The Discovery of Oil in South
By A. R. and R. B. BUCKALEW*
El Dorado, Arkansas
As 1920 GAVE WAY TO 1921 IN UNION COUNTY, ARKANSAS, NONE OF ITS RESIDENTS could have suspected what the new year held in store for them. Nowhere was this truer than in El Dorado, the seat of county government, a quiet little country town of around 4,000 people. There the towns’ people went about their daily business as a trade center for the farmers and lumbermen of the county.
Indeed, for the few businessmen of the town who concerned themselves with keeping a finger on the pulse of the economy, the future looked anything but healthy. Much of the best timber in the county had been cut over and the lumber business was declining. A fair crop of 60,000 acres of cotton had been harvested the previous fall and shipped out, but the price which rose to a high of nearly forty-two cents at New Orleans in April 1920 slumped to thirteen and a half cents in December. Passenger and freight traffic on the town's two railroads, the Missouri Pacific and the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific (the Rock Island), which connected her with Camden and Little Rock had decreased. Then Sheriff Finn Craig's deputies earned $75 a month in 1920, but each of them had to furnish his own horse on rural patrol---in delivering court summons and in collecting delinquent taxes. The automobile had arrived in El Dorado, to be sure, as the five blocks of pavement in and about the town square bore mute testimony, but hitching posts and livery stables were also still much in evidence---bearing proof that the county seat had not departed from its horse-and-buggy days. One of the paved blocks at the center of town extended south from the town square on Washington Street to include Rufus N. Garret's three-story brick hotel, built in 1910 or 1911, which catered mainly to overnight drummers calling on the business houses in town, but which in the past several months had accommodated a number of oil men.
Oil men were not new to El Dorado and south Arkansas. A test well had been drilled at Urbana, ten miles east of El Dorado in Union county, as early as 1914 with no results. The well on a lease which the Penn-Wyoming Oil Company acquired. Then in 1916 Chance Adams, Charles Murphy, and Ed Jones drilled a well close to the Columbia County line that was a dry hole.
Local short line railroad, the El Dorado & Wesson Railway Company, was hurting too.
Six years later, on April 16, 1920, Colonel Samuel S. Hunter of the Hunter Oil Company of Shreveport, Louisiana, completed the first oil well in Arkansas two and a half miles east of Stephens in southwest Ouachita County and just north of the Union County line. Lyle Watkins, who would be connected with many of the wells in south Arkansas, was the driller. Known variously as the Hunter No. 1, after the owner of the well, and the Lester-Hamilton No. 1, after T. B. Lester and John Haltom, owners of the lease (in Section 13, Township 15 South, Range 19 West), the well was drilled to 2,121 feet but was never a commercial producer, although some oil was bailed from it. It was eventually capped and abandoned. Later Colonel Hunter sold the lease of 20,000 acres, including the discovery well, to Standard Oil Company of Louisiana for $2,225,000-$850,000 in cash, the remainder in oil.
On April 22, 1920, six days after the Hunter No. I was brought in; the first gas well in south Arkansas was completed two and a half miles southeast of El Dorado. This was the Constantin Oil & Refining Company's Hill No. 1 well in Section 1, Township 18 South, Range 16 West, drilled to a depth of 2,247 feet with an estimated daily flow of 40,000,000 to 60,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day and a "spray of oil produced from the Nacatoch sands." John H. Soileau and John Sharp were the drillers. Frank Hill owned the property on which the well was drilled.
The Constantin well and the men behind it changed the minds of those who up to this time had believed the discovery of oil in Union county was unlikely. One of these men was Bruce Hunt, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, oil speculator, "who became the recognized pioneer of the El Dorado oil field." Another man was J. J. Victor, a Tulsa consulting geologist. Victor had read the available material on the possibility of oil in the Gulf Coastal Plain of south Arkansas and felt a test well should be drilled.
