Surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, seven miles north of El Dorado – in equally historic Smackover – exhibits the state’s petroleum history.

When the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil in 1921, it catapulted the population of nearby El Dorado, Arkansas, from 4,000 to 25,000.

“Twenty-two trains a day were soon running in and out of El Dorado,” noted the Arkansas Gazette.

An excited state legislature announced plans for a special railway excursion for lawmakers to visit the oil well in Union County.

Haroldson Lafayette Hunt arrived from Texas with $50. He joined the crowd of lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were being made and lost.

H.L. Hunt, who had borrowed the $50, got his start as an independent oil and natural gas producer in El Dorado. He will make his fortune a decade later in East Texas. See H.L. Hunt and the East Texas Oilfield.

EL Dorado Oilfield revealed

Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick was plainly visible from the town, according to historians A. R. and R. B. Buckalew.

The Garrett Hotel, where H.L. Hunt checked in with $50 borrowed dollars – and launched his career as a successful independent producer.

The Buckalews report that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity but had produced no oil in commercial quantity.

There was no market for natural gas at the time, the authors explain in their book, The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.

Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”

The authors add, “among those who gambled their savings with Busey at this time were Wong Hing, also called Charles Louis, a Chinese laundry man, and Ike Felsenthal, whose family had created a community in southeast Union County in earlier years.”

With no oil production nearby, investing in the “wildcat” well was a leap of faith. Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, contributed the hefty sum of $1,000.

“The well had been drilled to 2,233 feet and the Nacatoch sand had been reached, a small crowd of eager spectators gathered at the rig, beginning about noon.”

On January 10, 1921, the drilling crew - after moving a safe distance away - watched and listened. “The spectators, among them Dr. Busey, watched with an air of expectancy.”

The rumbling grew in intensity, “shaking the derrick and the very ground on which it stood as if an earthquake were passing,” the authors report.

“Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” they add.

“Drilling had ceased and bailing operations had begun to try to bring in the well. At about 4:30 p.m., as the bailer was being lifted from its sixth trip into the deep hole, a rumble from deep in the well was heard.”

The gusher blows through the derrick and “bursts into a black mushroom” cloud against the January sky. The Busey No. 1 well produced 15,000,000 to 35,000,000 cubic feet of gas and from 3,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil and water a day.

Arkansas Petroleum Prosperity

Thanks to the El Dorado discovery, the first Arkansas petroleum boom was on. By 1922, there were 900 producing wells in the state.

A coalition of downtown merchants and civic leaders raised funds to preserve El Dorado’s historic downtown – and add an Oil Heritage Park at 101 East Main Street.

“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions,” notes the Union County Sheriff’s Office. “Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”

The 68-square-mile field will lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. Prior to the discovery, the area’s economy relied upon cotton and the timber industry “that thrived in the vast virgin forests of southern Arkansas.”

“It was a scene never again to be equaled in El Dorado’s history, nor would the town and its people ever be the same again,” the authors conclude. “Union County’s dream of oil had come true.”

In 2002, El Dorado gathered 40 local artists to paint 55 oil drums donated by the local Murphy Oil Company. Preserving the town’s historic assets, including boom-era buildings, remains a major goal of the local group, Main Street El Dorado, which was the “2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner” of the National Trust Main Street Center.

The Smackover Discovery

Incorporated in 1922, Smackover, Arkansas, had been a small agricultural and sawmill community. Today, the town celebrates its petroleum heritage with the annual “Oil Town Festival” in June.

Prior to the January 1921 El Dorado discovery, the region’s economy relied almost exclusively on the cotton and the timber industries. A year later, another giant oil field discovery 12 miles north will bring national attention – and lead to the incorporation of Smackover.

A small agricultural and sawmill community with a population of 131, Smackover had been settled by French fur trappers in 1844. They called the area “Sumac-Couvert”, meaning covered with sumac or shumate bushes.

According to historian Don Lambert, by 1908 Sidney Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town. He believed that oil lay beneath the surface.

“On July 1, 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well (Richardson No. 1) produced a gusher from a depth of 2,066 feet,” Lambert reports. “Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled, with a success rate of ninety-two percent. The little town had increased from a mere ninety to 25,000 and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention”

The oil-producing area of the Smackover covered more than 25,000 acres. By 1925, it had become the largest-producing oil site in the world. The field will produce 583 million barrels of oil by 2001.

Roughnecks photographed following the July 1, 1922, discovery of the Smackover (Richardson) field in Union County. Courtesy of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives.

Visit the Arkansas Natural Resources Museum in Smackover – the heart of the Smackover field. The museum includes a five-acre Oilfield Park with operating examples of oil producing technologies used in south Arkansas oil fields from the 1920s to today.

The Fayetteville Shale, an unconventional natural gas reservoir, promises a new petroleum boom for Arkansas.

Today, 27 of Arkansas’ 75 counties produce oil natural gas. As of 2010, more than 40,800 wells have been drilled since 1921′s Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well in Union County.

According to geologists, the Fayetteville Shale, a 50-mile-wide formation across central Arkansas, promises large quantities of natural gas – and a new petroleum boom for the state. But the unconventional natural gas reservoir requires hydraulic fracturing.

Unlike traditional fields containing hydrocarbons in porous rock formations, shale holds natural gas in a fine-grained rock or “tight sands.” Until recently, most shale formations were not considered profitable areas for production.

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