed season under the Texas game laws. Don’t fall in the lake; you will get your feet wet.
This paper, today preserved in the Gates Memorial Library, also pointed out that the “activity of building in Port Arthur is one of the marked features of the city’s progress,” and went on to deplore the fact that the Beaumont lumber mills were unable to meet the demands of builders in the new town. “Some carpenters were compelled to leave town a few days ago because they could not get board, but restaurants and lunch counters are now becoming numerous and large tents supplied with long lines of cots furnish sleeping quarters for many.”
Lumber was cheap, the editor wrote, consequently all of the houses were of frame. However, a brick plant had been established southwest of town and it was anticipated that bricks soon would be turned out at $7 to $8 a thousand, since the clay had been tested and found suitable.
“The handsomest structure,” he said, “is the new terminal station of the K. C. P. & G. railway at the head of Procter Street.” Within a month, with virtual completion of the railroad, the first official excursion was expected to arrive, and every effort was being made to have the station in readiness.
Excitement over new arrivals was not allowed to interfere with normal progress. A school was needed. The newly organized Pert Arthur Real Estate Board called a mass meeting in the Town Hall over the Port Arthur Bank, as a result of which, at 6 a. m., March 26, men of the village met on a block of land on Shreveport Avenue, set aside by the Townsite Company for school purposes Materials and services had been donated, and Peter Stock, who could not leave his saloon long enough to help, sent free beer.
By nightfall the school, including crude blackboards and benches, was completed. Because Edward A. Laughlin had furnished the lumber, it was named the Laughlin School. Miss Mollie Moore of Shreveport, La., was engaged as teacher, and by March 31 the school was in operation with twelve pupils. The term lasted three months, and before school reopened in the fall, the entire picture of the town had changed.