Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Southern Livestock Standard

April 26, 2024

Arthur Stilwell and his brownies

There was something contrary to ordinary about Arthur Edward Stilwell, the man who founded Port Arthur, Texas and for whom the city is named. People said he was “pixilated” but they only said that because Stilwell said it first. 

An old Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary defines “pixilated” as “affected by the pixies; mentally unbalanced.” We can leave Stilwell’s mental health to experts, but he believed in his pixies, which he referred to as his  “brownies.”  Stilwell’s brownies were invisible but they spoke to him at night, offering visions and/or spiritual guidance. 

According to his autobiography, he was in touch with his brownies from the time he was ten-years-old but he dared not introduce them to the public until he was already rich and famous. He was born in Rochester, New York in 1859, but when his father’s jewelry business went belly up he ran away from home as a teenager. He became rich in Chicago, where he was a successful insurance salesman for Traveler’s Insurance Agency and richer still in Kansas City, as a railroad and real estate man. His best-known  project, the Kansas City Southern Railroad, called for a railroad from Kansas City to Galveston. 

Stilwell plotted town sites at various points along the route and made money selling lots at those sites. The brownies never deserted him or led him astray. They warned him of the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, the storm of the century, in the nick of time. Just as the project neared completion, Stilwell changed the terminus point from Galveston to a place he founded and named after himself— Port Arthur. 

 “I was warned by my nightly advisors not to make Galveston the terminal of the Kansas City Southern Railroad because that city was destined to be destroyed by a tidal wave, which prediction was fulfilled, tragically, four years later,” Stilwell wrote in his autobiography, Live and Grow Young. “Thereupon, I constructed the city of Port Arthur, Texas, and built the Port Arthur Ship Canal and harbor under the same guidance, not deviating from the plans revealed to me in any way.”

In order for the new terminus to work as a seaport, the railroad had to build a canal around Sabine Lake, a time-consuming, expensive, and wildly unpopular proposition. Stilwell’s decision might have been the real reason that John W. “Bet a Million” Gates and others forced the railroad into receivership over an unpaid $40 printing bill. Stilwell had his own thoughts on the matter, which he later spelled out in his book Cannibals of Finance.

Stilwell’s track record of getting railroads built and making people a lot of money helped him woo investors for an even more audacious proposal, a railroad from Kansas City to the West Coast. The Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad’s proposed route was 400 miles shorter than the line then connecting Kansas City to San Francisco. The terminus was the small fishing village of Topolobampo in northwest Sinaloa, Mexico. The railroad eventually made it to the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range where a combination of the rugged terrain, extreme weather, and the Mexican Revolution stopped the railroad in its tracks. 

One of the contractors working on Stilwell’s railroad was a man Stillwell met in 1907 and took an immediate disliking to because the man smelled too strongly of hair oil for Stilwell’s refined tastes. He snubbed the contractor by not inviting him to his private car with the other contractors, and the oily-haired man did not forget. He was a bank robber, thief and probably the only cattle rustler with the gall to list himself in a city directory as a “wholesale meat dealer.” He was Pancho Villa. 

When the revolution broke out, Villa and his band of revolutionaries took particular delight in destroying Orient railroad properties.

 In a Kansas City Star interview, Stilwell complained that the revolutionaries were blowing up bridges, tearing up track, robbing the Orient’s payrolls, killing its employees and wrecking its trains. Stilwell lost the company, millions of investors’ dollars, and his reputation. He retreated to New York and devoted himself to religious practice and his writing. That’s when he first spilled the beans to the public about his brownies, though he later referred to them as “hunches.” 

In his time, Stilwell built nearly 3,000 miles of railroad and left his mark all over the country, including Texas. The Texas towns of Nederland, Diaz, Rochester, Hamlin, Odell, Sylvester and Rule were all founded by businesses that Stilwell owned. He organized more than 40 companies with a combined investment of $60 million (over a billion dollars today) that paid out more than $160 million (3.5 billion) in dividends and profits. 

In Live and Grow Young Stilwell laid out his advice on living to the age of 140, but he missed the mark by more than half, dying of apoplexy in 1928 at the age of 68. 

Engineers working for the Mexican government finally tunneled through the Sierra Madre to Topolobampo in 1961, proving that while his timing was bad, Stilwell’s much-ridiculed dream was not impossible.

Southern Livestock

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