When a Boom is a Bust
Natural gas has pumped money and workers into Wamsutter, Wyoming. But the town struggles to be anything more than a barracks for industry.
Note: this feature story is accompanied by a sidebar article, "Wamsutter Profiles."
WAMSUTTER, WYOMING — Like most people in this oil and gas town, Bill Hippe works long hours. Twelve hours a day, five to seven days a week, he’s the local manager for M-I SWACO, an oil-patch service company that operates in more than 70 countries. The giant company keeps a tiny trailer office for Hippe in what qualifies as midtown Wamsutter, squeezed in between SWACO’s steel tanks full of drilling chemicals and the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad — two transcontinental tracks and sidings — is only a few feet from the office door; trains speed by, doing 50 mph or faster, every few minutes.
Despite the racket, Hippe, a thin, soft-spoken man wearing a hard hat, jeans and safety-toed boots, receives me graciously on a sunny day in August. He also serves as Wamsutter’s mayor, which is pretty much a volunteer position, so I begin to ask him about the town’s many obvious problems. Suddenly, our talk is overwhelmed by a long train clickety-clacking past the office. When the roar recedes, I have to ask: Does the mayor worry about a derailment?
"The year before I moved to Wamsutter, in 1989," Hippe says, "there was a big derailment right here" — massive railcars tumbled around, right where we’re sitting now. The latest derailment occurred only a few days ago, about a hundred yards up the line, leaving five railcars cockeyed beside the tracks. It occurs to me that the mayor spends much of his life in the derailment zone. He shrugs it off with a fatalistic grin.
So we discuss some of Wamsutter’s other problems, which have to do with the boom-and-bust nature of the town. The latest natural gas play has caused the population to triple in the last four years — it’s now around 750 people — and the town’s lagging infrastructure includes hundred-year-old municipal wells that could fail any second. There’s also a housing shortage, and 98 percent of the residences are trailers.
Wamsutter is a mere outpost in the harsh expanse of sagebrush and red dirt called the Red Desert, where everything seems to be on the verge of drying up completely and blowing away. The whole town feels impermanent, transient, like Wyoming’s version of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. Thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled in the desert, extending 50-some miles in all directions, and the industrial pace is pedal-to-the-metal now, with at least three new gas wells installed each week.
But I’m exploring what makes the town of Wamsutter tick — or not tick. The answers might be useful to any community that is thinking of embracing oil and gas for a quick buck. And there is a larger question: How can people ever build a real community in a place that has devoted itself so single-mindedly to one industry after another?
This place has been inhabited for more than 130 years. At times, the population has zoomed up to more than twice what it is today, only to plummet again. Yet, at the moment, there is no grocery store, no bank, no newspaper, no high school, no doctor, not even a veterinarian. There’s an emphasis on work over all other aspects of life. "Another thing unique to our community, we have very few retired people," the mayor says. That means there is also a shortage of people with the time to volunteer for community services like the town council, the fire department, and the economic development committee.
There isn’t even a cemetery — apparently, even the dead don’t settle in Wamsutter. And it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, despite all the money that has flowed through here, Wamsutter is probably the ugliest town in the West.
That anyone can survive here is a testimony to the human spirit. And yet, people do: Hippe has lasted 15 years, for instance. In the brief interlude before the next train roars by, he says, "I like the relaxed lifestyle ... (and) the fact that we’re a quiet, small community. Wamsutter’s been real good to me."
Two mechanical rivers define the 840-acre town. On its upper edge, Interstate 80 whines nonstop, with more than 11,000 semi-trucks and cars passing by every day; Wamsutter is Exit 173. The railroad flows through the guts of the town. Everywhere, residences mix with commercial and industrial buildings, weedy vacant lots, piles of junk, and rubble from demolished buildings.
The railroad founded the settlement in 1868, to service its steam locomotives. It built water tanks and coal chutes, a depot, and houses for workers and their families. On the strength of that, people here opened a post office in 1892, organized a school district in 1903, and incorporated in 1914. Desert sheep ranching, pet-food companies that bought thousands of wild horses, and uranium mining inspired subsequent booms. The oil and gas industry ratcheted up in the 1950s, and boomed in the 1970s and early ’80s. The current natural gas boom began in the mid-1990s.
Yet the local economy is stunted. Retail amounts to little more than a few truck stops, two motels of last resort, a saloon, a liquor store, and one cafe apart from the truck stops. The oil patch is serviced directly by welding shops and the companies that run to and from the wells with fleets of big oil trucks, sand trucks, chemical trucks, weed-spray trucks, water trucks, trenchers, dozers, cranes, and so on.
