PORT ARTHUR HAS KNOWN EVENTFUL YEARS during its very recent history. Important civic events and developments, tending to foreshadow the future of this city built upon the dreams of Stilwell and the spectacular ventures of Gates, were many in the decade of the 1930’s. Not the least of these was the increase in the area of oil refining and allied activity, which has placed this city high in the list of ports shipping petroleum and its products to the countries of the earth.
Disposition of the seawall bond issue was announced in January, 1935, by city officials who stated that they had “completed the sale of $70,000 in bonds at 96 and . . . received $67,200.”
A county-wide bond issue election was held on January 12, 1935, and on Monday the Port Arthur News said:
What now? That was the question being asked Monday by Jefferson County citizens, as they surveyed results of Saturday’s elections in which voters by a whopping majority of nearly seven to one approved the issuance of $750,000 in bonds to pay for the county’s share of the cost of the Dryden bridge.
The Young Men’s Division of the Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce was formed on February 4 of that year.
On March 3 the Port Arthur News reported:
For the first time in the city’s history Texas Independence day was observed with a parade here. The Sons of Veterans, junior organization sponsored by the Hamilton Smith Post No. 797, Veterans of Foreign Wars, held the parade at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Port Arthur became a link in the hurricane and storm warning system of the United States Weather Bureau in May. A teletype or automatic telegraph system was installed, connecting stations between Brownsville, Tex., and Tampa, Fla., so that Gulf disturbances could be reported from one of the key bureaus instead of the central office at Washington. It was believed by Government authorities “that with the additional funds available it will be possible to provide a more adequate service in the future . . . (and) permit … establishment of forecast centers nearer the center of action during critical periods.”
An all-day golf tournament for club members and a dance marked the opening of the Port Arthur Country Club’s new $10,000 clubhouse on Independence Day. The building, of brick and steel, was furnished by members of the women’s auxiliary.
On October 15, as business conditions improved nationally, it was declared that “after three years of darkened streets, residents of Port Arthur tonight will again stroll under the bright lights of Procter Street. . . . The lights will go on for the first time since November, 1932.”
A survey made the latter part of November indicated that commercial conditions in the city were improving. There were 611 retail stores doing an annual business of $14,355,000, with 1,862 employees drawing $1,661,000 in wages.
Port Arthur felt the beginning of a building boom that was to amount to more than $4,500,000, as 1936 got under way. With an expansion in refineries near the city, and promotion of public works not only in Port Arthur, but in adjoining suburbs, definite benefits were soon in evidence.
Added to this were bonuses received by approximately 1,600 jubilant veterans who crowded into the Legion Hall on June 16 to have their bonds certified. The News said:
Activity in the Legion hall today was an enthusiastic sequel to the distribution of 1654 registered letters to local veterans by post office carriers. Carriers left the post office yesterday afternoon at 3 p.m. and trudged through city streets disbursing their valuable cargo far into the night. Children whose fathers were anticipating bonus bonds gathered around the postman calling, “The Bonus is Here!” Postmen looked like Paul Revere afoot. Uncle Sam’s bonus party was bringing around $700,000 into this city.
The U. S. S. Pike, “the latest word in undersea fighting craft,” arrived on July 9, the first submarine to visit the city. The vessel was open to inspection for nearly a week.
While plans for old age pensions were discussed during the summer, Dick Schulz, local merchant who had arrived in Port Arthur from Berlin forty years before, unfurled the silk charter flag of Local No. 192, Sons of Hermann, and announced that Port Arthur had had an “old age pension organization since May 27, 1900.”
What was described as the “worst marine disaster in a decade” occurred on Friday, November 21, as the Magnolia Petroleum tug Chief burned at the Neches River docks of the Atlantic Pipe Line Company. Four men were killed and five injured. Oil spurted over the vessel as it loaded fuel, and a spark ignited the fluid as it spread to the water. The blazing vessel was deserted by those who could jump, and it drifted down the river toward the site of the Port Arthur-Orange bridge. Officials of the Union Bridge and Construction Company, working on the structure, immediately sent a large concrete barge to beach the pyre on the north shore. Four tugs arrived in time to assist in the work.
