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Stilwell-Gates: Keep your enemies closer

If you think Port Arthur’s grandeur has wholly slipped away, stand where I stood Monday, at Stilwell Plaza, gaze out toward the seawall and draw in a sight about a century old, though freshened up over the years. It might change your mind.

Straight ahead is the Woodrow Wilson Early College High School, pushing 100.

To the right stands the Gates Memorial Library, which has passed 100.

So has the old First United Methodist Church, to one corner of the plaza, which runs alongside Lakeshore Drive and remains part of Lamar State College Port Arthur, which itself dates back more than a century in age.

Those grand buildings must have presented a proud sight to Port Arthur people a century ago and for many years after that. They represent the hopes and dreams of people who envisioned something grand along the lake. They weren’t wrong.

The busts of two men largely responsible for the city’s early good fortune are captured in statuary form in the center of Stilwell Plaza: Arthur Stilwell, who founded the city and built the railroad to it and John W. “Bet a Million” Gates, who contributed to the city’s growth, helping found the forerunner of the present college and a hospital and much more.

Now if one thing caught my attention Monday it was this: These two visionaries, though their representations are close, stand back to back, not facing one another. Gates stares in the direction of the Gates Library, built in large part by his widow after his death. Stilwell stares, well, away from Gates.

One might think they could not bear the sight of one another. One would be right.

I had the good fortune recently to finish “I Had a Hunch,” Arthur E. Stilwell’s story of his railroad, the Kansas City Southern, and its relentless push from Kansas City to Sabine Lake and the founding of this city, which Stilwell named for himself. Stilwell was not a shy man, and oftentimes named things for himself or people he knew.

Stilwell told his story to James R. Crowell of the Saturday Evening Post late in life, and the Port Arthur Historical Society, with permission, reprinted it in 1972. It’s a story worth reading and explains, in part, why Stilwell and Gates might look like, despite the proximity of their images at Stilwell Plaza, they have parted ways. Stilwell explains in this work and in others, including “Cannibals of Finance,” how he came to lose control of the railroad he developed to Gates, a come-lately addition to the KCS’ leadership team during a brief receivership late in the 19th century. In short, he says, Gates swindled him and the KCS’ investors.

It’s a long and convoluted story and Gates, dead when the account was written, doesn’t get to defend himself. Stilwell suggests he trusted Gates, took his financing for the KCS and added some of Gates’ friends to the reorganization committee. Gates himself traveled to Port Arthur with Stilwell, the latter wrote, and bought property for his personal home here. Gates seemed to love this place.

Later, at the local hotel, Stilwell writes, Gates told a gathered crowd that “the people of Port Arthur could be assured I would be president of the road when reorganized.” That wasn’t so.

It’s important to remember this first-hand account is solely Stilwell’s. Of particular interest is his account of a crucial meeting with Gates in the latter’s Chicago office, as Stilwell advanced his work to reposition the KCS. Stilwell’s account suggests he met with the devil himself that evening in Chicago: There was a single light in the dark office, which reflected fully on Stilwell. Stilwell writes that Gates remained in the shadows as he spoke, and told Stilwell plainly, “Stilwell, your principles make me sick. I am after the stuff, and everybody knows it.”

Gates had a plan, Stilwell wrote: Devalue the railroad’s Northern assets, place Stilwell in charge of a receivership, have Stilwell convince investors those roadways had no future, then buy up everything with prices gone low.

The rest of the story is well known from Stilwell’s accounts: Gates and his associates forced him out of the KCS, used the courts to gain control of the railroad, and profited mightily while leaving Stilwell and others ruined.

“I had refused to help Gates in his personal attempts to sandbag others,” Stilwell wrote. Nonetheless, he said, “I had left, as I had now, the greatest asset on earth, faith in myself.”

And not much more. Stilwell in “I Had a Hunch” alludes to more of his bright ideas but, alas, also his declining luck. At his death in 1928, his wealth was greatly diminished; he was left with perhaps a thousand dollars. Gates, in turn, died with some $50 million.

And for their best intentions, Port Arthur has a past and a future. And it has some nice images of both men. Stand at Stilwell Plaza and take it all in.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.