FROM AN ALLIGATOR-INFESTED AND FEVER-RIDden swamp, in less than a half-century, to a modern, pulsing, landscaped city of nearly 50,000 inhabitantsmore than 60,000 in its metropolitan areaseventh among United States seaports and third among those of Texas; this is the story of Port Arthur, product of one of the most amazing promotional schemes ever pushed to realization.
Conceived during the period of the ruthless financial titans who flourished in the 1890’s, the life thread of the town hung for years on the destinies of two men, Arthur E. Stilwell and John W. Gates, and only by knowing the backgrounds and characters of that pair can one understand the background and character of the city they made possible.
Two things in common these men had one, a burning desire to create a great seaport town; the other, a lasting feud with some of those powers dominating American banking, railroads and promotion who were commonly grouped in popular parlance as “Wall Street.” There the similarity ceases.
Stilwell was aristocratic in thought, Gates democratic; Stilwell a dreamer, Gates a gambler; Stilwell a linguist, Gates a master of English epithet; Stilwell with knowledge of literature and himself an able writer, Gates frankly ignorant of books, it being claimed that he never completely read but one David Harum. Stilwell, although showing himself to be no mollycoddle in a financial war, was suave, correct, diplomatic, cultured. When he envisioned Port Arthur, he did not see it as an ordinary dirty, smoky port town cluttered with tracks and docks, but as a city of beautiful homes with shady boulevards and handsome business structures on wide streets. Gates, although a calculating financial genius who on occasion could be conciliatory, was essentially a rough-and-tumble fighter, a steam-roller operator, often lacking in finesse, crude in cajolery and harsh in bluster. To him the building of a city and a port, like everything else in life, was a game in which every man was for himself, stakes were limitless, and the player risked ruin; his nickname in every American newspaper was Bet-a-Million Gates.
Opinion is not unanimous among the inhabitants of the city as to which of the pair deserves more credit for modern Port Arthur, but none questions that the town stands as a well-blended mixture of the plans and schemes of both.
It has areas of beautiful residences in jewel-like settings, shaded with subtropical foliage. Situated on drained swampland, the soil is conducive to growing many types of flora. Along the streets are Blackburn palmetto and windmill palms, American holly, southern magnolia, live-oak, Chinese tallow, camphor and eucalyptus trees. On many thoroughfares are landscaped esplanades. Everywhere are flowers in their season oleanders, roses, bluebonnets, crepe myrtles, asters, glowing banks of poinsettias. With its altitude of four feet, its annual rainfall of approximately 51 inches, an average mean temperature of 61 degrees, and occasional fogs, some variety of plant is in bloom nearly the entire year.
North and west of the city are the great refineries with their towering stacks, gleaming squat tanks, and nearby clusters of cottages where live some of their 10,000 workers. Subtly joining the two extremes, with its fifteen miles of dikes curving in a great horseshoe around the eleven square miles of the city, is the Sabine-Neches Canal, which serves the municipality from the Gulf of Mexico.
At the southeast, where the Canal enters the city, are the docks at which tankers and package freighters, many of them under foreign flags, and Intracoastal Canal barges load or unload the exports and imports which in 1939 totalled 19,510,962 tons. At the northeast, where it flows quietly past residential sections, bearing ships from Beaumont, Orange, and other ports; are schools, churches, a college and fine estates.
The Canal lies between the city and Lake Sabine, four and one-half square miles of which are included in the Port Arthur city limits, having been purchased from the state of Texas in 1931 for “one dollar and other considerations.” Traffic on the Canal is so heavy that in 1927 authorities put into effect a seven-mile-an-hour speed limit for vessels of ten tons and over. To the casual observer, this waterway is invisible at a short distance, and craft seem to be passing up a city street as their stacks and masts loom above trees and houses. A plaintive siren, sounded by the tender of the $300,000 bascule-type bridge that spans the Canal at Austin Avenue and gives access to Pleasure Pier, announces the opening of the bridge and passage of shipping.