About 1915 Hunt and Victor were on a job for the same company in El Dorado, Kansas, during the discovery days there. Victor told Hunt of the reports and his feeling that there was oil in south Arkansas and that an exploratory well should be drilled. He told him, "Some day when you having nothing to do, maybe you had better run down there [south Arkansas] and block up some leases and I'll help you get drilled." Hunt did nothing about it until early 1919 when he was at his home in Tulsa, recovering from a three-month bout with rheumatism. Because of his long illness, Hunt had no money to buy any leases, but he went to his friend, Sam Arrendale of Tulsa, another lease dealer, for help. Arrendale was able to get $250, and Hunt left immediately for El Dorado.
He tried at first to lease land east of El Dorado, but was unsuccessful. However, in seeing the farmers in that area he met Mamie Smith McCurry, wife of Dr. W. T. McCurry of Little Rock, who happened to be visiting her father, D. C. Smith, when Hunt arrived. She had been reared in the area, and, intrigued by Hunt's project, offered to go with him to try to help him win the cooperation of the farmers
Hunt readily accepted her offer, and, traveling in a light buggy, they set out to talk to her friends. They were unsuccessful in their efforts east of El Dorado, but when they turned to the area west and south of town, where Mrs. McCurry was well known, Hunt found her help invaluable.
He was able finally to lease 12,522 acres in a single tract, spending $229 of the $250 grub stake. He returned to Tulsa, gave Arrendale the $21 that was left, and called on Victor, who was now a consulting geologist. They induced the Constantin Oil & Refining Company of Tulsa to drill the test well, and a "division of the acreage was made on the basis of three acres to the company for one to Hunt-the company to pay all the expenses for drilling".
Hunt and Victor went to El Dorado and Hunt carried a rod while Victor surveyed the tract. It took thirty-five days for this original survey and nine days more at a later date. Victor found four different locations in their leases that looked good to him; because it was closer to the railroad, he decided to locate the first drilling site near the northeast corner of the acreage. Victor's report to Hunt wits a model of conciseness:
I have done 43 days' work on the district, comprising the block of acreage near El Dorado, Union county, Arkansas (see map attached.) I believe this point is most likely for accumulation of oil, but evidence is meager. There is an overburden of sand, and no two formations to pick from. I took elevations, depressions and pitch, and from the meager evidence on hand, this point (indicating the location for the Constantin well) is most favorable.
The Constantin Company shipped a California heavy rotary drilling rig to El Dorado. The railroad car with the rig got lost in transit and when it finally did arrive it was minus some "important parts," which caused more delay. Hunt's agreement with the Union County landowners called for him to begin drilling before December 31, 1919, or his leases would automatically terminate.
Victor came down with the flu and it was up to Hunt to try to live up to the lease agreements. He spent Christmas Day 1919 in the freight yard of El Dorado paying shipping bills, arranging to get the boiler and rig hauled to the drilling site, and assembling equipment on the site. With boiler and rig in place, the well was spudded in late on the afternoon of December 29th. Hunt had met the terms of his leases with a little more than twenty-four hours to spare.
Nothing went amiss with drilling operations. The crew worked days, shutting down the rig at night. Steady progress was made, however, and by the third week of April 1920 the drilling gauge showed the hole had reached a level of 2,200 feet. On April 22, 1920, drilling at a depth of 2,243 feet the bit unleashed a monstrous pocket of gas. The well blew out, spewing gas and salt water sky high.
The roar of the well could be heard plainly in El Dorado two and a half miles away. Capping the well itself did not control the huge gas pocket, which still rumbled deep in the earth. Soon hundreds of craters pockmarked the countryside over a ten-acre area about the well as the volatile, deadly gas forced its way to the surface. Crawfish died in their holes all around the site, asphyxiated by the poisonous fumes. Water wells and creeks in a four-mile radius began to boil and gurgle, and farmers, complaining bitterly, refused to drink the water.
The Constantin well, as it as called, made history again when on June 13, 1920, a heedless sightseer struck a match near one of the numerous craters. The resulting holocaust snuffed out five lives and ignited the well. It was weeks before the raging inferno, which lighted up the countryside at night for miles, was brought under control.
