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Early History of Port Arthur, Tx

Early History of Port Arthur

In 1896, it is doubtful if there were more than one dozen houses located in the territory between Sabine Lake and Beaumont. All were ranch-style with most of them containing one or two rooms. Between what is now the city of Nederland and Sabine Lake, there were only one house and one tree. They were located in the territory now known as the city of Port Arthur. The tree stood immediately in front of the one room home of Port Arthur pioneer John Warne Gates. Both the ranch house and the tree are now gone.

In 1896, the townsite of Port Arthur was surveyed. The Townsite Company, which was a subsidiary organization to the Kansas City Southern Railroad Company, was organized for the purpose of constructing a port within the fresh water territory as a terminal for the Kansas City Southern Railroad. These promoters of the railroad planned to connect Taylor's Bayou with Sabine Pass by constructing a channel through the Lake.

The Kountze Brothers, who were bankers and investors, objected to the development because they owned land at Sabine and desired that the railroad be extended there. They secured court injunctions which prevented the digging of the canal through the lake. This made it necessary for the Townsite Company to purchase the land along the edge of the water through which the canal was eventually dug. The first steamship to ascend the canal was the British steamer St. Oswald, which dropped anchor near what became known as the Rice Elevator Docks. This was in the year 1898. The business section of the city of Port Arthur then consisted of a box car for a depot, three business houses on Procter Street (one of which was a saloon), the old Sabine Hotel and a negro shanty in which the laundry of the community was done. North of Shreveport Avenue was considered "out in the swamp."

Early School History

Prior to 1897 and during that year, a one-room residence on the corner of Houston Avenue and Fifth Street was used as a schoolhouse. Approximately a dozen children were enrolled as students, the parents paying the tuition fee. In every sense of the word, this was strictly a private school. In 1897, it became apparent to the progressive citizens that due to the rapidly increasing population, a free public school should be established. By public subscription and by contributed labor, a one-room building was constructed within a day on Procter Street in what is now the 600 block. In 1898, during the second school year, the second and third rooms were added to this building. Homemade benches were used in the first two rooms, while factory-built desks were provided for the third room. At the close of the third term in 1899, there were 160 white children and one black child in what was known at that time as the old Common School District No. 14. It was located within current Port Arthur city limits. On August 24, 1899, an election was held for the purpose of incorporating the Port Arthur Independent School District. The vote was 81 for and two against the act of incorporation. On September 6, 1899, the election of the first Board of Trustees of the Port Arthur Independent School District was held. On January 6, 1900, an election for a tax levy of twenty cents on the hundred dollar valuation of property was held. Passage was unanimous. On March 1, 1900, an election was held to determine whether a bond issue of $15,000 should be used for the purpose of constructing a school building. There is no record showing how the votes stood, but the money was spent for the erection of the Webster Building. On August 1, 1900, the scholastic census for the district indicated that there were 224 children. On July 30, 1904, a bond issue totaling $80,000 was favorably passed by the voters of the district. This bond issue was used to erect the central building of what later became the high school plant. These developments represent growth under the Act of Incorporating the Port Arthur Independent School District, dated August 24, 1899.

New Organization

The charter issued by the legislature in 1899 was replaced by House Bill No. 684, which was passed by the 30th Legislature during the spring of 1907. It was approved by the governor on April 15, 1907. It established a Board of Trustees made up of seven members, each serving two year terms. House Bill No. 470, passed by the first called session of the 34th Legislature and approved by the governor on June 5, 1915, enlarged the territory of the Port Arthur Independent School District and made certain adjustments concerning outstanding bond issues. All the rights and privileges enjoyed at the present time by the Port Arthur Independent School District are provided for in these two house bills. Power was also given for the Board of Trustees of the Port Arthur Independent School District to appoint the tax assessor and collector and a Board of Equalization, which is a government body or agency responsible for hearing appeals from local citizens concerning property taxes. On January 17, 1917, the Board of Trustees adopted a set of rules for the government of the Board of Trustees of the Port Arthur Independent School District. It outlined the duties of the administrative officers provided for in House Bills No. 684 and 470. Under the rights and privileges provided for in the charter, the board created the necessary committee and outlined the duties in its Rules for the Government of the Board of Trustees. The order of business to be followed at the meetings of the Board was also included.