A lake-front retaining wall was assured in December, as United States Engineers advertised for bids on a $600,000 Federal project. The News described the proposed work:
Bulkheads are to be erected five miles along the lake front and the land between these and the lake reclaimed. . . . Main section of the bulkhead will be ‘7500 feet long and of steeped concrete construction five feet above mean low tide level. It will parallel the city extending 1500 feet southwest and 6000 feet northeast of the tip of the pleasure pier. From each end of this concrete wall, wooden bulkheads will extend 1000 feet. At the juncture of the concrete and wooden walls, earthen levees will turn towards the shore 1000 feet, and then run parallel to the canal for 7000 feet on one end, 10,000 feet in the other. The three units will have a total length of approximately five miles, with the enclosed land varying in width from 1200 to 2500 feet.
Ten days before Christmas, 1936, the Gulf States Utilities Com pany made an agreement with the city that gave the people 790 additional street lights. Several thousand flashlights were discarded by citizens who once more were able to find their way about hitherto dark sections of the city.
The editor of the Port Arthur News remarked on March 28, 1937:
With the completion of Atlantic’s new $5,000,000 refinery at Atreco, the immediate Port Arthur area will contain probably the greatest oil refining and storage concentration in the world. Three refineries, Gulf. Texas and Atlantic, will have a daily crude capacity of approximately 211,000 barrels.
City commissioners finished perusing 423 slogans for Port Arthur late on the night of October 18, and announced they finally had selected that of Mrs. Hollie D. Sudduth. The slogan was, “We Oil the World.”
With the inauguration of city bus service, eleven conveyances were placed on routes of the Port Arthur City Lines, which had absorbed the municipal transportation system. A fare of five cents was established.
The Neches River bridge approaches were completed on January 6, 1938. Three and one-half miles of these were in Orange County and one and six-tenths miles in Jefferson County. On that day, city commissioners approved the $900,000 improvement program of the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company; a dial telephone system was to be installed in a new headquarters building within eighteen months.
Work on the lake-front retaining wall project was completed on February 24, in half the expected time. When contractors drove the last few pilings, 3,500 acres had been added to Port Arthur’s water front.
The Spanish civil war was brought home to Port Arthur during a voyage of the Nantucket Chief which was described as “the most adventurous trip ever made by a Port Arthur ship.” A News reporter thus wrote of the boat’s return to Port Arthur on March 12:
After a 10,000-mile trip that saw her captured by Spanish insurgents, her crew held, her master imprisoned, and her cargo confiscated, the ship was, ironically, delayed hours in docking at Great Lakes Coke Docks because a small oil barge failed to leave on schedule. As the Nantucket Chief anchored near the bank, awaiting docking space, wives, sweethearts and children rushed to catch a first glimpse of their relatives’ faces, not seen since last November, and several times given up as lost.
The ship’s career had been dramatic. She was built as the Gulflight for the Gulf Oil Corporation in 1914, and was the first American vessel to be torpedoed in the World War. The ship did not sink, and, with her radio operator killed and her captain dead of heart disease, was towed into Newcastle, England, with most of her bow blown off.
On November 28, 1937, the ship, renamed the Nantucket Chief and once more in oil commerce, sailed for Spain from the docks of the Atlantic Refining Company, with a cargo of gasoline for the Loyalist government. Of what followed, the News reported:
The fuel was safely delivered at Barcelona, but the voyage wag filled with controversy. National Maritime Union officials said the special contract under which the crew sailed provided for a $120 bonus to he paid each member when the Nantucket Chief entered the first port or war zone, and $50 additional for each port or war zone entered thereafter. The crew complained that no bonuses were paid. . . . The controversy became heated at Malta, but the quarrel was patched up when assurance was given by . . . the owner, that the bonuses would he paid.
