Oilfield discoveries at El Dorado and Smackover in 1920s launched Arkansas petroleum industry.
Petroleum discoveries in the 1920s in southern Arkansas created boom towns, boosted the career of young wildcatter H.L. Hunt, and launched the state’s exploration and production industry.
The first Arkansas well that yielded “sufficient quantities of oil” was the Hunter No. 1 of April 16, 1920, in Ouachita County, according to the Arkansas Geological Survey. Natural gas was discovered a few days later in Union County by Constantine Oil and Refining Company.
A January 1921 well drilled in the same Union County field at El Dorado marked the true beginning of commercial oil production in Arkansas.
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, the oilfield discovery soon catapulted the population of El Dorado from 4,000 to 25,000 people. The well, 15 miles north of the Louisiana border, was the state’s first commercial oil well.
“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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Haroldson Lafayette “H.L.” Hunt borrowed the $50 and got his start as an independent oil and natural gas producer in El Dorado. People said it was his expertise at the poker table that earned him enough to afford a one-half acre parcel lease. He drilled his Hunt-Pickering No. 1 well, which at first produced some oil, but ultimately proved unprofitable.
Hunt persevered, and within four years acquired substantial El Dorado and Smackover oilfield holdings. By 1925, he was a successful 36-year-old oilman with wife Lyda and three young children living in a three-story El Dorado home. He would significantly add to his oilfield successes a decade later in Kilgore, Texas (learn more in East Texas Oilfield Discovery).
Giant Oilfield at El Dorado
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. They write that three “gassers” had been completed in the general vicinity, but did not produce oil in commercial quantities.
There was no market for natural gas at the time, the authors explained in their 1974 book, The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924.
The Garrett Hotel, where H.L. Hunt checked in with 50 borrowed dollars – and launched his career as a successful independent producer.
Yet Dr. Samuel T. Busey was convinced “there was oil down there somewhere.”
The authors added, “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. On January 10, 1921, the well had been drilled to 2,233 feet and reached the Nacatoch Sand. A small crowd of onlookers and the drilling crew after moving a safe distance away watched and listened.
“The spectators, among them Dr. Busey, watched with an air of expectancy,” noted the historians. “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 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 added.
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.
Petroleum brings Prosperity
Thanks to the El Dorado discovery, the first Arkansas petroleum boom was on. By 1922, there were 900 producing wells in the state.
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,” noted 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. “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 concluded. “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.
Second Oil Boom: Discovery at Smackover
Prior to the January 1921 El Dorado discovery, the region’s economy relied almost exclusively on the cotton and the timber industries “that thrived in the vast virgin forests of southern Arkansas.”
Petroleum wealth helped Smackover, Arkansas, incorporate in 1922.
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.
Six months after the Busey-Armgstrong No. 1, another giant oilfield 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 reported.
“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,” added Lambert.
Roughnecks photographed following the July 1, 1922, discovery of the Smackover (Richardson) field in Union County. Courtesy of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives.
The oil-producing area of the Smackover field 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 oilfields from the 1920s to today.
Abundant natural gas in the Fayetteville shale formation brought more drilling to Arkansas.
About one-third of the 75 Arkansas counties produce oil and or natural gas. By 2010, more than 40,800 wells had been drilled since 1921’s Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well in Union County.
Thanks to advances in drilling technologies combined with hydraulic fracturing, the Fayetteville Shale (a 50-mile-wide formation across central Arkansas), added vast natural gas reserves — and launched a new petroleum boom for the state.
Unlike traditional fields containing hydrocarbons in porous formations, shale holds natural gas in a fine-grained rock or “tight sands.” Until the 1990s, drilling in most shale formations was not considered profitable for production.
Surrounded by 20 acres of lush woodlands, an oil museum collects and exhibits southern Arkansas petroleum – and brine – industrial history. It also documents a fascinating social history that accompanied the state’s oil boom of the 1920s.
Opened in 1986, Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources educates visitors in the heart of the historic Smackover oilfield. Exhibits explain how the Busey No. 1 well near El Dorado “blew-in with a gusty fury” in January 1921. The museum can be found one mile south of the once oil-rich town of Smackover.
Recommended Reading: The Discovery of Oil in South Arkansas, 1920-1924 (1974); The Three Families of H. L. Hunt (1989); Early Louisiana and Arkansas Oil: A Photographic History, 1901-1946 (1982); Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery (2008). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Arkansas Oil Wells.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/arkansas-oil-and-gas-boom-towns. Last Updated: April 6, 2022. Original Published Date: April 21, 2013.
Derricks close to one cemetery, “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots.”
