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August 7th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Gulf coast town mourned death of reviled robber baron

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

For most Americans the death of John “Bet a Million” Gates on Aug. 11, 1911 was cause for celebration, but not in Port Arthur where people knew a kinder, gentler side of the reviled robber baron.

Thirty-four years earlier, the Midwestern farm boy came to the Lone Star State to peddle a new product no one wanted.  As he wracked his brain trying figure a way to market the hated barbed wire, the young salesman covered living expenses in San Antonio with his uncanny skill at the gaming tables.

One day in a local plaza, Gates put up a corral with mesquite posts and eight strands of the strange wire. Boasting that the newfangled fence could hold five dozen of “the toughest and wildest cattle in all Texas,” he attracted a crowd and $5,000 in side bets.

“This is the best fencing in the world!” bragged the drummer.  “It’s light as air, stronger than whiskey and cheaper than dirt.”  At his signal, 60 steers were stampeded into the corral and gave the razor wire their best shot before conceding defeat.

Ranchers flocked from far and wide to see the dramatic demonstration for themselves, and after each exhibition the huckster had all the orders he could handle.  Barbed wire had come to stay in Texas.

Not content to make somebody else rich, Gates went into business for himself.  By the age of 30, the St. Louis-based entrepreneur had cornered the barbed wire market and banked his first million.

Moving onto Chicago and the steel industry, Gates operated out of an office surrounded by 20 telephones and direct wires to Wall Street.  A whirling dervish with an insatiable appetite for money, he kept three secretaries and 35 assistants hopping.

But all work and no play was not the tycoon’s style.  He played high-stakes poker until the crack of dawn and resumed his frantic routine as fresh as a daisy.  A chronic gambler, he was known to wager a thousand bucks on which raindrop would reach the bottom of a windowpane first.

On a particularly bad afternoon at a Chicago track, Gates dropped $375,000 on the ponies.  That evening at a private club he started playing faro, a game learned in Texas, and by 10 o’clock was another $150,000 in the hole.  Refusing to call it a night, he kept playing and by breakfast had cut his losses to $75,000, pocket change for the multimillionaire.

His memorable nickname was coined during a tour of English racetracks.  Betting on a 5-to-1 shot because the horse was bred in the good old U.S.A., he reaped a $600,000 windfall when the nag came home a winner.  But after the British press got through embellishing the tale, the fabulously wealthy American had placed a seven-figure wager and would be forever known as “Bet a Million.”

John "Bet a Million" Gates

John “Bet a Million” Gates

At the turn of the century, he did make a cool million with a shameless bit of stock market manipulation.  Minutes after selling 50,000 shares in his own company, he announced the closing of a dozen plants.  Panic selling by duped investors caused the price to plummet, and Gates bought his shares back at a fraction of the true value.

Arthur Stillwell was an eccentric businessman guided by mysterious messages from invisible spirits he called “The Brownies.”  In 1898 the voices told him to build a 778-mile railroad from St. Louis to Sabine Lake in the southeastern corner of Texas.  He followed the supernatural instructions and at the end of the line founded a town he named for himself, Port Arthur.

When the railroad floundered, Stillwell appealed to Gates for financial aid.  “Bet a Million” helped himself instead by seizing control of the line and forcing out the original owner.  As a result, Gates was in a perfect position to capitalize on the oil boom brought about by the Spindletop discovery.

Tired of the Wall Street wars and a hostile press, the aging robber baron returned to Texas a few years later.  The town warmly welcomed him in January 1908 with a celebration at which the guest of honor declared, “Wherever I go, I sign my name John W. Gates, Port Arthur, Texas.  This is my home.”

Following the death of his mother later that same year, Gates donated a hospital to his adopted hometown in her memory.  But his pride and joy was the luxurious Plaza Hotel, which he dedicated in November 1909 “to the future of Port Arthur.  It typifies the city that shall be the metropolis of the Gulf Coast.”

However, Gates already had one foot in the grave.  Suffering from bad kidneys, diabetes and a malignant growth in his throat, he rushed to Paris, France to see a world renowned specialist.  But he was too far gone and passed away in August 1911.

Before burial back east, his remains were detoured to Port Arthur for a special service at the Plaza Hotel.  Mourners remembered his last words spoken in a speech shortly before his death.  “Riches are more a curse than a blessing,” said “Bet a Million” Gates.

A mighty strange sentiment coming from a man who left behind an estate worth $50,000,000.

Ten different column collections are available at the “General Store” on Bartee’s new web site barteehaile.com or you may request a list at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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