The Port Arthur Public School System was housed in the following buildings, listed in order of construction:

  • Webster, located at the corner of 7th and Shreveport in the 800 block
  • High School, located on Lakeshore Drive and Stilwell Boulevard
  • DeQueen, located on DeQueen Boulevard and 7th Street in the 2500 block
  • Franklin, located on 10th and Mobile in the 1000 block
  • Lincoln Building for colored children, located on Lincoln Avenue and 10th Street
  • Lamar, located in the Port Arthur Heights Addition
  • Griffing Park Building
  • Port Acres, located one-half mile southwest of El Vista station

Webster Building: In 1900, a $15,000 bond issue was passed for the erection of this building. The basement and the first floor were used as a storehouse and for the offices of the tax collector, the secretary and the superintendent of schools. The third floor was used for schoolrooms housing some kindergarten and first grade sections.

DeQueen: The DeQueen plant had two very substantial buildings. The first building was erected thanks to two bond issues: one voted May 1,1912 for $35,000 and the other on January 29,1914 for $12,000. The original building, which offered facilities for academic work only, housed approximately 400 children. From 1923-1924, $180,000 was spent on providing the second unit. The new building contained an auditorium with 506 seats, a stage with dressing rooms, industrial arts rooms, one gymnasium (60 feet by 80 feet), two showers and two dressing rooms, a library, a music room, and several classrooms. The DeQueen plant was able to accommodate approximately 1400 children. The building occupied one city block. With the permission of the city, the adjoining park was used as a playground. Kindergarten through 7th grade students attended classes here

High School: The central unit of the high school plant was erected out of an $80,000 bond. From the date of occupancy, September 1906 to January 1, 1924, this building housed all high school activities, including academic classes, industrial arts and home economics. On July 1, 1922, $675,000 was approved for the purpose of erecting, repairing and enlarging the school buildings of the district. $450,000 of this bond issue was used from 1923 to 1924 for the purpose of adding additional units to the high school building and repairing the old high school building. The north unit of the high school plant was used to house the Industrial Arts, Natural Science and Mathematics Departments. This unit was constructed at a cost of $195,000. The Industrial Arts Department included courses in iron-work, auto mechanics, beginning and advanced wood-working (including carpentry, furniture designing, etc.), mechanical drawing, printing and arts and crafts. The Natural Science Department included physics, chemistry, physiology, home nursing and biology. The Mathematics Department included advanced courses in arithmetic, shop mathematics, algebra, plane and solid geometry and trigonometry. The south unit of the high school plant housed physical education activities. This building contained the physical education director's office, two gymnasiums (60 feet by 80 feet each), one pool, one shower room and one dressing room (with individual booths for girls and similar facilities for the boys), two offices for instructors, a nurse's office and hospital room, dental hygienist's office (though not equipped for use at that time), an unfurnished physiology laboratory and several classrooms for academic work. This unit of the high school plant was constructed at a cost of $192,000.

Lincoln School: Up to 1908, no provision had been made to accommodate black students in the district. In June of that year, the school board used money from the local maintenance fund to purchase four city lots on which a two room building was constructed. Over the next four years, four additional rooms were added. This building served the black students of the district through 1920. On June 24, 1919, voters passed a $200,000 bond issue. $167,000 of it was used to build what became Lincoln School. This building contained 16 classrooms with the necessary cloakrooms, a hospital room, a book room and a principal's office. It was modern in every respect, having steam heat, toilets, drinking fountains, etc. So rapid was the growth of the black student population that two two-story frame buildings were provided to house the Industrial Arts and the Home Economics Departments.

Griffing: The Griffing Park building was constructed with the $675,000 bond issue previously mentioned. The unit housed a kindergarten and five academic classrooms with a capacity for 240 children. There were 10 acres in the Griffing Park site located at about the center of what was the old Griffing Nursery.