The ship left Malta, picked up another cargo of gasoline at a Soviet Black Sea port, but was captured off the Balearic Isles, on January 18, 1938, by two Spanish rebel war craft and taken to Palma, insurgent base on Mallorca. Her crew was released only through efforts of the American consul there.
A tornado struck the west side of the city early on March 29, leaving “a bodge podge of twisted homes, broken glass, battered furniture, and not one person injured or killed.” The full force of the storm was felt in the 1,000 and 1,100 blocks of West 16th Street, as a row of small houses occupied by Negroes was demolished, leaving about 100 persons homeless.
The possibility that oil derricks would rise in front of Port Arthur was seen on April 22, when it was made public that the Louisiana half of Lake Sabine had been leased by three major oil companies, the Humble, Shell, and Gulf. Early in 1940, however, no drilling had been done.
September 8, 1938, was literally a “red, white and blue ribbon” day for Port Arthur. Gov. James V. Allred of Texas, and Attorney General Gaston Porterie of Louisiana each held an end of the ribbon while Miss Mary Elizabeth Mills, daughter of a Jefferson County commissioner, cut it in the middle, officially opening the new Port Arthur-Orange bridge.
Following a $150,000 explosion and fire at the Atlantic Refining Company plant early on December 28, city and state police and local firemen performed “yeoman service in clearing traffic, . . . aided by officials from Beaumont.” Thousands who heard the explosion rushed toward the gas-fed blaze, which was visible for miles. There were rumors that dozens of persons had been killed, that the plant had been destroyed and damages would amount to more than a million dollars. But when the fire had been extinguished, officials of the company found it necessary to close the plant only ten days. No lives were lost.
Commercial statistics issued by the United States Engineers office at the end of 1938 placed the city seventh among ports of the United States, with exports and imports of 19,286,486 tons valued at $258,566,824. Included in the exports, in addition to petroleum and oil products, were 52,004 tons of corn, 111,800 tons of wheat, 14,716 tons of scrap iron, 214 tons of machinery and vehicles, and 84 tons of zinc slabs.
During the year, 2,953 steamships came into the port, and 2,949 sailed. Tugs, barges and sailing craft lifted the total number of incoming vessels to 14,110, and outbound to 14,118. Ninety-eight passengers were listed on inbound steamers and 157 on outbound vessels.
Parking meters were installed in the business district on January 6, 1939, as a means of increasing city revenue. The next day, opponents of the meter system secured a district court injunction for a hearing on the enforcement ordinance, and the legality of the entire plan. As a result, a referendum election was held on January 31, in which the system was defeated. The meter company threatened to sue the city for “breach of contract to try out the devices for a three-month period.” However, the city manager and chief of police announced that the project had been abandoned, and for a time at least, “the city was apparently without any form of parking ordinance.”
As the second annual Houston-to-Port Arthur cruise of pleasure craft came to an end on April 22, boats of all kinds, ranging from “18-footers to 103-footers,” lined the Port Arthur seawall for what was described as one of the “Gulf coast’s greatest nautical shows.” Contestants proceeded up the ship channel in a boat parade, one of the events of a three-day visit. The Port Arthur News said:
The vessels, nearing . . . 60 . .. in number, arrived on their second annual . . . cruise yesterday afternoon shortly after 4 o’clock and were royally welcomed by hundreds of Port Arthur’s boating enthusiasts. At 7:30, the approximately 250 visitors will be guests of the Gulf Refinery at a banquet at Hotel Sabine, and afterwards will be entertained by the Texas Company with a dance in the Hotel Sabine ball room. Seawall drive, closed to automobile traffic while the visiting boats are here, is expected to be lined with hundreds of spectators.
While the pleasure craft were cruising in the Canal, three dredges were at work in the channel, making it sixty feet wider and two feet deeper as part of a $500,000 Federal project.