The landscaping in Wamsutter consists of a few lonely trees and lawns, some decorative cow skulls, and collections of pipe, wheels, drums, thick cables, and other miscellaneous chunks of iron and steel. Some buildings are abandoned, and the ones that are occupied are extremely basic, wrapped in sheet metal or vinyl siding. There are only a handful of wood-frame houses, and brick seems to be reserved for the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school and the Wyoming Department of Transportation vehicle barn. The town’s real estate baron lives in a modular home.
Most telling, Wamsutter has many noticeable gaps, vacant land where buildings used to be. The town looks like an old fighter with his teeth knocked out. Many of the vacancies once held houses that various companies built for their workers. When the workers weren’t needed anymore, the buildings also vanished.
The railroad pulled its workers and buildings when steam engines and telegraphers got replaced by diesels and computers. Sheep ranching busted due to overseas competition and the invention of synthetic fibers to replace wool. The wild horse industry ended when federal laws cut off the slaughterhouses. Uranium mining disappeared when the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania had its famous accident.
Between the energy booms, the oil and gas companies also cut loose workers and housing, including an old 50-space Colorado Interstate Gas trailer court that’s now just cinder-block foundations and weeds, across the street from the school. Motels, saloons, all kinds of businesses have been reduced to rubble in the busts.
Even the locals can’t ignore it. "When we have town meetings," says town clerk Susan Carnes, "one of the biggest complaints people have is the look of the town. It’s not an attractive place."
The current boom attracts workers from as far away as Florida, but there’s hardly any housing available. They avoid the town, anyway. Echoing an observation that I hear from many people, Ken Ward, a truck-fleet supervisor, says, "People with families don’t want to live here."
Hundreds of workers choose to live in the nearest real towns — Rawlins (40 miles east) and Rock Springs (70 miles west) — and commute every day to jobs around Wamsutter. Hundreds of other workers are the most transient kind of residents, landing temporarily in "man camps" — trailers filled with bunkbeds, which the companies place around Wamsutter and in the desert.
The town has an atmosphere of cigarette smoke and exhaustion. With gas prices spiking, I hear from all kinds of workers that their shifts have been stretched to 12 hours, 14 hours, 16 hours. The companies pay the overtime because they can’t find enough workers willing to put up with the conditions, or because it’s simply more profitable than hiring more people. The long shifts are structured so that workers put in a week or two weeks, then get time off to go home. The mayor estimates that 275 of the town’s residents are just part-timers in the man camps. With the commuters added in, gas-well driller Rob Asay says, it feels like "95 percent of the population of Wamsutter changes every week."
Asay spends his time off hundreds of miles north, in Powell, Wyo., with his family. Ward, who is divorced, spends his free time at one of the three houses he’s buying elsewhere — in Oklahoma, Idaho and Montana. This divided lifestyle, split between work here and long-term goals elsewhere, is typical of Wamsutter.
The relentless work pace and the constant danger of working around heavy machinery, with the risk of accidents including gas-well leaks and fires, takes a toll on people. Though Wamsutter is generally a quiet town, where most residents simply collapse after work, there are outbursts. "We get a full range of cases from the Wamsutter area — shootings, sexual assaults, child abuse, horse abuse," says Tony Howard, a prosecutor for Sweetwater County, which includes Wamsutter.
According to lawmen, cases in Wamsutter over the past 16 months include a man firing shots wildly into an occupied trailer; a 300-pound truck driver tossing a sheriff’s deputy around; and the town cop getting kicked in the head in a brawl. Another man was charged with attempted murder for allegedly threatening to cut his ex-wife’s throat with a hunting knife.
"It’s a rough town," says Jim Geeting, who used to be a highway patrolman stationed in Wamsutter. He moved to Rock Springs so his kids can attend high school there, and he now commutes back to Wamsutter to work for an oil-patch company, Basic Energy.
Domestic violence and alcohol and drug use occur at a high rate in Sweetwater County. The drug of choice is methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that fits the long working hours. Meth users can suffer side effects that include rage, sociopathic behavior and hallucinations.
"I grew up oil trash in the 1950s, and there was an entirely different feel back then," says one lawman, who asked not to be identified. "When I was a kid, I spent most of my summers hanging out in the doghouse (the control room on a drilling rig) with my dad. The industry now attracts a different type of individual — there are very few family-oriented outfits. It’s a lot faster pace, and there is so much dope, so much meth involved, it’s scary to be out there."
Some companies require workers to take random urine tests for drugs, but meth users know how to find ways around that. The lawman adds, "We have individuals coming into court (charged with dealing meth), saying they are working on thus-and-such drilling rig, and one of their responsibilities is to go down to Colorado and pick up meth for the crew."
Certain kinds of local businesses do make money in Wamsutter, the way hardware stores and saloons did in mining boomtowns back in the 1880s. In the Desert Bar, where workers off the graveyard shift can create a 6 a.m.-to-9 a.m. rush, the gross on a good day can run more than $2,000, according to a bartender.
