Arkansas Oil and Gas Boomtowns
When the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil on January 10, 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 as the state legislature announced plans for a special legislative railway excursion to visit the oil well in Union County.
H.L. Hunt arrived with a borrowed $50 and joined the lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were being made and lost. Hunt will get his start as an oilman in El Dorado and make his fortune a decade later in East Texas.
Located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado, the derrick was plainly visible from the town, according to A. R. and R. B. Buckalew in their The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.
The Buckalews explain that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity but had produced no oil in commercial quantity.
Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”
The authors add that “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.”
Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, also contributed $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,” the authors note.
“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 drilling crew, after moving a safe distance away, watch – and listen. “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. Suddenly, with a deafening roar, ‘a thick black column’ of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” the Buckalews report.
The gusher blows through the derrick and “bursts into a black mushroom” cloud against the January sky. 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. By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state.
“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
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.
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.
Also read “H.L. Hunt and the East Texas Oilfield.”
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.
Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.