Port Arthur, The Other Texas

by Brian Cofer December. 19, 2013 26823 views

Texas isn't supposed to be like this, at least not according to Rick Perry. This is the state of a vast unbridled economy, where a man's fortune is limited only by his ambition and willingness to work. And yet, here in the state's southeast corner is a city as depressed and devastated as anything you'd see in the Rust Belt. I've visited Detroit, East St. Louis and Gary, Indiana, and posted what I saw here on Photoblog. Port Arthur, I would say, is only marginally more advantaged than these other places, due mainly to an influx of Hispanic and Vietnamese residents that replaced the fleeing middle class, leaving a certain amount of working-class stability in swaths of the city.
Still, look at the scene below. This is Procter Street, the main drag downtown. One can imagine how bustling this street would have been 60, 70 years ago. And here it is on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, at about 1 p.m. No cars, no people. Notice the traffic lights have been dismantled and replaced by stop signs on stands in the middle of the intersection.

That blue car parked there is mine. It's the only car parked along Procter Street.
Currenly downtown is home to city and county offices, the post office, a bank branch, a health clinic, a bar or two, and the Museum of the Gulf Coast, which I hear is pretty interesting. Nearby is the local community college. That's pretty much it down here. No other businesses that I could see, no reason to come down here. Even the local newspaper, a mainstay of any American downtown, headed out to the edge of town several years back.
This just doesn't look like it belongs in booming, bustling Texas. And yet, here it is, showing that the boom hasn't reached all Texans.

This was the Sabine Hotel, opened in 1929, and clearly a fine hotel in its day. I'm not sure when it closed. An online check shows lots of archived news articles about scuttled plans to do this or that with the building. Even plans to demolish the building have been shelved for now. I can't see find any indication that anything serious is in the works for the building.

I came across this banner, which gave me hope that something big was about to happen down here. But a check online comes up with virtually nothing on this outfit, no website, little news coverage. A nice looking banner, however.

This also looked like something hopeful, but a look online revealed that this will be a transit center, essentially a glorified bus stop. I've lived in other cities that proudly erected these things - essentially a big grab for federal dollars - with all these promises of downtown revitalization. The end result was a nice new building with few people actually using it.

This was the entrance to the Keyhole Club, one of several bars that once really livened up downtown. The Keyhole, the Regency Club, the Lions Den. I remember when I lived just up the road in Beaumont, the signs for these establishments still stood attached to their respective buildings. Even closed up they looked absolutely classy in that mid-century Mad Men kind of way. Look at this facade. I can practically picture sharp-dressed men and women sipping martinis. But this being Port Arthur, the reality was probably not exactly like that. Being a port city and refinery town, the clientele was probably a lot more blue collar.

In addition to the nightlife, Port Arthur was once a notorious city for prostitution and vice until it was all cleaned up in 1961 by law enforcement. Believe it or not, Steve McQueen worked as an errand boy back in the '50s at one cathouse here in PA.

Lots of empty storefronts, this one wide open.

Peeking in, I found the sign to the old Regency Club.

Sure wish someone would come rescue this. But there's a whole lot that needs to be rescued down here.

Walking along Procter, you can see signs marking long-gone stores.

And this brings us to the Federal Building and post office, a gorgeous neoclassical style structure from 1912. The current post office looks to be from the ‘60s, so I don’t know how long it's been abandoned. It's a sad sight for what must have once been such a wonderful building.

But hey, it's for sale!

Originally built in the '20s as the Adams Building, someone with rather lofty notions decided to rename it the World Trade Building and add this modern concrete facade in the 1960s. Like the Sabine Hotel, so many plans to revitalize it have come and gone, most recently a scheme to move state offices into the building which fell apart when the costs of retrofitting became shockingly apparent.

When I lived down here in the mid ‘90s, this furntiure store was still operating, and I recall wondering how and why a furniture could still be in business in such a lifeless area. Apparently the owners agreed and gave up the ghost. I don’t see any online listings, so I guess they're out of business…

…As is the As Is Shop

Here's one of those projects where people could buy a brick with their name on it to fund some downtown project. I'm not even sure what the project was, but their signature bricks are looking pretty sad these days.

Here's some more interesting flotsam and jetsam of Port Arthur. So many possibilities down here.
The good news is that as a refinery town, the Beaumont-Port Arthur area is truly benefiting from the recent oil boom. The bad news, I fear, is that a lot of this newfound prosperity is bypassing Port Arthur and mostly heading to the suburbs.

Just to take a break from the devastation, here's a tugboat and barge on the Sabine River passing downtown.
So what's the story behind Port Arthur? Founded around the turn of the 20th century by Kansas City railroad baron Arthur Stilwell, Port A was established to be the southern terminus of his Kansas City Southern Railway, designed to connect KC with the Gulf of Mexico. The city was founded just in time for the nearby Spindletop oil boom in 1901, which gave birth to the Era of Big Oil. Refineries sprouted throughout the area, providing stable jobs and a middle class lifestyle to thousands who had come out of the piney woods and bayous of East Texas and Louisiana.
The good times abruptly ended in the 1980s when the price of oil plummeted, leading to the closure of several refineries and thousands of layoffs. Port Arthur suddenly looked a lot like Allentown, Pa., and Flint, Mich. By the time I arrived in Beaumont in '95, devastation ruled.

And here's Port Arthur's economic mainstay, the refining of oil and petroleum products. Imagine mile after mile of scenes like this one. We all depend on this kind of commerce to fuel our world, but I'm sure glad I don't live down there anymore.

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There are 9 comments , add yours!
Marcel De Lannoy 1 year, 6 months ago

How tragic! I hope that this dilapidated, pitiful downtown will experience a renaissance. There are numerous splendid buildings that could once again have a purpose.

1 year, 6 months ago Edited
Larry Sample 5 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, if only I had the time. Would love to travel the country documenting how much it has changed. Great stuff!

5 years, 8 months ago Edited
Stormfish 5 years, 9 months ago

gosh, i'd love to travel with you. every place you introduce to us is so well documented, so lovingly described, so imaginatively photographed... i really really like your travel diaries. and from all your wrote, only one thing derives for me: i would want to visit this wonderful place, delve into its history and see it as it is now.

nice super blue sky weather here btw... lucky you! :-)

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Larry Sample 5 years, 9 months ago

Great set! Will have to come back to this to appreciate more fully. Late for work. Peace friend!

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Jennifer Venter 5 years, 9 months ago

Amazing shots - I would love to explore this place.

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Nancycola 5 years, 9 months ago

That was fascinating. Thank you for the tour and commentary

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Patsy Abbey 5 years, 9 months ago

Thanks for taking me along!

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Mike Meliska 5 years, 9 months ago

Fantastic tour.....

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
Kenny H 5 years, 9 months ago

Pretty amazing stuff you have here. Great storyline too. I'm with you on the Regency sign. Someone needs to get a hold of that.

5 years, 9 months ago Edited
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