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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Oil boom's 100th anniversary

by Richard Mason | January 10, 2021 at 8:41 a.m.

Nov. 1, 1920, First National Bank, El Dorado.

"Mr. McKinney, there's a Dr. Samuel Busey here to see you."

"A doctor? I don't need to see a doctor. Ask him what he wants and send him to one of the VPs, if he wants a loan."

"Yes, sir."

"Uh, Dr. Busey, Mr. McKinney is busy, and if I can help you or one of our vice-presidents could help ..."

"Young man, please tell Mr. Mc-

Kinney I have such important news about a forthcoming bonanza which is coming to El Dorado that I must inform him. This is an emergency! God is about to anoint this community with great riches."

A shocked look crossed the young man's face, and he headed back toward Mr. McKinney's office.

Samuel Busey, who claimed to be a doctor and a geologist (he was neither), recently of Shreveport, had just made his initial appearance in El Dorado. Dr. Busey, as he preferred to be called, was an oil well promoter who frequently quoted scripture as he talked to investors about buying into his oil drilling ventures.

He had traveled from oil booms in Texas to north Louisiana when he heard about a wildcat well called the No. 1 Constantine which had been drilled in south Arkansas. The well had blown out, spewing natural gas and salt water with a skim of oil. The gas and skim caught his attention, since most oilmen are aware natural gas is usually associated with oil fields.

His interest was further heightened when he heard of a second well being drilled just north of the No. 1 Constantine well. When the operator of that well went bankrupt and suspended operations before reaching the Nacatoch Sand that had produced natural gas in the Constantine well, Dr. Busey decided to take over the drilling operation.

He was in El Dorado to raise funds to drill the well deeper, being well versed in the oil promoter's adage, "Drill with other people's money."

The meeting with Mr. McKinney was one of the first Dr. Busey had with El Dorado businessmen. After leaving Mr. McKinney's office, he proceeded down Main Street to present various store owners with what he called a great opportunity to claim the riches of his proposed oil discovery.

His impressive geologic map, which showed El Dorado was sitting on top of a huge pool of oil, was a strong selling point. Of course, he had constructed the map, which revealed a giant oil field just waiting to be discovered.

He made numerous sales of interest in the venture, and by mid-December raised enough money to resume drilling of the abandoned well called No. 1 Armstrong. He had to drill only 500 feet to reach the Nacatoch Sand.

The drilling reached the prospective oil sand on Jan. 9, 1921. After drilling into the top of the sand and examining the samples that came to the surface and smelled of oil, Dr. Busey ordered pipe to be cemented in the hole.

The method of completing wells in the 1920s consisted of cementing oil well casing to the top of the sand, then drilling a few feet deeper. An operator would then bail out the drilling mud, which was holding back whatever was in the sand, and the pressure in the formation would allow the oil, gas, or salt water to flow to the surface.

Accounts from witnesses recounted that Dr. Busey, after smelling oil in the sand samples, went through town telling everyone the well would come in the next day. A little after 4 p.m. Jan. 10, 1921, after bailing the water and mud out of the pipe, the well roared in, spewing oil through the top of the wooden derrick. It was a gusher!

In that instant El Dorado was changed forever. The 1920s oil boom was a cataclysmic event for this small south Arkansas village. Dr. Busey held a press conference in the lobby of the courthouse that night, and later the press telegraphed this news headline nationwide: "Busey's well estimated to be flowing 30,000 barrels of oil a day!"

That was a huge exaggeration, but the next morning five charter trains with packed coaches arrived with white flags flying from the front of its engines, and a fabulous oil boom was on.

A farmer's land which offset the Busey well leased the next day for $1,000 per acre. The Armstrong lease where the Busey well was drilled had been bought for 2 cents per acre.

The Busey well lasted only 59 days, but caused the drilling of 120 wells in the county that year, some of which found significant oil fields. The boom went into high gear two years later when the giant Smackover Field was discovered. Some of its wells flowed oil into earthen pits at a rate as high as 50,000 bbls a day.

Oil was selling for $1.25 per bbl; with those volumes, millionaires were made overnight. During the first five years of the oil boom, the value of oil produced was greater than the entire appraised value of the state's property, and the population of El Dorado went from 3,800 to an estimated 40,000.

Law enforcement officials were overwhelmed, and parts of south Arkansas became completely lawless. Barrel houses lined South Washington Street, nicknamed Hamburger Row, where open saloons, gambling, and prostitution flourished.

The unsanitary conditions, where mules drowned in the dirt streets and open sewers flowed, are factual. Prostitutes rode on horseback out to the rigs to service the crews.

The hundreds of murders committed by hijackers, as the oil workers called them, are well documented. Jake's Place was a real barrel house, and men like Smiling Jack, Lucky Bob, Weasel, Silvertop, and Big Ed were actual characters who were a part of the rabble that invaded the community. Oil tycoon H. L. Hunt, at one time the richest man in the world, got his start in a gambling house on Hamburger Row.

El Dorado commemorated the boom with Oil Heritage Park, where bronze plaques mounted on granite pedestals tell the story.

The boom produced substantial fortunes for several El Dorado families. The Murphy-Nolan-Alderson, Mahony, Garrett, Trimble, McKinney, and Barton families were some of the many who, as the '20s and '30s passed, changed downtown El Dorado.

The old pre-boom wooden frame buildings were razed, replaced with new brick buildings, along with the state's premier courthouse and a college-level football stadium. It is hard to exaggerate the contributions made to the community from these families, because they have contributed so much and are still giving.

One hundred years ago church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded, and people danced in the streets as the first oil well in Arkansas forever changed this city.

Email Richard Mason at richard@gibraltarenergy.com.

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