JOHN WARNE GATES DIED IN PARIS ON AUGUST 9, 1911, with an ocean between him and the city where he had conceived such magnificent schemes. At once over Port Arthur there “swept an atmosphere of depression, choking, stifling, dense.” The local correspondent of the Beaumont Enterprise wrote:
The flags are at half mast at Port Arthur today and there is crepe on the office doors of the Gates interests here. The rice mill is closed; the wheels are stilled at the planer; the Heisig & Norvell offices are dark; on the door of the First National bank a black scarf sacred to the hour of sorrow indicates that the final tribute of respect is being paid to the man who died. On the Texas Company vessels in port the flags wave slowly at half mast. The citizenry woke this morning to hear the newsboy’s shrill cry that John VI. Gates was dead.
Forgotten momentarily were progress and problems. A delegation prepared to leave for New York, to attend the Gates funeral. Almost simultaneously, the city’s business houses closed for six hours. On August 23 fully 2,000 people gathered on the lawn of the Plaza Hotel to pay a last tribute to one of the creators of Port Arthur.
Even Gates, with his lavish ideas, would have been pleased at the city that was spreading out over the former marshland, with ships crowding the canals that linked the prairie and the sea. Like the eucalyptus trees the promoter had planted here, Port Arthur was growing taller, and its industrial plants and other business places were bigger and cast a wider shade. The population now was 7,663; a new charter had created a commission-mayor form of government; drainage and street improvement bonds had been voted, and the Gulf Refining Company had just opened a new canal costing $400,000. Large cargoes of rice from Jefferson County were being shipped through the port.
‘ One of the strangest crews ever to sail into the turning basin appeared on a British tanker at the concrete docks of the Gulf Refinery in September of this year. Described as “the most motley group of its kind . . . that ever came into these waters,” the ship’s records showed sixteen Hindus, fourteen Malays, eight Chinese, eight Siamese, one Senegalese, and two natives of Java.
Housing problems, always serious, were becoming more acute with literally thousands of workmen and their families in need of residences. Newcomers could seldom find houses. A building program started in November, 1911.
Five thousand camphor trees were shipped to Galveston in December, for free distribution among school children. The trees, from the Griffing Nurseries, were grown from seeds produced in Jefferson County. The first cargo of Christmas trees ever brought to the city was transported on a barge down the Sabine-Neches Canal from Niblett’s Bluff on the Sabine River; they arrived at Port Arthur on December 20. Also in the shipment were moss, palmetto leaves, and holly. The barge was anchored at the water front and the public invited to “come and buy.”
Although Port Arthur’s growth as a port was steady, little had been done to raise the city from the mud and slush of rainy weather. It was little consolation to citizens to know that nearly every other town in the state was in the same condition. On January 3, 1912, the city commission opened bids for improvements amounting to more than a quarter of a million dollars. This included dredging the drainage canal, laying concrete curbing and sidewalks, and shelling streets.
While contracts were being awarded, torrential rains were flooding lowlands and causing rivers and bayous to rise. Residents said that the flood was surpassed only by one that had occurred in July, 1909. Then, every stream in the area had overflowed, and when a cattleman had cut the bank of a dyke to drain his pasture, more than two-thirds of the city was under water from a few inches to two feet in depth. A bond issue to provide flood control had been voted, but had been disapproved by the office of the attorney general. Local commissioners planned a pumping system to he financed by means other than bond issues.
While improvements were in progress within the city, the River and Harbors Committee of the United States House of Representatives approved a plan involving an expenditure of more than two million dollars to widen and deepen the Port Arthur Canal and Sabine Pass harbor.
Celebration of the first Gates Day took place on May 18, 1912, the birthday of John W. Gates, when Charles Gates gathered the children of Port Arthur and loaded them on a chartered train for a free picnic at Port Neches.
Port Arthur bond issues, voted during the summer and amounting to $490,000, were purchased on August 20 by Charles G. Gates. Included were the sale of the water and sewer systems, construction of a pipe line from city reservoirs to Port Neches wells, a $10,000 bond issue for the construction of a fire station, and $20,000 for a new city hall.
