Port Arthur II: Jurassic to Joplin

Much of our travel so far as been just travel, that is, living a regular sort of life except for being in a camper trailer.

We eat, we sleep, we read, we mess about on computers, we watch TV, we go for walks.

But earlier in December we played tourist and visited Port Arthur.

I asked Vicki if she liked Janis Joplin and got a resounding “YES!”

Port Arthur is Joplin’s hometown and is really the place that shaped her early interest in art and music. Her career is a big part of the hometown Museum of the Gulf Coast, which takes a two-story look at the history and the people of the area.

It’s a bit surprising how many people have connections to Port Arthur. In addition to Joplin, there are the brothers Winter, Edgar and Johnny, of “Frankenstein” rock fame, and the Big Bopper, who died in that plane crash with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Rizzo of MASH has connections there, as do coach Jimmy Johnson, blues artist Blind Willy Johnson, activist Karen Silkwood, musician Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and big band leader Harry James.

Port Arthur was a big union town, back in the day.

For our generation, of course, Janis Joplin was the big draw.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a replica of her psychedelic Porsche, plus some of her original drawings and paintings. She was a gifted young artist, as well as a musician. Like much of the museum, the exhibit relies mostly on photos and written descriptions. It was heaven for Vicki, who loves to read every word. I’m a skimmer, I fear. 

Detail of the passenger door on the replica of Janis Joplin’s car. It’s a Porsche, not a Mercedes Benz.

The first floor has a giant mural that runs the length of the building and depicts scenes from the area’s history, all away from a plesiosaurs of prehistory through early indigenous peoples and the first explorers and settlers all the way to the Spindletop gusher and the oil boom that set up Port Arthur as a key oil refinery city. In the prehistoric section, they had a nice example of a trilobite, some six or eight inches long, but for some reason I didn’t get a photo of it.

For me, the highlight was a bit of serendipity. Up on the second floor is the original light from the Sabine Island lighthouse. We just finished an audiobook about a couple in a lighthouse, “The Light Between Oceans,” by M.L. Stedman. I’ve also read “A Short Bright Flash,” by Theresa Levitt, which gives the history of Augustin Fresnel, the French engineer and physicist who developed the lens. 

America went for years without updating to Fresnel lenses. The argument was that they didn’t need some fancy French development. Unfortunately, the change would have saved hundreds of lives.

It’s one thing to read of those brilliant (no pun intended, really!) technological developments that make the world a better and safer place, but it’s quite something else to see it up close, close enough to touch (I didn’t) and to see how it all comes together in what is almost a work of art.

A Fresnel lens is made up of hundreds of prisms designed to focus the light in a beam to warn sailors of dangerous coasts.

Even with a 100-watt bulb, the light was bright and focused by the array of lenses.

Imagine it with the 1,000-watt light source used when the light was active.

All in all, it was a good day trip, even though that flat coastal plain area between Houston and Port Arthur made for a pretty boring drive.

Links to follow if you want:




The “Short Bright Flash” is a book that Tulsa City/County Library added at my request. Cool, I say.

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