Roadway would have linked Port Arthurs

Published 2:09 pm Monday, June 25, 2018

By Ken Stickney

Beverly Soloway found a road that was never built from a town that’s vanished.

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Soloway, who teaches history at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, encountered in her research the “Port Arthur to Port Arthur Scenic Highway,” envisioned by Truman Pierson, a marketing and promotions professional, and his wife Edna in the early 1920s. The road, as the Minneapolis, Minnesota couple dreamed it, would have connected Port Arthur, Ontario, some 30 minutes from the U.S. border, to Port Arthur, Texas. It would have been part of the Mississippi River Scenic Highway System, of which Truman Pierson was manager.

The couple pitched the idea to cities and civic groups along the entire 1,800-mile stretch of proposed highway in an era when road trips were arduous but dreams were big. They saw the roadway developing by using and connecting mostly existing state and local roads that would mostly run along or near the Mississippi River, a romantic route that included scenic vistas and cities large and small, including Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri.


Forming the trail

In June 1921, they went tramping along their proposed route themselves, meeting with mayors, conspiring with Rotarians along the way and hoping to make their mark on the world by establishing the route. They would make other trips down their proposed route as years passed, including alternative routes for the route’s end in New Orleans, Houston and Galveston.

It never fully happened, Soloway said, but that wasn’t for the Piersons not trying. She and her husband, Neil, followed the rough pattern of the proposed Port Arthur to Port Arthur route over several recent days, leaving Canada last Saturday and arriving in Port Arthur, Texas on Thursday, where the Port Arthur News interviewed the professor at the Museum of the Gulf Coast on Friday. Not all the roads the Piersons traveled almost a century ago still connect; in some cases, the Soloways used GPS to more closely follow the Port Arthur to Port Arthur route.

Soloway said the Piersons appeared to be comfortably wealthy, enough so that they poured $25,000 of their own money into the project. They were also paid his salary as manager of the wider, Mississippi route system.

At least part of the motivation for creating the routes was to encourage road system development and help development of towns along the route. They envisioned the roadway serving 50 million people and generating as much as $150 million in construction.


Following the trail

In June 1921 the two hopped into their 1918 Maxwell Touring Car — those sold for $745, new — and headed south from Port Arthur, Ontario, a town that’s been swallowed up since 1970 within a larger municipality, Thunder Bay.

Along the way, they scouted out possible roadways and byways that might be incorporated into a complete, scenic route. Truman Pierson proved himself to be a great pitchman, as the couple visited with small-town mayors and with Rotary clubs, civic-minded memberships intent on public improvements, and promoted their idea. An abundance of newspaper articles about the couple’s journey still exist.

The couple visited Rotarians in Port Arthur, Beaumont and Orange, Texas.

In Iowa, someone gave them a puppy, a fox terrier, for good luck, and local newspapers were so enamored by the dog, which the Piersons named Scout, that he got as much press as the Piersons did. Some small-town newspapers heralded the dog’s approaching arrival and folks came out to see him.

In making their trip, the Soloways carried with them a stuffed, toy fox terrier.

“They were not government funded,” Soloway said. So the Piersons sold local leaders in each state on the idea of soliciting their state representatives to promote inclusion in the scenic highway.


Big dreams

Soloway said it’s important to remember the era. There were no interstate highways as we know them, few gas stations and no chain hotels. Streets weren’t lit, except in urban areas. Roads were oftentimes made of gravel and were in poor shape.

Many nights, they slept in the car. When they bought gasoline, they’d do so in bulk, and carry gasoline with them on the road. They had wrecks and ran off slick roads, they were robbed and oftentimes got lost along the way.

Some prospective links on the road didn’t pan out and new roads had to be tested. In all, they drove 7,000 miles on that maiden trip.

But Soloway said Truman Pierson was tough to discourage and his wife, described in one newspaper article as “a comely woman in her 20s,” likely enjoyed the experiences she accumulated on the journey.

“For Edna in the 1920s, she had the freedom that she would not have had as a typical housewife. She was on the road, driving the car, having experiences other women didn’t have. They were really doing this as a pair,” Soloway said.

The project, perhaps, was most like the Lincoln Highway, which crossed the country east to west. And while the Piersons dreamed big with Port Arthur to Port Arthur, others also had alternate dreams.


Other roads

Soloway said much of what was on their proposed route wound up, years later, on Highway 61, developed in the late 1920s, and on The Great River Road, a Minnesota-to-Louisiana scenic byway, developed in 1938.

Soloway said she suspects if the Piersons’ hadn’t taken their highway visible trips, those routes would not have been developed. “Historically, it should have been called the Pierson Highway.”

Instead, she said, it appears the Piersons drove out of historic recollection, and seemed to have lived more ordinary lives. They both died — Edna in 1962, Truman in 1967 — and were buried in Minneapolis.

Soloway said for herself, she envisions more research and some academic papers from the Piersons’ 1920s treks and perhaps articles for history or travel fans.


Editor’s note: If anyone has newspapers with articles related to the Port Arthur to Port Arthur route, please contact Sarah Bellian, curator, at the Museum of the Gulf Coast, 700 Procter St., Port Arthur, Texas 77640, 409-999-6283,