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  • UP AND DOWN: Jeffrey City housing abandoned after the energy boom

    Mike McClure
  • Bachelor apartment #2

    Mike McClure
 

If you have hankered all your life to have a town named after you, the opportunity arose last June at the Casper, Wyo., Holiday Inn. A High Plains municipality named Jeffrey City went on the auction block for cheap, complete with water and sewer, pavement, tract houses, apartments, a post office, and beer on tap. You could own it, lock, stock and peril, for about $115,000.

There was more money than that - lots more - in the Jeffrey City Bank during its heyday, when this was a booming energy town of 5,000. That was a mere 20 years ago, which is longer, nevertheless, than some of the bidders can remember.

One was a ranch kid from Powder River country, bidding with his grandfather for some land he guesses they'll use as a hunting camp (elk and deer are plentiful on Green Mountain, where uranium was mined just south of Jeffrey City). A woman who came with her father-in-law * he was after some earth-moving equipment - liked the idea of owning her own post office. She'd never been to Jeffrey City.

Let's take her there.

It's unlikely that a tourist would choose this destination, but if one did, he would probably turn north from Interstate 80 at Rawlins onto U.S. Highway 287. He would drive north across high sagebrush plains, between the Green and Seminoe Mountains. These are older ranges than the Rockies, buried eons ago by erosive sediment from the taller young mountains, then dug out by rivers during rainier times.

Around the Sweetwater Rocks, he would join the path of the Oregon Trail, where it follows the Sweetwater River, a meandering soft-bottomed stream with a cottonwood here and there, no wider than the arm-spans of three fishermen.

Then he'd come to Jeffrey City, one of the most remote communities in remote Wyoming. If the straight-line highway has him nodding off, or if a blizzard has cut visibility (as can happen in June), he might miss it. The motel neon is unplugged, the bachelor apartments are boarded, the pumps are gone from the gas stations. No one is on the street, not even a dingo dog; the only pulses beating are in the one-room schoolhouse or the Split Rock Cafe and bar.

It's reminiscent of Before the Boom, when Jeffrey City was only a chinked log cabin or two and a few outbuildings, a place for the Pony Express to change horses, gobble some antelope stew and drop off two letters. Ranches were fenced by people whose idea of company was a potluck once a month with the two other families within 10 miles.

It slumbered that way, if a place subject to hot summer winds and ferocious winter blizzards can be said to slumber, until the early 1950s, when a fellow named Bob Adams flew over the area with radiation detectors in his plane and got high readings in the mountains south of the Sweetwater River. He staked his claims, started a mining and milling company, and erected a company town that would eventually become Jeffrey City.

Jeffrey City rode a couple of regulatory waves to prosperity. The corporations and miners' families who flocked to Jeffrey City - over 4,000 people by 1980 - had a rather un-Western faith that the federal government would take care of them, which, in this case, it would have to: The Atomic Energy Commission ran what economists call a monopsony, in which it was the sole buyer of uranium. Bob Adams, who owned a restaurant in Rawlins, had gone flying for uranium because he knew the AEC would buy anything he found.

New schools were built, and a modern recreation center rose like an ark from the sagebrush west of the town center. Then came a glut of uranium in the world market, the Three Mile Island accident, and a collapse that struck almost instantly along the Sweetwater River. In two years in the early '80s, the Jeffrey City work force dropped from 554 to 47. Now there are only a couple of caretakers, keeping an eye on the idle remnants of industry. One motive for the auction was to relieve U.S. Energy of responsibility for water and sewer.

The West has a long history of boomtowns, some on an epic scale (Butte, Mont.), some with considerable longevity (Gillette, Wyo.), most never more than a cluster of log houses, tents (trailers today) and saloons.

We lick the social and economic wounds we've sustained from booms and busts, while politicians to publicans express dismay. We vow to change, and in little ways we have. Today, we force the companies to invest more in making the place livable, and we talk about diverting our boom-and-bust riches into a "sustainable" economy.

But the real test of our good intentions comes when another boom opportunity presents itself. And here it is. The northeast corner of Wyoming is exploding with coalbed methane opportunities, and when the overworked rigs finish their work there, geologists say there's more in Green River, the Red Desert and other high lonesome areas.

Someone will surely say that this time Wyoming should proceed with caution, develop its resources slowly, plan for sustainability. The land men and energy developers will agree, and say nice things about stability and community as they cut the ribbon at the new city park built with mineral severance taxes.

But come on. Their minds are far away, out in the coalbed methane fields of Powder River. Enormous, immediate riches wait there. They get so turned on when they talk about 'play,' they can't sit still - their eyes glow, their voices rise.

