Visit Beaumont-Port Arthur on a Texas Road Trip

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In our opinion, the American Southwest is best experienced on a road trip. If your Southwest itinerary happens to travel across Texas, don’t miss Beaumont-Port Arthur. With so many things to see and do, Kathleen Walls from Global Highways and Byways helps you sort it all out with her tips on how to visit Beaumont-Port Arthur.

Roadtripping to Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas

I was on the last stretch of a road trip that traveled between Florida and Santa Fe and needed something really special to end the trip. Two Texas cities—Beaumont and Port Arthur—filled the bill.  I drove into Beaumont and met Mallory Cross with the Convention and Visitors Bureau for my hosted visit.

We headed for lunch at Katharine and Company while planning our exciting days ahead. Katharine and Company is one of those places locals know about but visitors need to dig to find. It is only open for lunch except for one Sunday brunch a month and the First Thursday on Calder, when they do dinner. First Thursday is a Beaumont tradition with art, music, and all the shops staying open on the first Thursday of each month.

I enjoyed the chicken salad sandwich with red grapes, celery and mayo on focaccia, a side of black-eyed pea and corn salad and tomato basil soup. Of course I chose the half sandwich so I could save room for dessert. Being a chocoholic, I had to have the brownie but the Cream Brulé almost convinced me.

Katharine Carmichael started the Katharine and Company in 1997 as a catering business providing an alternative of farm fresh food instead of fast food. The demand grew so she moved into the Mildred Building and began serving lunch in a Texas Historic Landmark built in 1930 by Miles Frank Yount.

The building is worth a visit for the architecture and history. Yount named it in honor of his daughter, Mildred, who Time Magazine designated as the richest little girl in the world. Yount’s wealth helped build other Beaumont architectural treasures like the Jefferson Theatre, Goodhue Building, Jefferson County Courthouse, and former City Hall, now the Julie Rogers Theatre.

Spindletop and Gladys City Museum

Replica of oil well spouting off water
Spindletop spouts off.

I was soon to see how all that wealth came to be concentrated in Beaumont and Port Arthur. Spindletop and Gladys City Museum recreate what happened on January 10, 1901 when the world’s economy changed forever. Oil was suddenly king. What had been a small lumber town of 9,000, boomed almost overnight to 40,000; speculators, job seekers, and fortune hunters swarmed to Beaumont.

At the entrance to the Gladys City Museum, there is a replica of Spindletop, a full sized oil derrick. Museum director, Troy Gray, caused Spindletop to erupt for me. Wow!

It fired a stream about 200 feet into the sky. Before anyone worries about pollution, the staged eruption was water, oil would be too expensive not to mention messy.

Still, it was easy to imagine the drillers’ excitement that day as they watched oil shooting hundreds of feet into the air from that gusher for 9 days. It expelled about 800,000 barrels of oil before it was controlled. Starting with this strike, called the Lucas Gusher, the first six oil wells at Spindletop made the United States the world’s largest oil producer.

Troy led us through Gladys City. It’s an accurate reproduction of buildings and homes that existed in the area in 1901. It’s laid out like the main street of a small town with all the usual businesses you would normally find there like a dry goods store, drugstore, print shop, barber shop, post office, general store, and saloon.

We visited one residence over a business. Residents during the boom usually moved the family to the living area and rented out bedrooms. Lodging was so scarce people even rented barber chairs to sleep in overnight.

There were a few businesses not normally found in small towns like Beaumont Oil Exchange and Board of Trade. Because of the hundreds of leases, oil companies formed, and traded daily, this was a necessity to cut down on fraud.

Nelson and White Engineers was another unusual business. Southern Carriage Works was drawn there because all the people swarming in meant more horses and carriages. Cars were just for the wealthy at this point.

One interesting exhibit was a 1930 Model A that belonged to Patillo Higgins, the man who claimed there was oil in Beaumont. The car was rigged to drive with one arm. Higgins had lost an arm in a gun fight with a deputy as a teen.

Higgins had an odd instinct for knowing where there was oil.  He lacked money to do the depth drilling needed and brought in Anthony Lucas.  Lucas also lacked enough capital and brought in two others who eventually cut Higgins out. After the strike, Higgins sued. He later founded Higgins Oil and continued to discover oil.