The Constantin well caused a mixed reaction among oil men in Union County. Some went away disappointed, while others, encouraged by the tremendous gasser with its trace of oil, began buying, selling and trading, leases with reckless abandonment.
One deal involved 350 acres leased from David E. Armstrong, whose land lay about two miles southwest of El Dorado in Section 31, Township 17 South, Range 15 West, off what was commonly called the Middle Magnolia Road, the middle of three routes to Magnolia, Arkansas, and which in itself was a westward extension of West Hillsboro Street. The buyers of the Armstrong lease were Paul R. Mattocks and Harley R. Hutton. They in turn assigned eighty acres of the lease to Dr. J. G. Mitchell and W. R. Bonham of Homer, Louisiana, on condition that their company should drill an exploratory well on this smaller tract.
The well was started in the summer of 1920. The first attempt was abandoned after drilling 1,000 feet when they ruined a hole. The derrick was "skidded" a short distance and a second attempt was made. At 900 feet some parts of the machinery fell into the hole and it was impossible to fish them out or to drill through or around them. This hole was abandoned. Again, the derrick was skidded and a third attempt was started. This time financial trouble caused the drilling to stop. The Mitchell-Bonham Company was a small one, and it had already spent $27,000.
David E Armstrong was born in 1847 in Union County, and was the brother-in-law of Henry G. Bunn, a former chief justice of Arkansas. He was a charter member of the El Dorado Masonic Lodge and served in the Confederate Army. After the war he entered the mercantile business in El Dorado, retiring in 1897. He owned over a thousand acres in Union County.
At this point the heroic figure of Dr. Samuel T. Busey stepped onto the scene of Arkansas oil history. A physician turned geologist, Busey, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, was no stranger to the oil fraternity. He was a world traveler and adventurer, having practiced medicine in Mexico in 1910 before going on to Bolivia where in 1915 he brought in his first oil well. He must have made something of a fortune either there or elsewhere, for arriving in El Dorado the day after the Constantin well blew in and finding no place for Mrs. Busey and himself to live, he negotiated to buy the Arcade Hotel, a wooden frame building in El Dorado. Ten days later he purchased it for $2,500.
When the Mitchell-Bonham Company had to stop drilling, Dr. Busey was interested enough in the exploratory well to agree to complete it. The following terms were agreed to:
He [Busey received a 51 per cent interest in the entire holdings of the company---the 80-acre tract, the half-finished well, all tools, etc. He paid the company $1,000 in cash; agreed to pay $2,000 more when the six-inch casing was set---in other words when a depth of about 2,000 feet was reached---and finally to pay $3,000 more if oil was obtained in paying quantities. Dr. Busey was to bear all expense of completing this first well, but after that the further expenses were to be shared on the 51-49 basis. All operations, of course, were to be under his control.
This agreement was made on November 15, 1920, and the drilling was resumed. Busey's action in putting some of his own funds into the well not only allowed drilling, to continue, but also induced others to join him in the venture. He sold shares of his fifty-one per cent of the well, in small lots, to other investors in El Dorado.
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, and some of Felsenthal's friends. Chal Daniels, who was overseeing drilling operations for Busey, contributed $1,000.
At the time Busey took charge of the Mitchell-Bonham well, which was to be known in history as the "Busey No. I" or the "Busey-Mitchell Armstrong No. I" or the "Busey-Daniels well," three "gassers" had been completed in the general vicinity and had produced some oil but not in commercial quantity. Yet Dr. Busey was convinced "there was oil down there somewhere."
His well (in Section 31, Township 17 South, Range 15 West) was located on a hill a little over a mile southwest of El Dorado and the derrick was plainly visible from the town. On Monday, January 10, 1921, when 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. Drilling had ceased and baling 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 moved back, and, a safe distance away, stopped 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. Suddenly, with a deafening roar, "a thick black column" of gas and oil and water shot out of the well.
