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Whale gave Port Arthur’s economy boom in early 1900’s

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday March 6, 1999.

NEDERLAND—On March 10, 1910, the strangest sight ever to be witnessed in the ship channel arrived in Port Arthur. The steam tugboat Florida towed a sperm whale, 63 feet long and 65 tons of weight, to town to be put on display.

Two days earlier, Capts. Cott and Fred Plummer had found "Moby Dick" ensnared in the ‘oil pond,’ and after a difficult struggle, they succeeded in looping an 8-inch hawser around the whale’s giant fluke.

News of the whale’s capture, the biggest fish story ever hatched in Texas, spread like wildfire across the nation, as telegraph keys spread the story to newspapers everywhere. One newspaper reported that "Jonah was found at the wheel and had been ticketed for not having a valid pilot’s license."

Port Arthur’s Board of Trade realized the whale could become a financial bonanza. They purchased huge amounts of food and supplies from Houston; they also encouraged five railroads to promote excursion trains to Port Arthur from all points within 300 miles.

The Board of Trade tugged the whale carcass out of the water so all of it would be on display. They installed electric lights, pumped tons of preservatives into the whale, and after its vital organs had been removed, filled the whale’s interior with tons of ice to retard putrefaction.

Trains began arriving the next day, and on Sunday, 14 trains arrived, carrying 11,000 people. Thousands more arrived by boat or any wheeled conveyance, pushing the daily total beyond 20,000.

Finally the number of long excursion trains reached 20 daily, and still a quarter-million would-be passengers were left stranded in depots everywhere. On Monday, pastors complained because one whale had emptied the churches throughout the Southwest.

Every train had standing room only, and Port Arthur was able to accommodate the crowds only minimally.

By Friday, "Moby Dick" was becoming quite smelly. A newspaper reported that the crowds still flocked to Port Arthur despite the smell, and that "everybody had a stinking good time" by holding handkerchiefs over noses.

After ten days, "Moby Dick" was declared a public health hazard, and the odorous whale was tugged back aboard a barge to remove it from town. About 300 barrels of whale oil and 26 barrels of sperm oil were rendered from its blubber.

"Moby Dick" provided a $1,000,000 gratuity for the people of Port Arthur, and added an equal amount to the coffers of the railroads. A 300-mile rail trip often meant 36 hours of standing in a rail car, and if lucky, a few bites to eat.

Eventually the Plummer Brothers stuffed "Moby Dick’s" hide with hay and displayed the whale and barge in several coastal cities. A year later the whale display caught fire in Memphis and was destroyed.

Later a friend questioned whether 36 hours of utter discomfort while standing on a train was worth it. He added though, that in those days, one could visit the big tent of Ringling Brothers circus every year in Beaumont, whereas "Moby Dick" only came once to Port Arthur.

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W. T. Block of Nederland is a historian and author. His website is http://block.dynip.com/wtblockjr/ This database is very large (350 articles) and is intended as an area history source for students.

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