It was fun looking at all the furnishings and things in common usage back then like iceboxes, wood stoves, and old printing presses.

Texas Energy Museum

Texas Energy Museum “tells the colorful history of Texas oil”, giving me a deeper insight into Texas’s place in the energy field.  It goes beyond Spindletop from geology to present technology, tracing history and the industrial revolution. An interactive model of a refinery shows just what and how each part of the refining process is done.

My favorites here were being able to pilot an oil tanker and watching an animated character tell how he came to be first a roughneck and finally a wildcatter in the oil fields around Spindletop.

Outdoor adventures in Beaumont

People walking on a wooden boardwalk over Cattail Marsh in Beaumont, Texas.
Boardwalk at Cattail Marsh

If you are craving a bit more nature and outdoors never fear. I found two fantastic adventures complete with wildlife.

Cattail Marsh Wetlands

Cattail Marsh Wetlands gave us a chance to hike a bit and enjoy a watery view. Lots of birds and wildlife were watching us as we watched them. There are eight miles of gravel levee roads for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

The unique thing about this wetland is that it was constructed in 1993 by the Beaumont Public Utilities Department at the end of the line of Beaumont’s wastewater treatment system. With the fresh air and beauty you would never guess that. Wildlife experts and environmentalist are amazed at the positive impact on the area’s wildlife.

The facility consists of 900-acres of scenic wetlands with a new Educational Center. We strolled out on the boardwalk and stopped to take a few photos. It’s dog friendly if you travel with your fur baby.

I spotted several egrets, what might have been a purple gallinule, many different species of duck, and lots of songbirds. Trackers have found about 250 species of birds here. Cattail Marsh Wetlands is on two migratory flyways—Central and Mississippi Flyways. 

Gator Country

Huge alligator near a pond in Beaumont, Texas.
There’s reason he’s called Big Tex

Next stop we got knee deep in alligators. Sort of.  Gator Country Adventure Park is 15 acres filled with reptiles, mostly alligator but lots of other wildlife.

You may have seen Gator 911 on TV. This is home base. Founder, Gary Saurage’s, mission is to save alligators, whether they like it or not. Then he brings them here to live out a happy life.

We met co-owner, Arlie Hammons, who told us a bit about Gator Country. It had been badly impacted by Tropical Storm Imelda in September of 2019 which left about four feet of water through the buildings and owners home and allowed many of the gators to escape. Luckily most were found and brought back home.

Sam, one of the interns, introduced us to Big Tex, who holds the world’s record for largest alligator caught alive. He is 13′ 8.5” He was caught in the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge as a nuisance alligator because people were feeding him, a dangerous and expensive situation. If a game warden catches you feeding a wild ‘gator, the fine is $1,500 per foot. In Big Tex’s case it would cost you $21,000.

Big Al was the largest until Big Tex came along. Big Al is 13’4″ and over 80 years old. Another big guy is Brutus. Brutus is kept in a separate pen since he lost his right eye in a fight with another alligator and a part of his right jaw in another incident. The sign says he is separated to keep bigger alligators from picking on him. One look at his open mouth and I can’t imagine anyone picking on him.

Sam had no fear of the alligators. She even stepped in the pen and talked to some of them. Growing up in Louisiana and currently living in Florida, I am used to alligators but I’m not quite that brave.

The snakes are plentiful here. I did get to hold Mango, a beautiful python. There is also a crocodile and several barnyard animals. I bet the goats and chickens are careful not to wander too close to some of those big ‘gators.

Trio of House Museums

There are three marvelous old homes that reflect Beaumont’s past. The earliest is pre-Spindletop and shows a pioneering lifestyle. The other two are post-Spindletop. One showcases a middle-class lifestyle and the other, a wealthy family.

The John Jay French Museum

The John Jay French Museum is one of the oldest homes in Beaumont. It’s also the one of the first two story houses built in Beaumont with milled lumber instead of logs.

Its story began in 1845 when John Jay French moved here from New York and purchased 400 acres. He was a tanner and merchant. The area around his home was known as Frenchtown.