In the summer of 1921, the Signal Hill oil discovery would help make California the source of one-quarter of the world’s entire oil output. Soon known as “Porcupine Hill,” the town’s Long Beach oilfield would produce about 260,000 barrels of oil every day by 1923.
The Alamitos No. 1 well, drilled on the remote hilltop south of Los Angeles, erupted a 114-foot column of “black gold” on June 23, 1921. Natural gas pressure was so great, the geyser of oil climbed 114 feet into the air.
The oilfield discovery well, which produced almost 600 barrels a day, would eventually produce 700,000 barrels of oil. Signal Hill incorporated three years after its Alamitos discovery well made headlines.
Following the June 1921 oil discovery, Signal Hill had so many derricks people called it Porcupine Hill.
Pennsylvania wildcatters discover oilfield near Tulsa in Oklahoma Territory.
Six years before Oklahoma statehood, the 1901 Red Fork oilfield discovery south of Tulsa set the town on its journey to becoming “Oil Capital of the World.”
Attracted to Indian Territory following an 1897 discovery at Bartlesville (see First Oklahoma Oil Well) two experienced drillers from the Pennsylvania fields found oil in the Creek Indian Nation on June 25, 1901. They drilled with steam boilers powering cable tools, the technology used to drill the first U.S. oil well in 1859 along Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Dedicated during the 2007 Oklahoma centennial, a circa 1950s derrick commemorates the 1901 Red Fork discovery well. Photo courtesy Route 66 Historic Village.
After leasing thousands of acres in the Creek Nation, John S. Wick and Jesse A. Heydrick spudded their well near the village of Red Fork, across the Arkansas River from Tulsa. It was not easy for the Pennsylvanians.
“At the beginning of the twentieth-century Oklahoma Indian lands were in the process of being transferred from communal tribal ownership to individual tribal member holdings,” explained Bobby D. Weaver of the Oklahoma Historical Society. “This process, which made legal access to Indian property very uncertain, kept most oilmen away from areas under Indian control.”
The exploratory well was almost never drilled when the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway station agent at Red Fork “refused to accept a draft on their Pennsylvania backers to release their drilling equipment,” Weaver noted.
Creek Land lease
A loan from two local doctors, John C. W. Bland and Fred S. Clinton, led to the Red Fork discovery well being drilled at Red Fork on the tribal allotment of Sue A. Bland, a Creek citizen and wife of Dr. Bland.
Although the Sue A. Bland No. 1 well erupted an oil geyser high into the air, the discovery soon settled into production of just 10 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 537 feet. Despite the low production, the Oklahoma Territory well attracted a lot of national attention, drawing large numbers of exploration companies to the Tulsa area.
The Tulsa Democrat newspaper exclaimed, “Geyser of Oil Spouts at Red Fork” and “Oil Well Gusher Fifteen Feet High.” Within a week, Red Fork – once a quiet town of 75 people – was overrun by people clamoring for leases.
Many of the newcomers settled in Tulsa, which in 1904 constructed its first bridge across the Arkansas River to accommodate wagon loads of oi field workers and equipment.
Tulsa County would boom following a 1901 major oilfield discovery.
“The Red Fork discovery never produced a great amount of oil, with most of the wells being in the fifty-barrel-per-day range, but it did produce excitement and drilling activity,” explains Bobby Weaver of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“The discovery also prompted Tulsa citizens to begin a strong promotional campaign, with the result that by 1904 a much needed bridge had been built across the Arkansas River,” he adds. “This gave Tulsa access to the Red Fork Field and beyond and started that community on the road to becoming the predominant oil city in Oklahoma.”
The city’s petroleum industry future is assured in 1905 when a well is drilled below the Red Fork production sands and reveals a massive oilfield; the Glenn Pool production will far exceed Tulsa County’s earlier Red Fork discovery. Learn more in Making Tulsa the Oil Capital.
Recommended Reading: Tulsa Oil Capital of the World, Images of America (2004). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information: Article Title: “Red Fork Gusher.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/oklahoma-red-fork-oilfield. Last Updated: June 16, 2022. Original Published Date: June 23, 2014.
Giant Hobbs oilfield discovered in 1928, six years after first petroleum production.
“It was desolate country – sand, mesquite, bear grass and jack rabbits. Hobbs was a store, a small school, a windmill, and a couple of trees.” – New Mexico roughneck.
Although the Hobbs discovery came six years after the first oil production (seven years after the first natural gas well), petroleum geologists soon called it the most important single oil find in New Mexico history. The Midwest State No. 1 well — spudded in late 1927 using a standard cable-tool rig — saw its first signs of oil from the giant oilfield at depth of 4,065 feet on June 13, 1928. It had been a long journey. (more…)
Drilling for water in 1894, Corsicana discovered an oilfield and became the richest town in Texas.