It blew through the top of the derrick, and, rising high above it, "burst into a black mushroom" cloud against the January sky.
Oil and water rained to the earth, drenching the delirious crew and the spectators. Chal Daniels grabbed Dr. Busey in such a mighty bear hug that they both fell over into a pool of oil, injuring the doctor slightly but not so seriously that his own doctor could persuade him to stay away from Busey No. 1 in the mad days that followed. The wind caught the spray of oil and water and spread it all over the countryside. Sheep on Miles Murphy's farm a mile to the north turned black, while clothes on Monday's wash lines in El Dorado, also a mile away, dripped with oil.
In El Dorado, 'Pandemonium broke loose." "A Gusher!" at Busey No. 1. Everybody who could join the wild stampede out West Hillsboro Street that January afternoon to get a closer look. 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. Union County's dream of oil had come true. Busey No. 1, the "Discovery Well" of the El Dorado Oil Field yielded 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. The memory of that day--- Monday, January 10, 1921---burnt itself into the minds of those who either joined the mad dash to the well site, or who, watching from the taller buildings in town, saw the black column of oil gushing through the derrick on the hill southwest of town.
On the morning of January 11, however, no one was prepared for the coming events which would change the lives of so many. Local people were still coming to see the gusher, but the start of the chaos took place at the Rock Island depot as smoke from the south indicated the approach of an unscheduled train. The coaches were marked "Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific" and the locomotive carried two white flags on the front.
This special had been made up at Shreveport in the middle of the night. When it arrived in El Dorado that morning, its passengers hurried off and disappeared into the town. The Arkansas Gazette announced on January 12 that five special trains would begin to run daily from Little Rock to El Dorado, three on the Rock Island lines and two on the Missouri Pacific. Another special arrived from Tulsa the same day. A few days afterwards a special made up in New York, and which had taken on additional coaches of passengers in Chicago and St. Louis, arrived at Arkansas's new "Oil Capital." "Twenty-two trains a day were soon running in and out of El Dorado." The state legislature, meeting in a regular session at Little Rock, announced plans for a special legislative railway excursion to the new oil well, stating that each member would pay his own share of the expenses of the trip.
On the roads leading into El Dorado came wagons, buggies, and horseback riders, plus various types of automobiles such as Starrs, Overlands, Model-T Fords, Dodges, Saxons, Mormons, and Pierce-Arrows, to name a few. The most striking arrival at El Dorado was a three-seated airplane, a Laird Swallow, carrying two men who had made the astounding trip of 310 air miles from Oklahoma City in three hours and twenty- eight minutes. Within six days following this unusual event, an air service was established between El Dorado and Shreveport.
Within a matter of weeks the population of El Dorado jumped from 4,000 to an "estimated 15,000 people with the number rising daily." Living accommodations became a grave problem as newcomers continued to arrive. Hotels became packed. The Garrett Hotel was hit first, and all through the boom it continued to serve as unofficial headquarters for men interested in selling, buying, and swapping oil leases. It was like old home week for many of these men who had known each other from previous boom areas.
Many of them hailed from such places as Spindletop, Burkburnett, Goose Creek, and Homer. One old-timer remembered those early days at the Garrett, said: "A person literally had to shoulder his way through the lobby from early in the morning until late at night. The people, for the most part, were trying to make a fast dollar. It was a seething mass of humanity. More wells were drilled in its lobby than in the field." The Garrett filled its halls with cots and even the chairs in the lobby were filled with sleepers. Similar scenes were taking place at the Star, the Central, and the Arcade hotels. Dr. Busey sold the Arcade Hotel on January 14th, and the new owner resold it the next day, each making a good profit. Paul Marks, who had been leasing the Garrett from Rufus Garrett, sold the lease to two Shreveport men on February 1 for $47,000. (25)
"People walked the streets, knocking on every door, at all hours, begging for a place to rest and sleep, offering ten dollars for a bed to rest one night." The Chamber of Commerce tried to bring some order to the situation by hiring, Mrs. Harvey Sample to work full time at finding lodging for people pouring into El Dorado. Homeowners were asked to rent out every available bed they had. Donald McQueen, superintendent of schools in El Dorado, was the originator of a plan whereby the Chamber of Commerce would list all homes with available space. Mrs. Sample would try to find for all those that came by the Chamber office a place in one of these homes, which rented for $2 a day or, if two men occupied a double bed they got it for $1 a night each. The Boy Scouts helped by taking the men to their rooms for the first time to show them the way. Still there weren't enough rooms. "Large tents were raised and filled with cots."