Some of the artifacts are from the French family or original to the period. It is a simple Greek revival with a dogtrot that provided a breeze to cook the home in summer. The ceilings are painted blue to keep the ghost away and prevent bugs from making nests.

French operated his trading business out of the home and the office is recreated as it would have been during his life. There  are artifacts like the 1876 sewing machine, probably the oldest sewing machine in Texas, a ladies sidesaddle, hair art, the family bible, a quilting frame, and a spinning wheel.

There’s a music box that was a present to John Jay on his 12th birthday dating to made in the 1700s. The kitchen is where his wife, Sally, would have spent much of her time. You’ll see a woodstove, a flat iron, a crimping iron, and an unusual steam iron and so much more.

The historic pioneer settlement includes a blacksmith shop, tannery, privy and smokehouse. The family cemetery is on the site.

McFaddin-Ward House Museum

White-columned home surrounded by vegetation
McFaddin House

The McFaddin-Ward home showcases the life of the very wealthy in Beaumont. The three story home is Beaux Arts Colonial Revival style with a beautiful columned porch. The mansion occupies an entire block and is filled with treasures that visually bring you into the first half of the 20th century.

The McFaddin-Ward family lived in the house for seventy-five years. Built in the early 20th centuery, W. P. H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin bought the home in 1907.

McFaddin was already wealthy and owned land in the oil field which increased his wealth.  In 1919, the daughter, Mamie, married Carroll Ward. They moved into the home and remained in the home their entire lives. The last family member living in the home, Mamie McFaddin-Ward created and donated the home to the Mamie McFaddin Ward Heritage Foundation to preserve the home.

Docent, Dianne Duperier, led us thought the home with its impressive collection of antiques. It’s all authentic to the family. The high-ceilinged, painted wallpapered rooms are filled with a vast collection of tiffany lamps, gold framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers, handmade rugs, and stained glass windows. 

The conservative and breakfast room with columns, exposed timber ceiling beams, and its stained glass windows, was one of my favorite rooms.

The home had 40,000 square feet of spacious lawns, flower beds and rose gardens. The 120-year-old Live Oaks are gorgeous.

After we toured the home, we walked across the street to visit the two-story carriage house and servants’ quarters. There’s a gymnasium, hayloft, and horse stalls.

The stalls were originally used for horse and buggies when the McFaddins first moved in and later for cars. Today, it houses both an end-spring buggy like the one W.P.H. would have used, and antique cars including Mamie McFadden-Ward’s 1969 Cadillac Fleetwood.

Chambers House Museum

Chambers House shows an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Chevelie Thomas, executive Assistant Beaumont Historical Society, showed us around. Chambers House was built in 1906.

C. Homer and Edith Fuller Chambers moved into the home in 1914with their two young daughters, Ruth, 11 and Florence, 16 months. The house remained in the Chambers family until Florence died at 92. She said in her will that she wanted it preserved as a museum.

The Beaumont Heritage Society is its guardian. The Chambers House contains nearly all of the original family furniture and artifacts, most dating to a 1924 remodel. Ruth and Florence did go off to college but returned home and never married.

Homer Chambers was a hardware store owner but he also was an oil speculator. He hit a huge gusher on land that had belonged into his wife’s family.

Oddly, the house was in very poor repair during Florence’s later years. Yet after Florence’s death, it was discovered that she had 12 million dollars in the bank. The sisters kept almost everything and seldom changed things. You’re stepping back in time to between 1920 and 1945 when you step over the threshold.

There is an old Victrola that still plays, a fuse box with those old round screw-in fuses, an ice box, and a treasure trove of furniture. Florence was a talented painter and many of the paintings in the house that look like old masters are copies made by Florence.

 Beaumont restaurants

Of course we needed to eat and Beaumont has some great places. We had breakfast at Rao’s Bakery.  My choice, a Strawberry Cream Cheese Muffin and a Chewy Fudge cookie. Their baked goods are fantastic.

Lunch was at J. Wilson’s. When it comes to appetizers, their Man Candy—slow smoked pork belly tossed in habanero jelly—is delicious no matter your gender. Also try the Oyster Nachos and the chicken. But do not pass up the Cream Brulé.