In the summer of 1894, town leaders of Corsicana, Texas, hired a contractor to drill a water well on 12th Street, but the driller found oil instead. The town’s oilfield discovery launched the first Texas oil boom — seven years before a far more famous gusher at Spindletop Hill, 230 miles southeast.
Corsican’s first oil well produced less than three barrels of oil a day, but it quickly transformed the sleepy agricultural town into a petroleum and industrial center. The discovery launched industries, including service companies and manufacturers of the newly invented rotary drilling rig.
The first Texas oil boom arrived in the summer of 1894 when the Corsicana oilfield is discovered by a drilling contractor hired by the city to find water. Residents annually celebrate the 1894 discovery with a Derrick Day Chili & BBQ Cook-Off.
Corsicana local historians consider the 1894 discovery well, drilled on South 12th Street, the first significant commercial oil discovery west of the Mississippi (Kansans claim the same distinction for an 1892 Neodesha oil well).
The American Well and Prospecting Company (from Kansas) made the oil strike on June 9, 1894, at a depth of 1,035 feet. The city council — angry and still wanting water for its growing community 55 miles south of Dallas – paid only half of the $1,000 fee. (more…)
Oilfield discovered in 1940 after 57 years of expensive “dry holes.”
Pawnee Royalty Company drilled a wildcat well on May 29, 1940, in Richardson County…after state legislators, eager for petroleum tax revenue, offered a $15,000 bonus.
After more than a half century of dry holes, on May 29, 1940, Nebraska’s earliest commercial oil well was completed in the far southeastern corner of the state. The Pawnee Royalty Company made the discovery just west of Falls City in Richardson County.
Nebraska’s oil production reached more than 2.51 million barrels of oil in 2012 (above), but declined to about 1.71 million barrels of oil by 2021, according to the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
A Nebraska historical marker explains that the earliest “publicized report of oil in Nebraska had been an 1883 newspaper account of a ‘vein of petroleum’ discovered in the same county.”
“Over the next 57 years the search for oil consumed thousands of dollars, and hundreds of wells were drilled throughout Nebraska,” adds the marker placed by the Nebraska Petroleum Council. “Traces of oil were reported at various locations across the state, but Nebraska did not have a producing well until 1940.”
State offers Oil Bounty
Eager to become an oil-producing state, the Nebraska legislature had offered a $15,000 bonus for any oil well in Nebraska to produce 50 barrels daily for 60 consecutive days. Florida lawmakers, also eager for oil revenue, would do the same (see First Florida Oil Well).
A 1940s postcard image depicts the drilling rig’ “pool of oil” from the earliest Nebraska oil well at Falls City.
In 1939 and 1940 the Pawnee Royalty Company had two encouraging but unsuccessful drillings near Falls City. A third well, Bucholz No. 1, was begun near the marker on April 22, 1940. On May 29 the well began producing and averaged 169-1/2 barrels daily for 60 days.
The discovery easily qualified for the Nebraska Legislature’s $15,000 bonus. Richardson County enjoyed an oil boom for three years. The Bucholz No. 1 was located just five miles east of the “vein of petroleum” reported in 1883.
Modern Nebraska petroleum production comes from the southwestern panhandle — where a 1949 discovery well produced 225 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 4,429 feet. This oil discovery ended 60 years of unsuccessful searching in western Nebraska, according to another roadside historical marker. Marathon Oil completed the well, the Mary Egging No. 1, five miles southeast of Gurley in Cheyenne County.
Marking Oil History
The historic marker, on U.S. 385 between Sidney and Gurley, reports that interest in oil in western Nebraska began in 1889, near Crawford, in the northwest corner of the Panhandle.
Prior to 1950, Nebraska has no office to report production for record keeping. Oil production from 1939 to 1949 is estimated by the Geological Survey to have been almost six million barrels.
Drilling there took place in 1903 near Chadron, also in the northern part of the Panhandle, according to the marker. A 1917 exploratory well, “drilled in the southwest Panhandle, near Harrisburg, failed,” it adds. “Oil searchers sunk many other dry test wells in western Nebraska until success came in 1949.”
By 1966, wells in the western Nebraska oilfields produced more than 216 million barrels of oil. “The pioneer efforts in this area have resulted in a major contribution to the economy of the state,” concludes the Nebraska State Historical Society.
New technologies, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, would bring renewed activity to Nebraska in the 2000s. With in decade, independent oil and natural gas companies also began testing the potential of the Niobrara Shale in southwestern Nebraska.
Learn about the earliest oilfield discoveries in other U.S. producing states in First Oil Discoveries.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “First Nebraska Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL:https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/first-nebraska-oil-well. Last Updated: May 24, 2022. Original Published Date: May 26, 2013.