On August 22, the Port Arthur Townsite Company announced that it would be liquidated in conformity with its by-laws. The sale was announced for October 1 on the courthouse steps in Beaumont. The company was capitalized for $600,000; at the time of the sale, the Holland-Texas Hypotheek Bank was practically the only stockholder of record.
The Beaumont Enterprise took advantage of the occasion to point out that if it had not been for the Townsite Company and its affiliates, there would have been no Port Arthur:
The Townsite company built a port, a town, a deep water canal through a prairie to the sea. . . . (It) builded better than most persons know. It owned every lot in the townsite to start with and it had plenty of money. So much . . . that when a lot was sold the company scarcely knew what to do with the proceeds. One did not need much money to buy a lot from the Townsite Company. What he needed was a job, and any steady man with a job had a sure thing on a home and seven years to pay for it . . . for the Dutch were rich and didn’t need the money. There are men here with grey in their hair, pioneers who came here on the promise of the Townsite company that it would build a city and a port. These will feel as if a light had gone out; as if a friend had moved away.
With the incorporation of the Kate Dorman Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, on October 19, a Beaumont woman who had been present at the Battle of Sabine Pass, received official recognition for the part she had played in that combat. The chapter is one of the few to be named for a woman who saw service during the Civil War.
In November, 1912, the new Port Arthur drainage system, described by engineers as one of the best in the country, was completed. Three pumps removed the water as fast as it fell, each pump having a capacity of one million gallons an hour. Three main canals were provided to drain off the water; these, with the levee, were expected to prevent a flood in the city.
Final deeds for land adjacent to the lake shore canal, which property had long been under litigation, were approved by the War Department as the year drew to a close. The Methodist Episcopal conference made plans for erecting a dormitory at the Port Arthur College, matching funds left for that purpose by John Gates.
Nearly 6,000 carloads of building material had been shipped into Port Arthur during 1912, but contractors still could not secure enough materials to complete their contracts. This construction boom continued into 1913. Building permit reports issued on May 24 for the first five months of the year, showed an aggregate value of more than $100,000. Carefully planned circulars describing the advantages of residence in Port Arthur, sent to the country’s leading hotels, were producing results. A large party brought to Port Arthur by the American Land Company of Kansas City, occupied two Pullman cars. When the home seekers arrived, they were entertained lavishly.
An ambitious project was completed on June 12, 1913, when Port Arthur’s first pure water supply was turned into the mains with a flow of 1.350,000 gallons. Two artesian wells at Port Neches were purchased with a bond issue of $460,000, and 200 acres of adjacent land were acquired for additional wells. An eight-mile pipe line constructed of redwood carried the water to two earthen reservoirs, which within two months were replaced by one of concrete.
In November, many Port Arthur citizens went to New York to attend funeral services for Charles Gates, the son of their “good angel.” He had dropped dead in a railroad station. As one biographer said, “Charles Gilbert Gates was a bitter disappointment to his father, and when he died, (he) cut him off with a shillingthat is, he bequeathed him $1,000,000 cash and an income of $100,000 a year.” Charles Gates had been prominent in the life of Port Arthur, but had inevitably been overshadowed by the memory of his father.
Port Arthur now for the first time in its history was using gas for heating and cooking. The first gas lamps were lighted on the night of December 13, when Hart’s Drug Store was ablaze with this new-fangled illumination. The Enterprise commented: “The gas comes from the new gas plant and the ten lamps installed make a brilliant effect.”
With the completion of an interurban line between Beaumont and Port Arthur, and the inauguration of regular service on December 16, Kansas City Southern passenger trains, which had operated between these points on a three-train-a-day schedule, were discontinued. Traffic on the interurban line was so heavy that it became necessary to attach trailers to the regular cars.