The Arundel, first United States coast guard cutter built in Texas, was launched on June 17, at the yards of the Gulfport Boiler and Welding Works. With flags flying, officers in crisp white uniforms, women carrying flowers, state and national dignitaries on the platform, the 328-ton ice breaker was christened by Mrs. Whitney M. Prall of Port Arthur with a thirty-year-old bottle of champagne. The Port Arthur News thus described the launching:
Axes swung, cutting the last ropes, and the . . . cutter rumbled down the ways and plunged into the ship canal. Then as 500 spectators cheered, Bruno Schulz, owner and manager of the Gulfport, breathed easier. Launching of this first coast guard cutter had come off on schedule without mishap.
On July 15, the Arundel was joined by her sister ship, the
Operation of the Texas Barge Line was announced on July 18 by officials of the Union Bridge and Construction Company of Port Arthur, who were contractors on the construction of the substructure of the Port Arthur-Orange bridge. Six barges of 350-ton capacity were to be used on a weekly schedule.
As a further aid in reducing traffic accidents, city officials signed a contract on August 3 for more than 200 traffic lights, and installation began at once. The signals, installed and maintained at no cost to the city, are paid for by advertisements placed on the signs:
Port Arthur in August lost its state highway patrol sub-station, due to a reduction in state funds.
A new $1,000,000 dial telephone system went into effect on Sunday, September 10.
Immediately after Great Britain and France had declared a state of war with Germany, there were indications that Port Arthur might again play an important part in shipping oil and petroleum products to foreign countries. Nine vessels, “at least one of them a candidate for German torpedoes,” were in the Sabine district at the time. With an uneasy crew and officers, the Indiana, French freighter, sailed from the Texas docks immediately after the war announcement, carrying a cargo chiefly of asphalt.
Sharp increases in the prices of certain foods were soon current in the city, although retail grocers announced that they were doing their utmost to “cushion the rises in the face of the general upward trend of wholesalers’ quotations.”
A movement to shield the oil industry in the Sabine-Neches and Houston districts from any eventuality was started on September 12, as an American Legion committee prepared to enlist veterans’ organizations in seeking United States Government military protection for the section.
Construction of a second aviation gasoline plant, to cost about $500,000, started at the Gulf Oil Corporation refinery on September 25, and completed early in 1940, doubled aviation gasoline production.
Reports issued by the office of the United States Engineers for 1939 showed that 19,510,962 tons of shipments passed through the port during that period.
Port Arthur in 1939 had 672 retail stores, 33 wholesale houses, 51 manufacturers, and 264 other business establishments, such as laundries, shoe repair shops, and the like.
The city has two banks with a combined capital and surplus of $900,000, with deposits on June 30, 1940, totaling $10,570,837, and resources amounting to $11,686,534. Bank clearings in 1939 were $22,379,879.
More than 5,500 persons in Port Arthur hold membership in forty-one labor unions. Of these, thirty-five locals with a total membership of 3,000 are affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, while the other six with a total membership of 2,560 are locals of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Six newspapers serve the city and its vicinity. The Port Arthur News is published daily (including Sunday mornings) by the News Publishing Company. A weekly, the Port Arthur Times, is published by the Times Publishing Company; the Peoples’ Press, also a weekly, is published by the ‘White House Printers. Both of these publications have general news and are distributed without charge. The Labor Forum, owned and edited by Emil M. Muller, and the Unionist, a monthly journal published by William F. Hill, serve organized labor interests; the former is general in scope, the latter is especially for the Texas Allied Printing Trades. The Port Arthur Standard, a weekly for Negroes, is owned and edited by Athon 0. Branch.
There is beauty in the city, and cosmopolitan life and color, and interest in things cultural, but primarily Port Arthur’s affairs are affairs of commerce, and its thoughts and activities are centered upon ships that sail the seas, and upon what those ships bear to the four corners of the earth. The city is proud of its forty, odd years of progressive history, of its broad streets, its parks, its churches, schools, and benevolent institutions, and its flowers, but its greatest collective pride is expressed by the slogan that declares Port Arthur to be oiling the world.
John W. Gates, were he alive, would be well satisfied with the outcome of his greatest speculation. Arthur Stilwell would be happy to see that the city he founded, and to which he gave his name, has developed beyond anything he visioned in his most ambitious dream.