South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society

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'Haunted' tour explores sordid history in El Dorado

by Matthew Hutcheson | November 6, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Every nook and cranny in downtown El Dorado is filled with history, and not all of it is particularly pleasant.

The South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society presented a special Halloween tour of downtown the night of Oct. 29, with museum curator Darrin Riley taking guests on a trip through the more sordid, gruesome and spooky aspects of the city's history.

Riley mixed fact with a bit of spooky speculation during the "Night of the Living Newtons" tour, which consisted of a hayride trip past several downtown landmarks and concluded with a candlelit, "haunted" walk-through of the Newton House Museum.

Riley delved into the history of downtown El Dorado as the tour departed from Jackson Avenue, starting before the 1921 oil boom and subsequent influx of population.

"We'll start the tour going all the way back to 1819, 1820. This area was completely surrounded with indigenous tribes and traders and trappers from France and Spain, well before immigrants came from the East Coast from areas of the Celtic highlands. This whole area was all natural woods," Riley said.

"Then, it became a row of housing and apartment buildings and boarding houses with hotels. All of that is now gone but it ran the entire length of this street all the way to Main Street and continuing with a whole section for the [Black] people of this area, including hotels, entertainment, theaters and boarding houses," he continued.

The tour turned next onto Main Street.

"This whole area... is gone. It burnt in the early 1900s, destroying almost half of the entire square. It had to be completely rebuilt, including all the poor souls captured in those buildings as they burnt to the ground... There were apparently thousands of individuals killed on our square over the course of time," Riley said.

Riley had plenty of other disturbing and interesting facts about downtown El Dorado, including some surrounding The Olympian billiard hall, which was located where La Piazza is today.

"That was a very rough and tumble place; you could lose your life and your cash all while playing billiards. It was also one of the supposedly elaborate and nice ones," he said.

The history of segregation also factored into the tour, including the fate of a cemetery reserved for Black people on and around Pony Street.

"[The cemetery was] right behind our Presbyterian cemetery which is actually one of the oldest in Arkansas. There are graves in there that go back to the Civil War and some predate it. There are also some odd ones that come in later after the cemetery was closed for official additions," Riley said.

"One of the most heinous things that ever happened in El Dorado was all due to the relocation of the [Black] cemetery. They could not decide what to do with it and one of the city elders, a man named Ed, decided where to put a train station, and said 'I'll give you exactly the room you need," Riley said.

In the middle of the night, Riley said, workers came and ripped up graves, coffins and remains and discarded them all in the Ouachita River. The Rock Island train station and yard was placed where the cemetery previously was, Riley said.

The tour went next to South Washington Avenue, which Riley said formerly known as Hamburger Row.

"The Pete McCall building was one of the many brothels in the town, accumulating with the final one – the Crystal Hotel – which didn't shut its operations until 1974. This entire row was nothing but places to eat, places to sleep and places to get entertainment in whatever form you wanted it," Riley said.

"They called this area Death Alley and basically, you took your life in your hands if you came down to Hamburger Row at night," he continued.

Hopeful oil prospectors during the height of the oil boom in the 1920s faced particular danger.

"When you came... off the fields with a whole lot of money and were out spending and showing your cash, you could end up dead just like hundreds [did]," Riley said.

The Rialto, which was built in 1929, also has connections to the darker sides of historic El Dorado.

"I've discovered there were more shenanigans than the movies on the screen. The Rialto also had a secret entrance in the back... marked concessions, that was a secret way to the tunnels that led under town. One of those tunnels went to the courthouse and one went to the Randolph Hotel. That way, the dignified businessmen of town could come to the movies and go to the back, and go through the tunnels, through the basement of the courthouse which was very elaborate and held private parties or to the Randolph Hotel for private parties," Riley said.

Across from the Rialto, in Oil Heritage Park, stood the city's gallows.

"The original hanging tree [was there] until the 1920s when the branch broke from so many hangings and the sheriff said, 'build me a gallows,'" Riley said.

The gallows stayed at that location until 1936 when Arkansas changed the law concerning executions, switching from hanging to electric chairs as the method of choice.

"One of the unfortunate hog skinners that was taken in and hung from the gallows didn't truly make it. They shot him down in the street; the hangman decided it was too bloody to hang, so they drug him to the horse trough on this street and the sheriff said 'don't let him up until he's not moving.' They then hung the poor individual after they drowned him," Riley said.

This story, in addition to its base brutality, had some supernatural lore added on.

"The next day the sheriff told them to clean out the horse trough. They cleaned it, scrubbed it and filled it with new water. By the evening, it was red. They drained it, cleaned it, filled it with new water; the next day it was red. They finally drilled a hole in the bottom of the horse trough and it has not held water since. That man left a curse behind; he was innocent, by the way, as were hundreds who were hung. We were a hanging town; no jury was called and no judge was required," Riley said.

He next returned to the topic of the tunnels that once hid under the city's streets.

"In 1932, one of the tunnels, during a clandestine movement of five girls from the Randolph Hotel to the courthouse, and their escort, the tunnel collapsed trapping all six individuals inside. City officials didn't know what to do... they sealed the tunnel and left them in. The bodies are still there," Riley said.

He also referenced the infamous Parnell-Tucker shootout that took place in front of the Union County Courthouse, a more well-known part of El Dorado's violent history.

"One issue they had after the shootout was getting rid of the blood on the streets. The population did not like seeing it and being reminded of what had occurred. They shoveled up all the pools of blood and moved them down, and put them down on the block where the gallows stood," he said.

An outdoor amphitheater was located where the former Murphy Oil building is now located.

"If they didn't like the entertainment, they had no trouble killing the entertainment. More than one didn't survive their trip to El Dorado when they came to entertain," Riley said about the former amphitheater.

The tour concluded back at the Newton House, where participants were led on a candlelit tour of the house complete with some creepy costumed actors creeping through the halls.