Born: Oct. 21, 1859 in Rochester, New York
Died: Sept. 26, 1928
Arthur Edward Stilwell, the founder of Port Arthur, was born in Rochester, New York. He left home at fourteen and persuaded a family friend, George Darling, to employ him as Billiard Room Cashier of his Southern Hotel, in St. Louis, at the salary of $60 per month.
After his father lost most of the family’s money through poor investments, Stilwell returned home. He took the $400 left him by his grandfather, and bought a printing plant in Smith's Arcade. Six months later Stilwell joined Williamson and Highy, stationers and law-blank printers in Rochester, as a commercial traveler (salesman).
Stilwell next became a commercial traveler for Travelers' Insurance Co. of Hartford, Connecticut. While there, he invented a coupon annuity life-insurance policy which was adopted by the Penn Mutual and Travelers' Life Companies and then came into use in modified form with every life-insurance company in the U.S. He became the state agent for the Travelers' Insurance Company for a time, then moved to St. Louis. This “hunch” paid off, and although Stilwell had left behind a lucrative career in insurance, within one year he formed the one million dollar Guardian Trust Co. Guardian Trust built homes for which the buyers put up 20% in cash and then paid off the balance in ten annual installments.
Stilwell's first investment in railroads was in the Kansas City Suburban Belt in 1888. He went on to build more than 2,300 miles of new railroad in his lifetime, founding some forty cities and adding more than a billion dollars to the economy of the Southwest. He organized 41 companies of various kinds, with a combined investment of $60 million (over a billion dollars today) and lived to see them pay out more than $160 million (3.5 billion) in dividends and profits (estimating the purchasing power of an 1880s dollar at about $22 today).
Stilwell backed every endeavor with his own funds, but he never became lastingly rich. His crowning achievement was a railroad to the Gulf which he designed, financed, and served as president of. After being forced out of his various investments, Stilwell began to write and publish books. One of his books, "Cannibals of Finance", attacked John W. “Bet-a-Million” Gates, Harriman, and Thalmann, the men who forced the KCP&G (Kansas City Southern) into receivership.
These “cannibals” may have been less predatory than Stilwell made them out to be, as Stilwell himself was notably unstable. He claimed that all of his business ventures were dictated to him by voices from the spiritual world. His decision to take his railroad to what would become Port Arthur, he claimed, was based on a prophetic warning that Galveston would be struck by a tidal wave. Four years later, in 1900, the most devastating hurricane in the history of the United States completely destroyed the city.
Stilwell’s fortunes had crumbled by the time he died at age 68. Less than two weeks later, on October 9, 1928, his wife committed suicide. Dressed in her best clothes, she walked out the window of their 12th floor Manhattan apartment.