Arthur E. Stilwell

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The Lowly Oyster

In the 19th century, much effort was made in the transport of the lowly oyster, bivalve mollusks of the family Ostreidae. Oysters were once considered a great delicacy in the United States, and their salt-water origins made them difficult to acquire and expensive throughout much of the country. Because of their scarcity and the subsequent high prices that they commanded, much effort was made in transporting them into the interior of America. Indeed, one of the industries touted by the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 7. 1883) of being of national importance was Chicago's huge capacity for receiving, housing, and distributing oysters from the east coast. Such was the economic importance of the oyster market that accounts of train accidents of the time specifically mention the loss of the oyster car, sometimes even before casualties are listed.

The New York Times (Dec. 11, 1854) wrote, On Friday last a train on the Central Ohio Railroad was thrown off the track, the engineer killed, and a fireman fatally injured. The locomotive, baggage, and an oyster car, were smashed to pieces, but fortunately none of the passengers were injured.

On Oct. 23, 1883, the New York Times wrote about a train crash: The oyster car was crushed, and all of the other cars more or less injured, but the passengers escaped unhurt.

Various cars and schemes were developed for the purpose of transporting live, fresh oysters; however, all of the cars proved inadequate. Whole carloads arrived dead, succumbing to problems with salinity, temperature, and disease. Enter the design of Arthur E. Stilwell, inventor of the famed Stilwell Oyster Car and railroad tycoon. Stilwell came up with an ingenious car design which became an immediate best-seller, commissioned and manufactured by the Pullman Company.


The Stilwell Oyster Car

The Patent for the Oyster Car

Article about the car, Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1898

The oysters were loaded into 6 separate insulated tanks, which were then filled with sea water, and were unloaded from chutes on the side. The car's design ensured that all or most of a shipment of oysters would arrive at their destination alive and healthy.

Arthur E. Stilwell


Arthur E. Stilwell

The inventor of the car, the remarkable Arthur E. Stilwell, was an eccentric genius and railroad builder. In the space of just 7 years, he went from pauper to millionaire, built 3,000 miles of railroad tracks, and founded 40 towns. He credited his remarkable success to the voices in his head. At the age of 15, Stilwell began to hear voices at night. He also began to have vivid and alarming dreams. As he grew, the voices and dreams began to intrude into his conscious thought as well.

At first, he never listened to the voices; nevertheless, the voices began telling him what to, such as marry his soon-to-be wife, Genevieve Wood. Like most newlyweds, they had little money, and Arthur got a job as a teamster. He was sufficiently skilled as a teamster that he was rapidly promoted to clerk. There he would have stayed for the rest of his life, happily content in his position and his marriage. He hadn't counted on the voices, however, which demanded that he "go west and build railroads!" He and Jennie finally gave in and moved out to Kansas City in a borrowed cart.

In Kansas City, he immediately got a job in a brokerage firm and, using his newfound knowledge of the banking industry and his connections to other entrepreneurs, secured several large bank loans and began buying up land. Before too long, he had opened the Kansas City Beltline Railroad. At the age of 26, the voices told him to extend the railroad down to Texas. At this point, the railroad was known as the Kansas City, Pittsburg (Kansas), and Gulf, which is the road labeling (K. C. P. & G.) on the photograph of the oyster car. He originally was going to terminate the road in Galveston; however, the voices warned him of a forthcoming great calamity, and he decided to extend the road much further south. The town he founded at the Gulf, Port Arthur, was named for him by grateful early residents. The voices were right, obviously, since Galveston was devastated by the famous hurricane of September, 1900.

Unfortunately, the voices seemed to be poor financial planners. The road, now known as the Kansas City Southern, was thrown into receivership by one of its unscrupulous financiers, and Stilwell was thrown out of his own company. He was always short of money, and was dependent on financiers and investors for most of his working capital. In fact, on the day George Pullman died, he was scheduled to meet with Stilwell to discuss financing yet another scheme. Stilwell went on to found a total of 6 railroads and 40 towns, including Stilwell, Oklahoma.

Stilwell died of an apoplectic fit on September 26, 1928. His estate at the time of his death was worth only $1000. His beloved wife Jennie, distraught with his loss, leapt from their apartment window to her death 13 days later. The ashes of the cremated bodies of Arthur and Jennie mysteriously disappeared from the mortuary.

Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943.

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