Vahe Gregorian

An odd story about how Jamaal Charles’ hometown was founded

Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles
Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles deulitt@kcstar.com

The improbable rise of Jamaal Charles out of Port Arthur, Texas, to become the most prolific running back in Chiefs history is just the most recent connection between the cities.

And it started with what you might call a fairy tale.

Port Arthur was founded in 1895 by Kansas City entrepreneur Arthur Stilwell, who wanted to connect Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico by rail as part of an exporting business venture.

The notion came to him via the advice of voices from the spirit world that he called “Brownies” or fairies.

Good thing for the Chiefs, it turns out, that no Ghostbusters got to him first.

“The engineering plans that I have put in effect have all come from an engineer who has been long dead,” Stilwell told The New York Times in 1922. “I have transcribed scores of poems which have been dictated to me by poets. I have written the music of many songs, which have been dictated to me by musicians.”

The spirits chose him as a medium, he believed, because “for some reason” it was easier to communicate through him than others.

Thus guided, among his dozens of business enterprises, Stilwell began investing in railroads with the Kansas City Suburban Belt in 1888 and went on to build what he estimated was around 3,000 miles of railroad — including the Kansas City Southern line to Port Arthur.

Initially, Stilwell had considered connecting the railroad to Galveston.

But …

“I was warned by my nightly advisors not to make Galveston the terminal of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, because that city was destined to be destroyed by a tidal wave, which prediction was fulfilled, tragically, four years later,” Stilwell wrote in his 1921 autobiography, “Live and Grow Young.”

“Thereupon,” he added, “I constructed the City of Port Arthur, Texas, and built the Port Arthur Ship Canal and harbor under the same guidance, not deviating from the plans revealed to me in any way.”

Galveston was ravaged by a hurricane in 1900 that killed an estimated 8,000 people.

Alas, the fairies apparently did not warn Stilwell that conniving forces ultimately would cast the railroad into receivership and eject him out of his own company.

He died in 1928 of what was then called an apoplectic fit, better known today as a stroke.

Two weeks later, his wife, Jennie, committed suicide. According to a Time magazine obituary unearthed by writer Chris Roberson, she left a note that her death would take her to Mr. Stilwell “on another plane of consciousness.”

The railroad failed but gave life to Port Arthur, where you can still see signs for the Kansas City Southern Railroad — which led to the spirited sign of Port Arthur native Charles in Kansas City today.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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