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story.lead_photo.caption An oil well blows on Jan. 10, 1921, near El Dorado. The discovery of oil in south Arkansas created boomtowns in the 1920s.
(AP/Arkansas History Commission)

Oil began gushing in Union County 100 years ago today, creating Arkansas' first boomtown within a few weeks, but the coronavirus pandemic turned any plans of a centennial blowout in El Dorado this year into a bust.

The Union County Historical Preservation Society at some undetermined date will have an exhibit commemorating the anniversary, said Diane Nolan Alderson, a past chairman of the society and noted volunteer in the community. But a big celebration, like public events in communities large and small across the state, won't be happening.

In any other year, El Dorado would be celebrating the Jan. 10, 1921, blowing of the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well just outside of town. Drilled to a little more than 2,200 feet, the well blew a geyser of oil -- up to 10,000 barrels -- that could be seen from the streets of El Dorado more than a mile away.

"For 75 days it blew wide open covering the country side for several miles, changing the color of the sheep on Uncle Miles Murphy's place a half mile away," according to a 1950s-era essay attributed to Eamon Mahoney Sr. of El Dorado. Fortunes were made -- and lost -- over the next few years.

"I really hate that planning for anything never got off the ground, not that much could have been done with it even if we had," Alderson said of the pandemic's onset in early spring and its continuing effects. "It seems like this year has been so out-of-kilter. We've lost our music festival, our Mayhaw Festival, so many things that we normally have."

El Dorado's population grew from 4,000 to more than 30,000 by 1925, and as many as 22 trains began running from El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport, La., according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas and other accounts.

"It certainly transformed South Arkansas, and El Dorado in particular," Claiborne Deming of El Dorado, chairman of the board of Murphy Oil Corp. and retired chief executive officer and president, said last week. "Almost every speculator and wildcatter in the country piled in here, some with [oil] knowledge but most without."

Deming's grandfather, Charles Murphy Sr., in the early 1900s founded a banking, real estate and timber business that became Murphy Oil. While Murphy Sr. had a stake in the Busey-Armstrong well, he and his company didn't hit their first gusher until 1944, in Louisiana, Deming said.

"South Arkansas had the biggest oil field in the world for a few years, between the El Dorado wells and especially the successful wells in Smackover a few miles away a year or so later," Deming said "This was in an era when wildcatters were going all across the country and digging wells."

The speculators included H.L. Hunt, an itinerant Illinois native trying to find his fortune. His El Dorado experience played out, taking him to East Texas, where better fortune helped make him one of the world's richest men.

Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil in March 1921 and 908,000 barrels by June 1921, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas' recitation of figures from the state Department of Energy and Environment's Oil and Gas Commission. The state's oil and gas history is commemorated at the state Natural Resources Museum just outside Smackover.

The oil fields in South Arkansas eventually were supplanted by much larger ones in Oklahoma and Texas. "That was inevitable," said Deming, who joined Murphy Oil as an attorney in 1979. "There were a lot of dirt towns that grew overnight, only to get smaller as everyone left for new fields."

In another 2020 blow, Murphy announced it would move its corporate headquarters to Houston. The move took effect last fall.

"The company just had to do it, with the collapse [last year] in oil prices," Deming said. "We had to consolidate under one roof, become more efficient and cut costs. The whole industry was already in Houston, and we were the only upstream company not there. It almost was inevitable, and last year's events were the catalyst."

Global oil prices for a brief time last year dipped into negative numbers, and Murphy Oil stock dropped to as low as $4.50 a share because of two fronts: a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and a collapse in oil prices as the pandemic shut off demand for gasoline.

"I've seen six oil busts in my career, but this one was the steepest and most dramatic I've seen," Deming said.

About 80 jobs in El Dorado were lost in the company's move.

Deming said Murphy Oil remains committed to the El Dorado Promise, a program it started in 2007 to pay the full college tuition of eligible graduates of El Dorado High School. Some 2,700 students had been its beneficiaries as of 2019, according to the program's website.

"It's one of our proudest legacies in El Dorado," he said.

CORRECTION: Charles Murphy Sr. was Claiborne Deming’s grandfather. An earlier version of this article misstated their relationship.

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