THE PORT ARTHUR FIGHT
While the Kansas City Southern was building, the idea of making Galveston the deep water terminal was given up. I had read in some old book that the Indians had said the island on which Galveston was located had twice been covered with water. Knowing full well the history of the destruction of Sabine Pass in the early eighties, and knowing the destructive power of these Gulf storms, I made my mind to build a storm-proof, land-locked harbor. I felt sure that sooner or later Galveston would again be visited by a great storm, and I did not wish to have our road there when it arrived.
Soon after we had bought the Texarkana & Fort Smith Railroad, which afterward was made part of the Southern System, I made up my mind to locate a city on the Gulf where no storm could reach. I went to Sabine Pass and looked it over. There I was given all the details of the different storms that had three times destroyed the tracks of the Southern Pacific leading to this place. I heard of the awful devastation of the storm of 1883 from one of the few men who were saved. I made up my mind that it was foolish to consider this point as a terminal of our road. I found that fourteen miles back on the north shore of Sabine Lake no storm had ever touched; that the storm waters spread over the great lake and lost their power before the north shore was reached.
There I found a cow pasture which I decided to buy, and through the land build a great canal and connect with the waters of Taylor's Bayou, and have it flow through the canal, keeping it scoured out by its current of about three miles an hour. My plan was outlined and perfected and the tons site of four thousand acres was purchased at a cost of twelve dollars per acre, a total of forty-eight thousand dollars. This is the price today of a few hundred feet on the leading business street of Port Arthur. Had it not been for this trip, and seeing this need of a terminal city, Port Arthur would still be a cow pasture and its great land value would not have been created.
I supposed when I had located this place ;that this was a free country. I supposed that when a company owned a railroad and terminal property, it would be free to construct and develop, unobstructed by outside influences. But now started one of the most bitter fights ever known to the Southwest. We endeavored to buy the swamp land connecting this four thousand acre plot with deepwater, but were thwarted in every way by injunction suits. We then went to the Texas legislature and got the right to condemn land for the canal. This bill was fought night and day by the owners of Sabine Pass, but my constructive work for Texas during the past five years, and the fact that the owners of the Sabine Pass had never developed the land at all, were considered, and we won the right to condemn that bit of swamp between the site of Port Arthur and deep water. The land was condemned and brought a nominal price, as it was worthless.
I thought our victory was now complete. Few men who have not come in direct contact with wealth understand what money can do. The fight went to the courts on the condemnation and was fought for months. Then the Kountzes, who were back of the fight, were beaten in the courts, they took it to the halls of Congress. They claimed that the finishing the canal would cause silt to come down and destroy the work of the Government on the jetties; they did not say that the river which flowed into the canal bore no silt at all. They had reports from men like General Palmer of Colorado, who made a report that the canal banks would all slide win within one year and fill up the canal. This report was published in the Eastern daily papers and sent to all people they know were interested in our work, and, as his was a great name, it had great influence. Now, how few people who read such reports analyze them at all. Just attach some well-known name, and a false statement has power -- for a while at least.
Let us analyze General Palmer's report: Suppose the bank did slide in; it was our canal, not Kountz's or Palmer's. And how did Palmer know? And what was it to him, anyway? He was not there. And why slide in? It was constructed in clay soil and has the same slope as the Suez Canal, and that is build through sand. This report had power, but I overcame it. All this time our canal was costing more than it ought to, because of the great expense forced on us by this fight -- a fight for no reason on earth but to ruin me for pure revenge, because I had refused to be a tool for a rich man.
I dislike to drag in names, but this needless fight has forced me to. It was always my desire that I might be spared the ordeal, but if people will resort to such contemptible work, they must understand the risk, and accept what comes. All of these men have in each cast thought I was deeply in debt. They were positive that as great an optimist as I was would be a large borrower, and they have, in the desire to ruin me, always struck or attempted to strike me in my banks. They found, as this man did, that I had always anticipated these very attacks, and had not extended myself. Then when my personal credit could not be destroyed, they have never failed to attack my companies.
After my fight and victory in the legislature of Texas, after the United States Court had given a verdict in our favor, I received word that Mr. Luther Kountz wished me to call on him on a certain day at eleven o'clock. I called, and I will give you word for word of the conversation; it is as clear in my mind as yesterday.
I said, "Mr. Kountz, I cannot understand this awful fight you are putting up. Our land is our own; our railroad is our own; this is a free country. We are fourteen miles away from your land. I would have been glad to buy it, but as it has all been under water three times in thirty years, I do not wish it."
"Mr. Stilwell," he replied, "I will force you to buy it."
"Force?" I repeated. "That's a strong word. No man can force me, Mr. Kountz." But I thought I would find out the price he wanted for what I understood cost him fifty cents per acre; so I waited.
"I want one million dollars; this is my price. If you say you will recommend the purchase, I will at once give you personal credit for one hundred thousand dollars in our bank." As he said this, he arose to go out into the banking room to give me the credit.
This quick attempt to buy me interested me, and I said: "Not so quick, Mr. Kountz. If we buy this land, we will have to fill it up at least eight feet, which was the height of the last tidal wave. This will cost one million more. It is fourteen miles to our line. This will cost three hundred thousand more to reach your property. Why don't you build up from your property and connect with our road and build as big a city as you wish? You have the money. We will give you connection anywhere you wish and do all we can to help you.
"You have owned the property for years," I continued, "and you own great fields of timber. Why have you knot long ago developed the timber lands you own and erected a great mill and sawed lumber for export? It is a good enterprise. Undertake it now and connect with us. Then you have your own road. You can build your mill there and bring the logs to the mill, and also have the connection with our road. Any freight that originates on our road can be transferred to any steamers you charter or that come to your port. You have the money and credit. Go in and develop and we will co-operate with you. This as a free land; there is enough for us all -- and then some."