Floyd’s Cajun Seafood and Texas Steakhouse was our dinner choice. The seafood is scrumptious and the atmosphere is very Cajun. Good choice.

Where to stay in Beaumont, Texas

I stayed at the Holiday Inn and Suites Beaumont Plaza. The rooms are large and the beds big and comfortable. It’s close to all the places you will want to visit.

Some other places to see in Beaumont:

  • Art Museum of Southeast Texas
  • St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica 
  • Beaumont Botanical Gardens at Tyrrell Park

After having seen as much as I could, I headed for Port Arthur  

Next Texas road trip stop: Port Arthur

Port Arthur is a unique town with a Cajun accent and a musical vibe mixed with its oil. Darragh Castillo from the Port Arthur CVB showed me around town. “Town” here includes the neighboring cities such as Orange, Nederland, Groves, Port Neches, Vidor, and Lumberton, plus smaller unincorporated places within the area.

Museum of the Gulf Coast

Mural in a Port Arthur, Texas museum
Mural at Museum of Gulf Coast

First thing I saw at the Museum of the Gulf Coast was a huge mural beginning with prehistoric times that winds through the early Spanish explorers, the Civil War, and into the oil boom days. Tom Neal, Museum director, led us through over 35 million years of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Never forget that along with all the other U.S. wars, Texas had its own revolution. The museum has lots of well preserved artifacts. There is a replica of a Texas pioneer home, Civil War cannons, and some terrific antique cars and trucks circa 1920s.

Upstairs is mostly devoted to local musicians. Who would have thought there were so many from this area?

Port Arthur’s best known Rock star was Janis Joplin. The Big Bopper, aka J.P. Ritchardson, who died in the fatal plane crash that also took Richie Valens and Buddy Holly, was a local.  Another Southeast Texas musician was George Jones whose first No. 1 in 1959, White Lightnin’ was written by the Big Bopper.

Another local musician was Tex Ritter. We learned more about him at the next stop.

Nederland’s Tex Ritter Park

Woman dressed in Dutch garb explains items in the Windmill Museum.
Windmill Museum docent

At Nederland’s Tex Ritter Park there are two museums that tell local history. We met costumed guides, Carol Culp and Paul Smith, at the Dutch Windmill Museum. The windmill is an authentic replica of a Dutch windmill. Carol and Paul gave us a historic overlook of Port Arthur.

Arthur Stilwell founded the city in 1895. He was a Spiritualist and claimed “the Brownies,” voices of dead guides, instructed him not to go to Galveston as there would be a storm; instead they directed them to a tiny place then called Aurora. The voices were right as a category four hurricane hit Galveston in 1900.  

Stilwell was the founder of what is now Kansas City Southern Railroad. He wanted Port Arthur for the southern terminus of his new railway. He needed settlers and brought over Dutch farmers with promises of cheap, fertile land.

Carol showed us pictures of the first of the 300 Dutch settlers Gatze Jan “George” Rienstra. He was followed soon after by his 16 year old sister, Feikje “Fannie” Rienstra. Their community was named Nederland for their hometown in Holland.

Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter grew up in Nederland. There is a nice exhibit about him with costumes, records and other artifacts at the Windmill Museum.

La Maison Des Acadienne   

At La Maison Des Acadienne, docent, Helen Tunnell, told the story of Cajun culture in Port Arthur. The Louisiana Cajuns came to grow rice first and then the oil boom brought more Cajuns here.

The museum is a complete recreation of a pioneer Cajun home. Extremely detailed, visitors see a handmade washboard, a fiddle and an accordion There’s also a complete kitchen with all the typical foods the Cajuns would cooked.

One unusual item is the brown cotton, including. There is even a quilt made of brown cotton. The courting candle is so cute. Depending on how well a family liked a daughter’s suitor, they wound the candle up or down and when the candle burned out it meant it was time for the guy to leave.

Port Neches Park and La Maison Beausoleil

At Port Neches Park we toured La Maison Beausoleil. Our guide there, Karen Mills, took us through the home. The home was Built around 1810 in St. Martin Parish Louisiana, the name of the home means, House of Beautiful Sunshine. The authentic Cajun architectural style home was donated to Les Acadiens du Texas in 1985 by direct descendants of the builder and was transported here by barge.