Port Arthur in 1914 was one of the busiest cities on the Gulf coast. Ranking as the twelfth port in the United States, it was also the second largest oil refining point in the country. The Texas State Gazette and Business Directory for the year, (issued by R. L. Polk and Company), described Port Arthur as a city of 12,600 population, with many advantages and improvements, including a $20,000 public library, modern electric and gas systems, an efficient fire department, street railway, two newspapers and hundreds of substantial business buildings and attractive dwellings. In the past twelve months, the city had expended $500,000 in improving streets, sidewalks, paving, new administration and fire department buildings. Local industries provided payrolls totaling more than $300,000. The inland location twelve and a half miles from the Gulf of Mexico, was said to afford “absolute protection from damage by Gulf storms. The harbor and docks are reached through a canal 270 feet wide and 27 feet deep. This canal is owned and maintained by the United States Government.”
February of that year was the busiest month on record thus far for shipping men. Reports of the harbor master showed that 24 oil barges and 38 steamships were handled in the port. Oil companies were credited with loading 54 of the 62 ships. During this large amount of shipping there was a strike among dock workers; it was settled on March 30, 1914, when white workers, who had been “locked out” and whose places had been taken by Negroes, were permitted to go back to their jobs with the agreement that men of both races would work certain ships. This was the first time in Port Arthur that white and Negro dock workers labored together.
Conditions caused by the revolution in Mexico were felt in Port Arthur when, on April 30, two oil barges of the Texas Company were returned because it was found impossible to reach Mexican loading docks with safety. Further effects were felt when the British tank steamer El ‘Toro docked at the Texas Company wharves on May 4, and the master reported the convoying of 800 refugees from Tampico to battleships anchored in the roads.
But even as these statements were made, rumblings of trouble in Europe were becoming louder. John R. Adams, British vice-consul at Port Arthur, received instructions on August 3 that masters and crews of all British steamers were called into active service.
On August 22, United States Government officials sealed the wireless room of the German tank steamer Dacia, of the Hamburg-American steamship lines. This was in conformity with regulations requiring stoppage of all radio connections on ships belonging to belligerent countries while in American ports.
Although the war scare was depressing business in other parts of the country, that of Port Arthur increased. Enlargement of refineries was pushed, and while exportation of lumber was somewhat curtailed, vessels cleared the port during the month for twenty-one foreign countries.
On October 5 the Port Arthur Tribune, a Sunday weekly, made its appearance. Asa E. Groves was publisher.
The Wall Street Journal on October 14 reported that Port Arthur was shipping about twenty-three per cent of the total of petroleum products exported from the United States.
Another newspaper, the Times, made its appearance on January 2, 1915, with consolidation of the Port Arthur Record and the Sunday Tribune.
The World War was brought directly to Port Arthur on May 2 when word was received that the American oil tank steamer Gulflight, which had sailed from the local port on April 10 for Rouen, France, had been torpedoed off the coast of Sicily. Several members of the crew of the Swedish steamer, Oscar Trapp, refused to sail from Port Arthur because the vessel was bound for the war zone. The Belridge, Norwegian tank steamer, arrived in port on June 8 from Newcastle, England, where she had undergone repairs necessitated when she was torpedoed on February 19. The tanker was the first ship hit after declaration of the submarine blockade off the British coast.
But regardless of the scares caused by the war, exports from the port continued, and on June 30, 1915, total foreign shipments for the year amounted to $29,270,771, the highest ever recorded in the District of Sabine office. Most of the shipments had been petroleum and petroleum products.
In August Port Arthur experienced its third hurricane, which was announced only by a fresh northeast wind, and a call from a telephone operator at Galveston, who said, “A 78-mile-an-hour wind is due to hit Port Arthur at 5 a. m. Notify everybody!”
There was a weather bureau in Port Arthur, but the attendant’s chief duty was to report wind velocity and rainfall. He knew nothing of the approach of the storm; but as news of the impending disaster spread, families started moving toward substantial buildings. The sky was still clear and stars were shining, but many residents remembered other storms. Daylight brought no evidence of it, but at noon there was another report that the hurricane was due to strike “at any minute.”