But the companies that run the oil patch — giants like BP America, Anadarko, Halliburton, Questar, and Yates Petroleum — have headquarters elsewhere. So the oil and gas profits — which must be substantial, with the Wamsutter fields producing more than 500 million cubic feet of gas per day — are whisked off to places like Texas and London, largely reserved for executives and stockholders.
The oil-patch workers are paid well — $19 an hour for a kid fresh out of high school who hires on with a drilling crew, plus overtime, and as much as $90,000 a year for a supervisor at an oil-patch service company. But a good portion of the workers’ paychecks also leaves Wamsutter, going to the towns where the workers and their families really live.
The amount of money is further limited because, for the most part, an oil patch is just a construction project: The drillers, road-builders and pipeline-layers come in a wave, but once the wells are in, the workforce shrinks down to a maintenance level. "Once the drilling is done, you just need a few workers to make sure the pipelines and (wells) are running smoothly," says Phil Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wyoming. "With mining (the West’s other leading heavy industry), you need your crews actually producing the resource (long-term). The oil and gas population is much more transient."
Meanwhile, even in the boom times, the town government remains poor because of the way the industry pays its taxes and royalties.
The oil and gas companies will pay more than $1 billion in taxes and royalties to the state and county governments in Wyoming this year. But Wyoming distributes very little of that money to towns, and Wamsutter sees almost none of it, Mayor Hippe says.
Small-town governments in Wyoming run mostly on their local property tax and sales tax. But Wamsutter’s property-tax district ends at the town limits, so it doesn’t reach into the oil patch. The town’s property-tax collection also suffers because so many of the workers live in trailers. "Trailers are not taxed as real estate," Hippe says. "They just pay vehicle taxes." That’s true even for nice doublewides that have been in the same place for decades.
As for sales tax, it’s a percentage set by the state, with no town control, and Wamsutter’s low number of retailers means that it is also low. Marty Martin, a state legislator for Sweetwater County, says, "Wamsutter just has no tax base to deal with the issues."
Wyoming does have the 1975 Industrial Siting Act, which requires large industrial projects to make "impact assistance payments" to communities facing "front-end socio-economic impacts," says Gary Beach, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality Industrial Siting Division. The impact assistance can support local services, such as housing, transportation, schools, medical care and police — the kind of assistance that Wamsutter needs.
But the impact-fee law has a huge loophole, created by the energy companies. The law applies to coal mines, power plants, even big wind farms, but most activities in the oil patch are exempt from it, including drilling, pipelines and many production plants. "We’ve been fighting that," trying to reform all the impact and tax laws, Mayor Hippe says, "but it’s a futile battle. That’s why we’re strung out so bad."
That helps explain why the only government-supported housing in Wamsutter consists of a few modular duplexes the school district provides for teachers, and a few houses the state built for highway workers. Many of the town’s roads are dirt. The pipes from the ancient municipal wells and the sewer system extend to only half the town; the other half relies on private wells and septic systems, and has no fire hydrants. The municipal water itself tastes heavily of chlorine and at times of sulfur, and many people dislike it. With an annual budget totaling only $300,000, town clerk Carnes sums up the community’s immediate needs: "anything to do with infrastructure."
Some energy companies do contribute to local causes. The biggest fish in the pond, BP America — which is drilling about 150 new gas wells this year and plans 150 more next year in its Wamsutter fields — has donated about $80,000 to the volunteer ambulance and fire department in the last five years. One of its administrators led the effort to create a tiny town library.
The shortage of housing in Wamsutter, the lack of a recreation center for workers, and all the other local needs are a concern for BP America, says Dan Larson, director of public affairs for BP America’s operations in the Rocky Mountain states. "Obviously, we’d rather have (off-duty BP workers) playing basketball than sitting in a bar." But the company is reluctant to get into the business of housing and recreation, he says. "Forty or 50 years ago, companies did that, but not in 2004."
Wyoming imposes no corporate income tax, no personal income tax, and the total tax burden on individuals is the second-lowest in the nation (only Alaska is lower). With the $1 billion that the oil and gas industry pays to Wyoming, Larson’s implication is that the industry already pays its share; the rest is up to the people of Wyoming.
The oil and gas industry can’t be blamed for all the problems. Wyoming has a lousy system of taxes and budgets; Wamsutter is evidence of that. And Wamsutter itself has to take some responsibility. Over the years, the town has never had any real, forward-thinking entrepreneurs, or at least any who succeeded.
Many towns have built part of their economies on government-funded institutions, such as colleges, county courthouses, and hospitals. "That’s why there were big fights (around) Wyoming for state institutions, and big fights over who would get the county courthouses — not because of any love for government, but because that was where your tax collections were centralized, and it meant prosperity and stability," historian Roberts says. "You’d get a diverse payroll that would protect your economy from whatever your boom and bust might be."