E. O. Tankersley of Benton, Arkansas, was one of the proprietors of such a "hotel." He procured a large circus-type tent, acquired property for it, and filled it with cots, and soon his so- called Cot House was occupied to capacity. Others quickly followed his idea. Tankersley also hastily built the Little Rock Hotel which was characterized by the knot-spaced ropes dangling around its sides for fire escapes. Rooming houses were hurriedly thrown up. Fifty men a night were housed in one of the rooms in the courthouse, maintained by the American Legion. Only ex-servicemen could avail themselves of this privilege. Barber chairs for sleeping were rented for $2 a night. In desperation some people took over the Presbyterian Cemetery as a place to Sleep.
Feeding the hordes of people was another gigantic task. People stood in line for hours at the town's few eating places at the start of the boom, often finding themselves a seat only to discover that the food had all been sold. Mayor Frank H. Smith and the city council decided to "rent out space on the city's sidewalks for construction of temporary buildings." "Hamburger Row" thus came into being. It began with a few shacks down near the Rock Island depot, and eventually covered South Washington Street to the square, a distance of about three blocks. Shanty lunch rooms and every other kind of business to get your money were located along this row. A Little Rock reporter has left us this picture of the colorful strip:
'Hamburger Row' is El Dorado's Broadway, its Rialto, and its Bowery. It is the most cosmopolitan section in the whole state, containing under its dingy roofs every specimen of humanity possible to conceive.
Beginning in the early days of the boom with a few shacks . . . it has extended itself by leaps and bounds, until it is now fully three blocks long, the shacks, tents, converted home[It] is the first place . . . the blasé El Doradoan takes his guest who is out to look out over the town.
You can walk down 'Hamburger Row' and purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told . . . the runners for the cot hotels with their familiar 'clean beds one dollar' cry intermingle with 'The Jungle Cafe,' a boarded place emitting the odor of fried onions, and with the postcard photographer who has pictures of bucking broncos from Texas, up-to-the minute pictures of flaring wells. . . . Then there is a dry goods establishment thrown up overnight, the army goods man, of which specie there is aplenty, and all of whom seem to do a good business since this style of attire is the favorite in the oil fields . . . .
A visit to El Dorado is not complete without a walk up and down the row. I say down, for it has already extended its byways across the street where a few waffle iron men and chicken sandwich peddlers have set up for business. They were the late comers, arriving too late for space in the popular narrow way.
On Washington Avenue, so that all visitors coming from the two railroad stations could see it, there
was a sign that said: "As Brigham Young Said of Utah Valley---'This Is the
Place'" And it was!
Beggars from all over the country descended on the city; they lined the town square, some selling pencils, or gum, one even selling cigars--- the "rest were just 'beggars.'"
Out at "Old Busey" as the well was beginning to be called, things were also hectic. A light rain had fallen for several days after the well came in and "rendered the clay hills about as easily accessible as the Alps." A transfer man, John Braswell, hired a man on a straight salary to pull his cars through the mire to the well with his team of mules. In between getting Braswell's cars through the man would tow other vehicles through for "50 cents a pull." He became the first in a long line of enterprising men who earned good money in this way.
Stead’s and painted fronts occupying both sides of the narrow sidewalk which leads to the Garrett hotel, admittedly the center of all oil activity.