November 1st, 1920: El Dorado, Arkansas
First National Bank
“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.”
“Uh, Dr. Busey, Mr. McKinney is a busy man, and if I can help you or one of our vice-presidents could help…”
“Young man, please tell Mr. McKinney I have important news about a forthcoming bonanza which is coming to El Dorado that I must inform him of. This is an emergency! God is about to anoint this community with great riches.”
A shocked look crossed the man’s face, and he headed toward Mr. McKinney’s office.
“Yes, sir, I’ll be right back.”
Dr. Samuel Busey, recently of Smackover, who claimed to be a doctor and a geologist — he was neither — had just made his initial appearance in El Dorado. Dr. Busey, as he preferred to be called, was an oil well promotor, who frequently quoted Scripture as he talked to investors about buying into his oil well drilling ventures. He had traveled from oil booms in Texas to north Louisiana. That is when he heard about a wildcat well called the # 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 of oil caught his interest, since most oilmen were aware natural gas was usually associated with oil fields.
His interest was further heightened when he heard of a second well being drilled. It was located just north of the #1 Constantine well. As the days passed, Dr. Busey paid close attention to the drilling of the well, and when the operator of the well went bankrupt and suspended operations before he reached the Nacatoch Sand — the sand that had produced natural gas with a skim of oil in the Constantine well — Dr. Busey decided to take over the bankrupt drilling operation. He was in El Dorado to raise money to drill the well deeper. Dr. Busey was 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 sitting on top of a huge pool of oil, was a strong selling point. Of course, he had constructed the map, which showed a giant oil field just waiting to be discovered. He made numerous sales of working interest in the venture, and by mid-December, he had raised enough money to resume the drilling of the abandoned well called the # 1 Armstrong. He had to drill only five hundred feet to reach the Nacatoch Sand, which was the sand that had blown out in the Constantine well.
The drilling reached the prospective oil sand on January 9th, 1921. After drilling into the top of the sand, and examining the sand samples which came to the surface and smelled of oil, Dr. Busey ordered pipe be cemented in the hole. The method of completing wells in the 1920s consisted of cementing an oil well casing to the top of the sand, then drilling a few more feet into the sand. 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 four p.m. on January 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 the 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 cent/acre. The Busey well lasted only 59 days, but it 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 as high as 50,000 bbls a day. Oil was selling for $1.25 per bbls, but with those volumes, millionaires were made overnight. During the first five years of the oil boom, the value 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. Barrelhouses 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 squalor from open sewers flowed down these streets, is factual, and, yes, prostitutes did ride horseback out to the rigs to service the crews. The hundreds of murders committed by hi-jackers, as the oil workers called them, are well documented. Jake’s Place was a real barrelhouse and men like Smiling Jack, Lucky Bob, Weasel, Silvertop and Big Ed were all actual characters who were a part of the lawless crowd that flooded the community. H. L. Hunt, who was at one time the richest man in the world, got his start in a gambling house on Hamburger Row.
El Dorado has recognized and commemorated the Oil Boom with Oil Heritage Park where bronze plaques mounted on granite pedestals tell the Oil Boom 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 families who, as the 20s and 30s passed, changed downtown El Dorado. The old pre-boom wooden frame buildings were razed and were replaced with new brick buildings, along with the State’s premier courthouse and 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 street as the first oil well in Arkansas roared in.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]