The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, March 9, 2007, Columns

Port Arthur simply cannot be properly explored in six hours. On a recent trip to the southeast corner of Texas, the port city was just a quick side trip. It left me wanting to return and explore more.

I must admit that I went to Port Arthur primarily to see one thing: Janis Joplin's Porsche.

When Arthur Stillwell envisioned a city in 1895 that would bear his name, he saw a tourist resort and seaport. The oil boom at nearby Beaumont turned Port Arthur into the 12th-largest port in the U.S. and one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the world.

In fact, on TX 87 south of town you can drive through an oil refinery. The hundreds of lights on the miles of pipeline, tanks, and towers have a certain beauty in the sunset. It was the thousands of jobs at these plants that attracted the parents of a long list of recognizable names in sports, movies, and music.

Driving the streets of old downtown Port Arthur, the 1960-era facades are a testament of the town's slow decline. The modern petrochemical workers live in suburbia off the highways near the Wal-Marts and KFCs. Many of the roofs in the old section of town still wear the blue FEMA tarp bandages left by Hurricane Rita in September 2005.

Along Proctor Street, the seawall that protected the once-stately homes blocked the view of the Gulf. The faded paint of the grand palaces was hardly noticeable under the shade of oak and magnolia trees that survived the sea's fury.

In a converted bank building, the Museum of the Gulf Coast is easy to miss. When I paid my $3.50 admission fee, I swear the young man at the desk rolled his eyes when I asked about Janis' Porsche. "Cameras are okay, but no flash photography," he said as he handed me a ticket stub. How did he know that I had a camera stuffed in my sock?

The museum is a combination of art, historical items, and personality profiles. On one wall is a colossal mural that tells the history of the Gulf Coast from cannibalistic natives to the oil booms. I hurried past the fossils, Civil War-era guns, stuffed animals, and railroad lanterns. I had come to see one thing, and it was upstairs in the museum's Music Hall of Fame.

It is impossible to explain why Port Arthur has given us so much wonderful just as it is impossible to explain why Lubbock gave us Buddy Holly and a host of other impressive musicians. One obvious connection between the two Texas towns was J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson of Port Arthur, who died with Holly in a frozen Iowa cornfield.

The list of music legends with connections to the Port Arthur area reads like a Hollywood guest list. Huey P. Meaux almost single-handedly invented a new genre of music. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown mixed the country and Cajun music he learned on the waterfront. ZZ Top and the Winter brothers (Johnny and Edgar) took the music a step further. And Mark Chesnutt and Clifton Chenier returned the music to its roots. The exhibit was a journey through memories of Percy Sledge, B.J. Thomas, and Tony Joe White. I quickly passed the display of George Jones memorabilia to find the psychedelic sports car in the corner.

Alone in a big museum in front of the car with a smiling sun painted on the fender, I got an unexplainable giddy sensation that made me laugh out loud. The surrounding showcases held a purple and sequined bell-bottomed stage suit, a note Janis wrote to her mother promising to take her to Luby's on her birthday, Janis' high school annual picture, and a few other personal family items. It wasn't much, but it was heartfelt.

As I pulled out of the museum's parking lot past the empty sidewalks, I couldn't help but feel a little sad thinking about what was and what might have been.

Museum of the Gulf Coast opens Monday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday 1 to 5pm. For more information, call 409/982-7000, or go to

819th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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