By Zoie Clift
Photos available here.
When the famous Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well near El Dorado gushed oil in 1921, the town’s story would be linked to oil evermore.
El Dorado has a vibrant heritage as an oil boomtown of the 1920s. The town lived up to its name when this famous well was discovered a mere mile from the city a century ago. This led to an instant population and prosperity spike as well as an architectural renaissance that can still be seen in the city's downtown, now known for its many historic buildings on the National Register.
Today, downtown El Dorado is home to shops, stores, restaurants, and even the oldest pool hall in the state, all located near the historic 1928 Union County Courthouse. Eye-catching architecture and storefronts connect a diverse mix of specialty shops that sell everything from antiques to art. All of this though, has roots in the city's boomtown history.
According to Richard Mason, who is from El Dorado and is a downtown developer and author of books about the boom including The Queen of Hamburger Row, the mostly timber harvesting and farming community had a population of around 3,500 back in 1920. That all changed overnight with the discovery of oil near town. “It changed El Dorado unbelievably,” said Mason.
When the historic 1921 well, which was located where the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission’s local headquarter building is now, gushed oil it became the state’s first commercial oil well and the population of the town soared. The news about the well hit all across the U.S. and trains came to town packed with people that followed booms. “There were oil field workers, oil field promoters who would come in and buy land and lease and drill wells, there were prostitutes and there were criminals, they got the whole bunch,” said Mason. A mere two years after the famous gusher, it was estimated the town’s population had grown to around 40,000 people.
The oil from the famous well lasted 59 days. And then it was gone. “It had created so much excitement though that there were 120 wells drilled that year in south Arkansas,” Mason said. “And some of those found other oil fields which kicked the boom off. After two years they found what is known today as the Smackover field and it was a huge field. It was at that time the largest field in the U.S. The Smackover field in 1923 put the boom into high gear. It was a huge thing.”
During the first five years of the boom, the financial worth of the oil produced had more value than all of the appraised property in the entire state. However these years didn’t come without a price. “It was a lawless time,” said Mason. “I estimate in Union County there were at least 30 brothels. The last of these were closed in the 1960s. They were up and down the street...And you can imagine with that many people coming in law enforcement was essentially nil. It was also during Prohibition. As soon as you left the square you had this row of barrel houses full of gambling, prostitutes and whisky everywhere.”
A central part of town was called Hamburger Row, which went from the railroad station up to Main Street, which today is Washington Avenue. The city council had passed an ordinance that allowed people to put hamburger stands on the street, which had wooden sidewalks, because there were not enough restaurants to serve all the people. These streets were also used to transport oil field equipment. Along with not being easy to navigate due to the muddy messes they became following rain, the oil field equipment itself was also very heavy. Trucks couldn’t handle the transportation feat so mules and oxen had to be used for the tough job instead.
Mason said the townspeople eventually got the city back under rein from the lawlessness though. And a distinct occurrence impacted the town immensely. The several hundred local young men that had gone off to World War 1 started to return to their hometown and also to their families, some of which had become quite wealthy due to the boom. These families contributed money and completely remade downtown, which at the time was mostly wood framed buildings around the downtown square and Courthouse. This entailed essentially replacing everything downtown, including the Courthouse, and building new buildings to reflect the memorable architecture they had been inspired by while overseas in Europe during the war. “So the core of downtown is strictly oil related,” said Mason. “And the three downtown churches were all built with oil boom money.” Mason said the best examples of this architecture can still be seen in town in what have been deemed oil boom mansions. The largest that remains is the McKinney-O'Connor House, which was built in 1928.
Today when you visit El Dorado you can learn about the oil heritage of town at Oil Heritage Park, which Mason helped build. Here you will find memorable 9-foot bronze sculptures of oil men and several plaques that tell the story of the boom.
The historic Hamburger Row of that era is down to three buildings now. You can go down Washington Street and with a little understanding of the history of what was there, you can still see these buildings as they have 1925 embedded into the masonry work. The buildings are right across from the Presbyterian Cemetery and a block off downtown square. As you go toward Hamburger Row you are also right in the middle of the Murphy Arts District, a new entertainment district in town. There is a replica oil derrick there that lights up at night. And there are plans to renovate the Rialto Theater in town, which was also built during the oil boom. “Almost anything you see downtown in El Dorado is directly related to the oil industry,” said Mason.
The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in nearby Smackover is also an intriguing state park and a must visit spot to learn more about the region’s interesting oil heritage. The museum is located in the midst of the historic 60 square mile Smackover oil field. Outside is a 112-foot replica of a wooden derrick and inside you will find a re-created, boom-era street scene. Exhibits throughout the building explain the era in detail.
Along with its heritage, El Dorado's festivals have earned it a reputation as an entertainment capital for the region. Popular events include Showdown at Sunset, an annual historical re-enactment of the infamous Parnell-Tucker gunfight. Other festivals include a Mayhaw Festival that takes place in May and MusicFest in October. The city is also home to cultural offerings like the South Arkansas Arts Center, the South Arkansas Symphony and the Newton House Museum. A new 70 room hotel called the Haywood has just been built in the Murphy Arts District and the Union Square Guest Quarters can be found right in the heart of downtown. For more details on downtown El Dorado, visit mainstreeteldorado.org.
About Arkansas Tourism
Arkansas Tourism, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, strives to expand the economic impact of travel and tourism in the state and enhance the quality of life for all Arkansans. The division manages 14 Arkansas Welcome Centers and employs more than 60 staff members across The Natural State. For more information, visit www.arkansas.com
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