The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur is a replica of a first century Roman villa complete with the deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. Although it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas Historical Marker, its heyday symbolizes an era of surprising twists and turns.
The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition. As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions. Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast. The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.
Stilwell “believed” his landlocked harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and be a much more profitable locale for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than shipping 1,400 miles to the East Coast.
A “hunch” also kept him from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston. Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks. Ocean-going vessels could reach the town that Stilwell modestly named Port Arthur through a freshly dug canal that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.
Three wealthy investors John W. Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. Tragically, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached the terminus. Apparently Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.
The ambitious businessmen decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for summer cottages. Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion. Ellwood built the Pompeiian Villa for $50,000 and then sold it to Hopkins, who wanted the lavish villa for his wife and daughters.
Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ wife and daughters arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas summers. They refused to step from their carriage.
Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.
On January 10, 1901, Sprindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur. The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Sprindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.
The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the The Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand. James Hopkins rented his beautiful Villa to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil. Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for 10 percent of the stock in one of the new oil operations called the Texas Company. Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years. When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen. Oil companies started up and went broke overnight. Perhaps Craig had not developed his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.