Interurbans to Beaumont were crowded with refugees. The last telephone communication between Beaumont and Port Arthur was broken about 9:30 p. m. There was no immediate official report on the wind velocity, but it was believed to have been greater than during the storm of 1900. The electric plant failed early in the evening, throwing the town into darkness. For two days the storm raged. Water on Procter Street lapped against the first floors of houses. Then came a complete lull, and citizens breathed easily again as they thought the danger had passed. But within a few hours the wind was howling again, and continued for two more days.
As the water receded, Port Arthur counted its lossesmillions of dollars in property damage and six persons killed. Exaggerated reports were circulated that the city had been wiped out. One California newspaper announced that the city had been destroyed, and that the only thing left was “a telephone pole that had been moved a mile from where it was originally.”
With a shortage of food and water, stores were broken into so often that the city was put under martial law. Company M, Texas National Guard of Beaumont, was ordered into service in the area. The guardsmen were transported on a special train to the city limits, where they boarded boats and were conveyed to various parts of Port Arthur. Orders were given to clear all streets at 8 p. m., and saloons were ordered to stay closed. The Houston Post on August 24, 1915, said:
All able-bodied men who left Port Arthur . . . are urged to return and help clean up the city, which has been strewn with dead carcases of cows, mules, horses and other stock. . . . All women and children refugees in Beaumont from Port Arthur will not be permitted to return until the city has been cleaned. The Mayor has organized all men now in the city . . .
Reports from the Government Engineer’s office showed that the highest flow of the flood in Lake Sabine was 6.9 feet above mean low tide, and that in the city the water had not been deeper than five feet except in washouts.
With storm damage nearly eliminated, and with rumors of the possible participation of this country in the war still current, the first Port Arthur company of the Texas National Guard was mustered into service on September 23.
Eighteen million feet of lumber and timber purchased by the Italian government passed through Port Arthur during October.
In a city election on December 28, $231,000 worth of bond issues was voted, $180,000 being for storm protection.
Mrs. John W. Gates, on January 23, 1916, announced that she was donating $55,000 to build and maintain a public library, and $5,000 for additional equipment for the Mary A. Gates Memorial Hospital.
Following the March 9, 1916 raid on Columbus, N. Mex., by Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionist, and the movement into Mexico nine days later by Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition, developments made it advisable to send the Texas National Guard to the border, and Port Arthur assumed a “somewhat warlike appearance” as Company I, Third Infantry, was recruited to full strength. Between 3,000 and 4,000 of the city’s inhabitants gathered on the streets on May 10 to bid farewell to the citizen soldiers as they entrained for San Antonio. So many men had been recruited that the company was divided, and a second group, known as Company L, formed.
Forty-four American refugees from Mexico arrived in Port Arthur on July 2, aboard the Gulf Refining Company’s yacht, Wild Duck. Other refugees, after seeking asylum here, in a short time returned to Mexico, mostly to its oil fields.
Naval recruiting offices were opened at the Board of Trade office on August 30 as more and more foreign tankers arrived in port carrying concealed cannon. Port Arthur’s position as an oil exporting port was better known, it was claimed, among English shippers than in the United States, “since a good portion of the fuel oil used by the allied fleets is shipped from the Gulf and Texas Company refineries.” An average of about 1,000,000 barrels a week were being shipped from the city during this World War period. More than four million dollars worth of imports and exports from the Sabine District were listed during October, setting a record since the opening of local waterways. The Enterprise reported:
Such unprecedented prosperity has never before been engaged. Shipments have been made to seventeen different countries . . . a majority of the shipments were . . . cargoes of fuel oil to the entente allies. Port Arthur has become the foremost station for fuel oil for the allied armies.
During November, the city’s building permits aggregated $461,189, bringing the total for new buildings for an eleven-month period to $1,043,650, more than double the figures for both 1914 and 1915. The Enterprise commented:
Never before in history have such large figures been noted for a single month. Contractors claim that Port Arthur is nearly as much on a boom now as she was during the days of Spindle Top’s glory.
Of this amount, $150,000 was for the erection of thirty-three extra stills at the Texas Company refinery, where an increasing demand for petroleum products was crowding available facilities to capacity. Also included was a new $321,175 central high school building, and the Gates Memorial Library.