Within three blocks of this bridge is the well laid out business center, towering above which is a 140-foot water tower with 300,000 gallon capacity, supplying not only Port Arthur but its suburbs to the north and east. Few buildings are more than five stories, the two tallest being the ten-story Sabine and Goodhue Hotels. Neither in this compact business center nor elsewhere in the city does any one style of architecture predominate. Buildings include modern American, modified early American, Spanish, Moorish and Spanish colonial types.
Port Arthur serves not only its own cosmopolitan population, but the 15,000 persons who live in Griffing, Pear Ridge, Lake View, Port Acres, Groves, Rosemont, and other subdivisions. Its main streets are a constantly shifting scene of activity, with well-equipped stores, excellent hotels, and long lines of automobiles, moving or parked at the curbs.
Pay nights are colorful events in the downtown business section, banks and stores remaining open in order that workers may cash wage checks, amounting annually to about $20,000,000. At these times, streets are crowded with workers and their families, many of whom make the occasion a gala one.
Mingling on the sidewalks are rolling-gaited sailors, lithe rivermen in khaki clothing and snake-proof boots, high-heeled cattlemen from nearby ranges, grimy longshoremen and refinery workers, dredgers, fishermen and well-dressed business men and office workers. Here and there are dark-skinned, shawled women and their cigarette-smoking escorts, part of the Mexican colony, which numbers about 1,000. Everywhere are the smiling coastal Negroes who comprise the city’s largest non-Anglo-American racial unit.
Because of its prominence as a seaport, many other nationalities are represented within the city. Italians form the next largest group to Mexicans, with Germans, English, Canadians, natives of Palestine and Syria, Irish, French, and Hollanders following in the order given, each with more than 100 residents listed. Among other countries represented are: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Greece, Switzerland, and Scotland. Consulates are maintained for Argentina, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Haiti, Norway, Honduras, and Holland.
Negroes, who constitute approximately 20 per cent of the city’s population, have their own business and residential sections, the largest being along West 7th Street and in adjacent thoroughfares to the west, covering an area of about fifty blocks. Its business district contains numerous commercial establishments and two theaters. Eighteen churches are scattered throughout the section.
The twelve-grade Lincoln School is part of the Independent School District system, and there is a Negro parochial school.
Most of the male Negroes in Port Arthur are laborers, many of them employed in the refineries and in allied industries, while the women labor principally as domestics and laundresses, with a few working in downtown shops. Professional men in this racial groupphysicians, clergymen, dentists, and attorneysare relatively few in number. A Negro Chamber of Commerce organized in 1937 had in 1940 about forty members. Small, ragged Negro boys, carrying large wooden boxes and crying “Shine, suh?” are in evidence throughout the city.
Port Arthur operates under a city manager-commission form of government. Twenty-three well-planned park areas, under jurisdiction of a park board, cover 279.5 acres within the city. Many are devoted to recreational activities, but some are given over to the culture of roses, for which the city is noted. Most important among the planned amusement developments is that of Pleasure Pier, just beyond the Canal. Once a lake bed, later an amusement resort, but more recently the scene of dredging operations and seawall construction by the United States Government, city plans are now under way (1940) to build at this point a municipal airport, seaplane base and park.
The children of Port Arthur receive their instruction in nine public schools of the Independent School District, which provide them with twelve years of education, and in five parochial schools. Outstanding among the city’s educational institutions is the Port Arthur College, where young men and women are trained for business activities, including radio operation.
Religion plays a large part in the community’s life. Fifty-six churches of various creeds and one Jewish synagogue serve the city, and more than persons hold membership in them, of whom approximately one-half are Roman Catholics. Culture has its organizations. The Gates Memorial Library is open to the public. St. Mary’s Hospital, Gates Memorial, contains 150 beds and modern equipment.
Railroads, bus lines, an airport, and a modern street bus system provide adequate transportation facilities. Completed in 1938 was the $2,750,000 Port Arthur-Orange bridge, five miles east of the city on State Highway 87, to provide a shorter route to New Orleans and Louisiana points. Spanning the Sabine-Neches Canal, this structure looms 230 feet above the water and is visible for miles.
Fish and feathered game abound in nearby lakes, streams and bayous, and excellent deep-sea fishing is available within twenty miles, making the area attractive to sportsmen.