The house is built of cypress because it was termite resistant. It’s like stepping back in time to visit a Cajun family in their over 100-year old home. 

Original artifacts include a loom, pie safe, lots of corncob dolls, woodstove with lots of cast iron pots and pans, and a completely furnished house. There is an ornate early 1900s manual sewing machine manufactured by Frister & Rossmann, a German manufacturer of sewing machines.  Of course an outhouse sits out back, naturally.

Cajun love of music is reflected in the many instruments, a fiddle, an accordion, and a guitar dated 1941 owned by a musician named C. J. Vincent who played with the Hackberry Ramblers.

The park where the home is located is on the waterfront and a great place to hike or let the kids work off some energy.

Pompeiian Villa

Pink mansion with gingerbread trim and columns.
Pompeiian Villa

Besides the Cajun and Dutch lifestyle, Port Arthur had its share of super rich folks. We got to visit one of the homes with Tom Neal from the Museum of the Gulf Coast. The Pompeiian Villa was built by Barbed Wire King, Isaac Ellwood, in 1900.

James Hopkins, head of Diamond Match, bought it in 1901 and loved it.  Unfortunately, when he brought his wife down from St. Louis, she took one look at the surrounding marshland and refused to even set foot in the house.

Hopkins kept if for a few years as hunting and fishing getaway for his wealthy cronies. In 1903, George Craig bought it for $10,000 amounting to 10% of Texas Company stock, which later grew into Texaco Oil.

Today, the Villa is gorgeous. Each room has a different theme and all are impressive.

The rooms are often bold and colorful; one bedroom is painted a deep coral with a slate colored ceiling and filled with massive Victorian furniture. The crystal chandeliers are unbelievable. Antiques are everywhere.

Outside there is a tiled courtyard with a fountain complete with a Greek style stature. I can’t imagine any woman in her right mind refusing to live in this beauty.

Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site

All of the history in Port Arthur didn’t start with the city’s founding. Earlier, Sabine Pass was the scene of a decisive battle during the Civil War. Confederate Lt. Richard “Dick” Dowling and 46 men, most under 20, sank two Union gunboats, preventing Union penetration into Texas. 

We visited Lt. Dowling’s statue, the battleground, and took a short walking tour. There is a scale model of the Confederate Fort Griffin that was located here. An interpretive pavilion that tells the story as do the historical markers at Sabine Pass Battleground.

Not only is there a Civil War history here but there are also several World War II ammunition magazines. There’s a good view of the historic Sabine Pass lighthouse on the Louisiana side of the water.

Sabine Pass Battlegrounds is set in a 56.3-acre park with picnicking areas, a playground, a boat ramp, and restrooms.

Port Arthur dining

As you might expect, we found a lot of Cajun food here. Reel Cajun serves the best Shrimp Brochette, a tasty appetizer of six Jumbo shrimp with jalapeno, monterey jack & wrapped in bacon and deliciously messy boiled blue crabs.  It’s Cajun with an attitude.

Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp, on the other hand, is Cajun with a Mexican accent and a music theme. The walls are covered with posters and large photos of musicians from Hank Williams to Janice Joplin. 

You’ll see posters of Willie, Elvis, the Beetles “Abby Road” cover. Tia Juanita’s features weekly live music acts. Works for me. My picks: shrimp or the chicken and sausage gumbo. Do try the boudin balls.

Rodair Roadhouse has live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The food has a Cajun flair. If you’re looking for totally Cajun, they have boiled crawfish on Monday’s dinner menu. Their fried green tomatoes won them “best restaurant.”

Where to stay in Port Author

My home away from home in Port Arthur was TownePlace Suites. I highly recommend it as it has a full kitchenette with a real refrigerator and stove. There is a king bed and a spacious desk with lots of plugs for laptops and charging stations. The suite— not just a room—has all the comforts of home.

More places to see in Port Arthur:

  • Rose Hill Manor 
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
  • Queen of Vietnam Church
  • Buu Mon Buddhist Temple

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Disclosure: Kathleen’s trip was subsidized by Beaumont-Port Arthur CVBs. Opinions are strictly her own.

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