Franklin: This building was constructed between 1916 and 1917 for $450,000. The money was raised through a bond issue that was approved by voters on January 8,1916. The site, made up of four city blocks totaling 12 acres, was bought from the Townsite Company at a cost of $4800. The cost of the ground, the building, the filler around the building and the equipment was $430,000. The building contained an auditorium with a seating capacity of 700. The stage in the auditorium was 64 feet wide and 32 feet deep. Three stage settings and a movie screen were provided. The shops of the Industrial Arts Department contained six rooms. The Home Economics Department had a cooking laboratory, a model dining room, a living room, a bedroom with adjoining bath, and a room for domestic arts. A cafeteria was operated in connection with this department, which contained the cooking laboratories with the necessary equipment. The Physical Education quarters included a swimming pool (30x60 ft) and the necessary showers and dressing rooms for girls and boys, two gymnasiums (60x80 ft) with dressing rooms for girls and boys, the nurse’s quarters, and the instructors' offices. Two open-air playground courts were provided on the third floor above the gymnasiums and corridors for use during inclement weather. Each of these courts was 80x120 feet. In the rear of the building, approximately seven acres of playground space were provided for physical education activities. Music, Literature and Nature Study Departments were provided for within the building. Two adequately built conservatories were used by the Nature Study Department. An impressive natural history collection containing several hundred birds, fishes and reptiles was a part of the equipment provided for this department. This building housed 2560 students (64 sections with 40 students per section). The work in this building was confined to kindergarten through 7th grade.

Port Acres: This building consisted of a two-room frame building that housed the first four grades. The rapid development of this addition made construction of this building necessary.

Lamar: The original Lamar Building contained six rooms and cost approximately $33,000 to build. The money was available thanks to a $200,000 bond issue approved on June 24, 1919. During the 1923-24 session, it became necessary to add a two-room frame building as a part of the Lamar plant. There were eight classrooms with accommodations for 320 students. The kindergarten and the first three grades were housed in this plant.

Change in Educational Administration

From its inception, Port Arthur enjoyed rapid growth. With the growth came an apparent  demand on the part of all citizens to build well, but cost-effectively. During the years prior to 1914, the patrons of the schools became convinced that in all respects, the policies of the school system should be modernized. After a study of schools of the United States, the president and vice-president of the school board were instructed to inspect the school system of Gary, Indiana. Acting upon the motion made and carried as recorded in connection with the committee's report, the process of changing the operation of the schools from what is ordinarily known as the traditional plan to the platoon or Gary Plan began during the year of 1915.

Because health was taken as the first objective, a large Physical Education faculty was employed. Most of the faculty members were experts in solving health problems of children. All children were regularly examined, weighed and measured in an effort to provide preventive as well as remedial measures during the formative years of their physical growth. Other agencies in both the preventive and remedial activities were established to maintain the health of the children. Special gymnasium classes were established for early detection of health issues. Free lunches were provided, naps in the building’s hospital rooms were encouraged, and local surgeons offered operations that were free or minimally priced.

The second objective was high efficiency in the academic or fundamental subjects. In 1922, colleges in Texas conducted a study of the grades of college freshmen who graduated from high schools in Texas. These graduates were from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and other cities comparable in size. Galveston ranked first in this study. Port Arthur ranked second. In two other separate years, Port Arthur graduates attained the highest standard from any school in the state.

Since Port Arthur was largely a town of tradespeople and the local industries annually employed large groups of skilled tradesmen, the Port Arthur school system inaugurated classes to meet its third objective, vocational education availability. The offerings to the grammar grade and high school boys in the Industrial Arts Department included blacksmithing, woodworking, carpentry, auto mechanics, ironworking, machine shop practice, painting, varnishing, arts and crafts, mechanical drawing and printing. The principal objective of the Industrial Arts Department was to determine which male students had mechanical ability. The department worked to develop students’ skills enough so that they would be qualified to accept industrial jobs. Not content with only offering these opportunities to students, the district, through the Smith-Hughes Act, began offering courses to men and women in the community. During the 1924-25 school year, the courses came at a cost of $9325. The state and federal government appropriated $6306. The remainder was drawn from local funds.

None of the schools included in this study, except Dallas, were operated on the Platoon Plan. Consequently, none of the schools, except Dallas, offered courses in physical education, nature study, homemaking, home nursing and free kindergarten work, all of which were offered to the children in Port Arthur.