The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur, is a replica of a first-century Roman villa complete with a deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. The unusual structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas
Historical Marker for its unusual design and because its heyday symbolizes an era of Texas history filled with 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 inland harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and would sit at the terminus of a much more profitable route for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than following the 1,400-mile trek to the East Coast.
A “hunch” also kept Stilwell 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. Stilwell modestly named the new site Port Arthur. To allow access to ocean-going vessels he began the arduous task of digging a canal along Sabine Lake that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.
Three wealthy investors––John “Bet A Million” 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. After delays and mishaps, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached its terminus. Apparently, Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.
The ambitious businessmen that had taken over Stilwell’s dream, decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for winter cottages. Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion. Ellwood spent $50,000 building the Pompeiian Villa and then sold it to
Hopkins, who wanted the lavish home for his wife and daughters.
Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ family arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas winters. 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, Spindletop 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 Spindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.
The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand. James Hopkins rented his beautiful house to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil. Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for ten percent of the stock in one of the new oil businesses 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––starting up and going broke overnight. Perhaps Craig didn’t listen to his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.