It isn't just greed, though there's plenty of that. It's an idea about life from microbes to dinosaurs, an idea that progress is not a gentle rising tide but a spasmodic tsunami, an idea that suggests Jeffrey City is just another dodo bird drowned in the backwash. This frantic rush to the next remote mother lode, this hysterical tearing of the rock and soil and water, this explosion of wealth, and the exhaustion and collapse when it's all ripped out - the people who do it think (inarticulately, secretly, politically incorrectly) they're in synch with the true rhythm of the universe. They know in their hearts that nothing is permanent - not the great ferny jungle that was buried here and turned to oil, not the Garden of Eden, not the comfy little small-town homes where we plant lawns and build tree forts.

Wyoming has 1,880 megawatts of coal-fired power plants on the drawing boards; we've got a huge wind farm expanding down along Interstate 80; we're approving drilling permits for coalbed methane drilling rigs at a rate of about 30 a day, as fast as a tired bureaucrat can stamp the papers in Cheyenne; there's even a little glow on Green Mountain, at the thought of 50 nuclear power plants now planned around the country.

"Powder River, let 'er buck!" While the rest of the country sinks into economic torpor, we're having another wild ride. We're the energy breadbasket, and we're binge eaters and drinkers. Perhaps it will offend when I say I find it not only interesting, but exciting. If you've lived here through boom and bust, maybe you do, too.

We find the boomtowns of other eras - ghost towns - interesting enough to build vacations around them. I find them worth visiting at the beginning and middle of their lifespans, too.

Recently, on a trip to North Dakota, I stopped off for a beer in Wright. Like Jeffrey City, it began life as a company town, built in 1976 for the workers at the Black Thunder coal mine in the Powder River Basin. It sits out on the rolling plains, where mountains are only a wisp on the horizon. Like every boomtown, it has trailers, a place to rent videos, and bars.

I stop to count the trees. This year in Wright there are more of them, some of them stretching tall; there's even a small golf course. I always check, too, the little bowling alley at the mini-mall - a rather touching post-modern relic of what small towns used to be, in a new town that didn't used to be. On this visit, it was still there, though the bar next door was much busier.

In the bar, there's exhaustion, elation, possibilities. Clothes are dirty, there's lots of cigarette smoke, the young women emit blasts of hard laughter, the young men are brown and rangy, all are aglow with vitality and new money. This is not an unhappy place.

Then I drove on to Gillette - Wright's older brother, the boomtown you want to be like when you grow up. Once it was a little cattle crossing. Then the railroads came, and made it a hub. Then the oil and gas. A little uranium. Then the coal. Now the coalbed methane. It has large trees and large houses, and wide streets. It has the Cam-Plex to lure big events and entertainment, and all sorts of recreation facilities, including a big water park.

"It's been going on as long as I've been here," said a fellow who works on trucks for the energy industry, who arrived in 1972. "You don't see an end when you don't remember a beginning." Gillette suggests that maybe a boomtown doesn't have to go bust. It suggests that our energy booms are just a more extreme version of how the economy generally works - busts happen in Silicon Valley, too - and maybe an unending streak of booms is the same as a sustained economy, and a short cut to creating a community.

Americans profess to love small towns - neighbors who share the sugar, a crowded gym with a beloved basketball team, police who know your dog's name, and no locked doors. This is not what a boomtown is (or what most small towns are), but there is a minority who dream it in every boomtown. After the restless, high-wage wildcatters, there is a small contingent of more domestic types, world-weary folks who arrive quietly, buy a couple of acres, put a trailer on it, get pregnant, and put down their first shallow root systems, hoping the economy will carry them.

Maybe all cities are boomtowns on various timescales, and the wealth that creates them will someday evaporate. But place matters. Jeffrey City? The landscape where uranium dictated Jeffrey City would be did not welcome community; there is no, was no, cove to snuggle in or river mouth to perch upon. A boomtown of 5,000 in this place only added noise, and litter; it was a distraction from the calm, bitter dreams of the High Plains.

So let's not be sentimental. Just walk around and check the few scraggly trees. Most of the people who lived here never expected it to last. They were packing before they got the lay-off notice, drawing a line on the map to the next Gillette. At a certain age, with a certain adrenalized frame of mind, their grail was the next boom.

If you shade your eyes and look through the windows of one of these empty buildings along the highway through Jeffrey City, you'll see in the shadows three bowling lanes. With a shiver, you'll think of Wright, and maybe Gillette, and perhaps your own hometown.

 

Geoff O'Gara is a former editor of High Country News whose most recent book is What You See in Clear Water. He produces "Main Street, Wyoming," on Wyoming Public Television, and is working on a book about the energy industry.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Geoff O'Gara