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During the spring of 1920, Arkansas newspapers were publishing stories about oil drilling underway in Union County in south Arkansas near the Louisiana border.

On April 22 of that year, Constantine Oil & Refining Co. brought in a well that produced an estimated 40 million cubic feet of gas per day, but only "a spray of oil." Nevertheless, nine months later, a determined Samuel T. Bussey found oil, ushering in a boom in south Arkansas. Murphy Oil Corp. is still located in El Dorado, where in recent years it has made huge investments in the city's quality of life.

Bussey, a physician turned geologist who claimed descent from frontiersman Daniel Boone, began drilling near El Dorado in November 1919 after he cobbled together investors ranging from prominent Union County businessman Isaac Felsenthal to local Chinese laundryman Wong Hing.

Bussey's well was atop a small hill nearly a mile southwest of the El Dorado town limits. Nearing noon on Monday, Jan. 10, 1921, at 2,233 feet, bailing operations began to clear the well. At about 4 p.m. a rumble from deep within the well could be heard, and workers and onlookers moved away from the shaking 120-foot wooden derrick.

Onlookers later described the eruption of the well, with one reporter writing of oil pouring out and rising well above the derrick like "a black mushroom cloud." Sheep on nearby Miles Murphy's farm turned black, and clothes hanging on the line in El Dorado were spotted with windblown oil.

Anna Harmon Cordell, who came to south Arkansas as a bride and was an eyewitness to the transformation of a town of 3,887 to a boomtown of 15,000, recalled in her published history of Union County that oil scouts began arriving in El Dorado from the Louisiana fields "within a few hours after that well [Bussey] blew in."

Most of the new arrivals came by railroad. Within 48 hours of Bussey's discovery, five special trains were running from Little Rock to El Dorado daily. By dark on the third day, a "seething mass of conglomerate humanity" clogged the unpaved streets. Cordell vividly remembered: "During the days that followed, diamonds and costly furs rubbed elbows with oil-spotted khaki and well stained jeans. Beggars and hijackers mingled in the crowds ..."

El Dorado was totally unprepared for the sudden arrival of more than 10,000 people. The town's hotels filled quickly, and Garrett Hotel began renting cots in the lobby. Even lobby chairs were rented to exhausted new arrivals. Residents rented spare bedrooms and porches. Barbers rented their chairs for $2 per night.

Feeding the throngs was a challenge. The city allowed the erection of temporary lunch rooms and other businesses along sidewalks, and it was not long before a Hamburger Row arose. A Little Rock reporter described the Row as "the most cosmopolitan section in the whole state, containing under its dingy roofs every specimen of humanity possible to conceive."

Tiny businesses--from restaurants to hardware stores--flourished. More than one photography studio opened. The reporter mentioned an Army surplus store. A new arrival from Fayetteville established a motion picture house and vaudeville theater. Even the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce opened an office in El Dorado.

Within six months of Bussey's strike, more than 200 wells were producing in Union County, and more were being drilled. One of these, Murphy Well No. 1--located about nine miles north of El Dorado near the hamlet of Norphlet-- became the discovery well in the Smackover oil field when it gushed to life in May 1922.

This well made history. Not only did it open a vast new field for development, but it also created a giant crater that swallowed up the drilling rig like a mere appetizer. The well blew in with such pressure that the derrick was destroyed and the crew had to run for their lives. Soon, ground around the well began to cave in, and a crater began growing. About two days after blowing in, the well caught fire, and flames shot 300 feet into the air.

Anna Cordell remembered the crater "engulfing everything in its path, including a Negro cemetery--until it became a yawning pit." By the time the flames died, the crater stretched 450 feet across and more than 50 feet deep. A second well drilled in the Smackover Field also developed a crater, replete with a "mud volcano" which shot mud high into the air and occasionally caught fire.

Whatever the challenges, the oil business was able to settle in. Gradually wildcatters moved on to newer fields elsewhere, and an infrastructure was put into place. Vast amounts of crude oil were stored in open pits at first. Most of the oil was transported by railroad; pipelines and storage tanks later allowed for a more orderly transfer.

Many of the men who came to the Union County oil fields seeking their fortunes were disappointed, but a few succeeded, sometimes in spectacular ways. Haroldson LaFayette Hunt, better known as H.L. Hunt, ran a gambling operation in El Dorado until he made enough cash to begin dealing in oil leases. His first drilling produced a gusher.

By 1925 Hunt could claim a fortune of $600,000. That same year he bought a whole block in El Dorado and built a three-story mansion. Since Hunt's entrepreneurial appetite would not allow him to leisurely enjoy his fortune, he invested in myriad deals. By 1930 he was broke, having lost heavily in Florida real-estate speculation. He sold his El Dorado mansion and headed to east Texas, where he built the Hunt oil empire.

Not all of the early oil tycoons went bust and left. Thomas Harry Barton built a business based on marketing natural gas that had previously been seen as a useless byproduct. Eventually he sold out to Cities Service Company and later became president of Lion Oil Co.

Lion Oil started out as a locally owned refinery, processing crude oil from the local earthen pits where it was stored. Barton built it into one of the largest oil companies in the South, integrated with its own pipelines, river terminals, exploration capacity, and retail service stations.

Barton ran for the U.S. Senate in 1944, coming in third behind U.S. Rep. J.W. Fulbright and Gov. Homer Adkins. Barton's image was tarnished by his right-wing political positions, including his repeated opposition to allowing black citizens to vote in the Democratic primary.

Murphy Oil Co. is the most noticeable reminder of Arkansas' oil heritage. Arriving in El Dorado in 1904, Charles H. Murphy Sr. got his start in the banking and mercantile business, eventually controlling 13 country banks. He gradually shifted his focus to oil. Still, the company's oil division did not surpass timber and banking until the mid-1930s. Murphy took the company public in 1956.

Today Murphy Oil Corp. is engaged in crude oil and natural gas production in the U.S. and Canada, and explores for oil and gas worldwide. It is considered a nimble and solid company, pioneers in deep water drilling, and in recent years has obtained leases around the world. It has 200 employees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, alone.

Another legacy of our petroleum heritage is pollution. Infrastructure did not exist for quickly capturing and storing the oil that flowed from the ground. Vast amounts were stored in huge earthen pits, which often overflowed during rains, which turned Smackover Creek into a blackened ditch.

The oil boom did not last long. Peak crude production came in 1925, when over 77 million barrels were produced.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 03/08/2020

Print Headline: El Dorado's oil transformation

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