His face grew dark. He said: "No, I will not build a road in Texas. My terms are one million dollars. I will at once give you credit for one hundred thousand dollars. No one shall know it. If you do not accept, I will ruin you and your road and prevent you from finishing the canal."
"Mr. Kountz," I said, "I am not for sale. Do you think I would work night and day to build this great road; would work in an unselfish attempt to make a land-locked harbor; watch every dollar that goes into the road, and then, just as my honest endeavors are about to be crowned with success, sell my manhood to you for a hundred thousand dollars? Do you think I am going to put my hand into the treasury of our company and give you one million dollars for something I consider worthless? There could be only two reasons for my doing this: one, that I am for sale at one hundred thou sand dollars, which I am not; the other, that I fear you, which I do not."
I left the bank, and then was started the great fight at Washington, a record of which has been published by the Government.
Now remember, my reader, that Mr. Kountz sent for me; I did not ask for the interview. And notice from here on that in no case have I sought any of these people who have year by year followed me. You ask why they followed me? I will tell you. Each enterprise that I have started has had such great merit that it excited avarice in some rich man's heart. He wanted what I had created, as his own. He thought I was for sale -- that I had a price. When he found I was not, he adopted the well-known method of ruin through his bank connections.
The fight at Washington was fierce. The matter was brought to the Ways and Means Committee, and we were enjoined from cutting the forty feet that remained to connect with deep water. We were to be given a hearing before the Committee at a distant day. It finally arrived. I came to Washington with representative men from various Western cities.
Among them was Mr. Hook, now United States Judge. Mr. Kountz was there with his attorney. Mr. Dingley was chairman. I could not see it was a fixed-up job. I arose, told of the fight for this great land-locked harbor; told of the storms that had resulted in great loss of life at Sabine, and the destruction of the Southern Pacific track that lay along the canal. Mr. Dingley interrupted me with: "Mr. Stilwell, twenty minutes is all you have, and your time is up." I sat down. Mr. Hook and others then told of the great benefit to the West that had come with the Southern, and how still greater benefits would come in the future.
Then Mr. Kountz's attorney made a long speech, telling the Committee that God made the harbors and He had not made one in my cow pasture; that I had located mine to give it my name. "This great financier of the West," he continued, "has told you in eloquent words of the awful storms that have in times past wiped out the Southern Pacific that runs along his great canal. But, gentlemen, he has not told you what would happen to his canal if such a storm came again."
I arose and said: "Mr. Dingley, I was just going to tell you of the fourth storm last year, when you said my time was up. The same kind of a storm visited this section last year and again removed ten miles of Southern Pacific track."
"Mr. Stilwell," asked Mr. Kount's attorney, "what did the storm do to your canal?"
"It only wet the water," I answered. There was great laughter. We left the committee room and in one hour the Ways and Means Committee, with a vote of one in our favor, gave us permission to proceed. I was waiting around, and as they came out, Congressman McMullin, I think it was, of Tennessee, came up and said: "Stilwell, they had me lined up against you before your talk, but that 'wetting the water' got my vote."
That evening President McKinley sent for me. He told me Mr. Kountz had about perfected papers for a new injunction, and asked, "How long will it take you to make that connection?" "It will be done by daylight," I replied; and it was, and when the Government officers went to serve the papers, the canal was connected. It is a great waterway, as you can see by the map. It is seven miles long, and the same width and depth as the Suez Canal. The grain elevator I built, started in one week to load steamers for Europe. During the two years' fight to build a waterway on our own land, every effort had been made to prevent us. A paper had been published each week at Sabine Pass, making fun of our canal, and these papers were given out at Port Arthur to all who arrived by train.
Bankers wrote my friends in Kansas City, advising them to call my loans. And yet all I was doing was developing the West, opening an empire to the tidewater at the South.
Thinking there was no doubt that we could finish our canal, I had chartered a line of steamers to run to Liverpool, from port Arthur, and also a line of steamers to Mexico, when these injunctions held us up and as a consequence forced us to expend one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in temporary piers so that lighters could load there and reload onto the steamers. The expense of this fight made a deficit of five hundred thousand dollars, which burdened the road. For two years I had fought the power of money in an unjust fight -- an unheard-of fight -- a fight a fight to force us to buy land fourteen miles away, that we did not want, and to add fourteen miles to our mileage merely to increase the riches of a rich man. It had taken much time, and attempts had everywhere been made to prevent me from getting money.
Then notice the sequel. A few years later the same Government that Mr. Kountz had used as his tool took over this canal, agreed to maintain it free for ninety-nine years, and extended it, at the Government's expense, about ten miles to the Natchez River. This wild dream of Stilwell's, that he fought the Money Trust and the Government for, was not such a wild dream, after all. Port Arthur had grown rapidly; its increase of tonnage for the year ending 1910 was thirty-five per cent. Some months its foreign trade is greater than that of Galveston, but the finishing of the Panama Canal will make it one of the greatest ports of the United States.
What a different life mine would have been had it not been for this unequal fight! No receivership would have been needed, and I, no doubt, would today be the president of the road, and Mr. E. L. Martin of Kansas City and mr. deGeoijen of Amsterdam, as vice-presidents, in the positions they deserve for their great and loyal work.
The calamities predicted by the experts have not yet come. In spite of General Palmer's prediction that the banks of the canal would cave in with a year, the canal stands today as it stood when I finished it fourteen years ago.