Rock Springs worked to get a community college; Green River, east of Rock Springs, got the Sweetwater County Courthouse; Rawlins got the next county seat to the east, and a state prison. Wamsutter’s small size was a handicap in this competition, but town leaders concentrated on fighting for more industry instead. Characteristically, the town’s current real estate baron and leading entrepreneur, Verne Waldner, led an effort in the 1990s to open an asbestos dump for Georgia companies. It didn’t succeed.
Many towns also build an economy on their history, by restoring old buildings, erecting monuments, and using festivals, brochures and Web sites, all to lure tourists. But Wamsutter never made an effort to do that, despite its rich history.
A railroad derailment in 1946 wiped out Wamsutter’s historic, three-story-tall coal chutes, and the railroad company ultimately demolished the old depot, once the town government declined to take responsibility for it. No one has put up so much as a plaque in honor of the railroad’s history, which includes the 13 Chinese laborers who made up more than half the town’s population in 1870.
Another derailment wiped out a concrete marker for the historic Lincoln Highway, which was traveled by adventuresome caravans of tourists in the early 1900s, when the road was dirt instead of paved interstate. No one rebuilt the highway marker. Waldner demolished the quaint old Conoco station, to put up a sheet-metal Conoco.
Wamsutter’s valiant old schoolhouse, which also dates from the early 1900s, is collapsing. The Ferguson Mercantile, built in 1907 by sheepmen, is used by the town as a maintenance shed. The ranchers brought their herds right into town for shearing, and Wamsutter was a top rail hub for shipping wool for Army blankets during both World Wars. But today, the sheep pens are rotting into dust.
The only memorial to the colorful wild horse industry is an old photo that hangs over the Desert Bar’s pool table. It shows what is probably the most famous wild horse ever, a palomino stallion called Desert Dust, blond tail and mane flowing. Desert Dust was captured in 1945, by a mustanger who used airplanes to corral his prey. The beautiful palomino was used in a Hollywood movie. But the photo comes with no legend, and the glass protecting it is cracked.
Wamsutter even has a famous alumnus, John S. Bugas. Bugas grew up here in the early 1900s, became an FBI agent who captured a Public Enemy Number One, and then continued to wear a pistol as a union-busting vice president of Ford Motor Company. The area’s history goes even further back: Fossils found in the desert around here include the 11,000-year-old skeleton of a mammoth that was butchered by tough local cavemen. There is no mention of them in town, either.
A few Wamsutterites have tried to protect their history. In 1990, two locals published a paperback collection of remembrances, sprinkled with historical tidbits. It was a small press run, and there are no copies for sale now.
Wamsutter promotes itself mostly on the natural gas pools beneath the desert. But the current boom, like those in the past, won’t last. This one is expected to wind down in seven to 10 years.
It’s not surprising that people joke about this town, calling it "Wamsucker," and "What’s-the-Matter, Wyoming." Yet in my five days here, I discover what makes Wamsutter tick: a surprising core group of about 80 to 100 desert rats, such as Mayor Hippe, who have settled here. They form a community within the chaos. Though their long work hours make it especially difficult to volunteer, they serve in multiple roles in town government, on the fire department and the ambulances. They respond to more than 100 emergencies a year, helping strangers on I-80 and in the oil patch.
As I talk to Hippe, some of his personal story comes out. He’s planted aspen trees around his 25-year-old trailer, and the trees have grown tall. It’s difficult for him to talk about one of his daughters, Heather. She developed multiple sclerosis, but toughed it out to earn a University of Wyoming sociology degree, which she received in her wheelchair. When she could no longer care for herself, Hippe took her back into his home here, until finally, last year, he had to move her to a facility in Casper. "She’s still mentally active. She can use a computer with a joystick," he says, quiet pride in his voice.
Another story of local grit: Jim Geeting, the highway patrolman here during the 1990s, was parked in the emergency lane on I-80, writing a ticket to one semi-truck driver, when another semi doing 75 mph drifted over and slammed into his car. Geeting spent four months recuperating; his wife, Janet, who was a schoolteacher here for 12 years, organized a statewide campaign for a "moveover law." Such laws require drivers to slow down and steer to the far lane when approaching any parked emergency vehicle. Janet Geeting spent hundreds of dollars on phone bills, sent thousands of e-mails, and gained support from tow-truck drivers, firefighters, and emergency room staffers. Her students lobbied legislators, and she took them to the governor’s office for the bill’s signing in 2001. "I think it has saved lives," she says.
On their own terms, Wamsutter’s few leaders are struggling to make improvements. They opened a library in a singlewide trailer in 2002. They pushed for a multimillion-dollar overpass, completed last year with government and company funding, to reduce rail-crossing accidents and keep the traffic flowing to the oil patch. Wamsutter’s core group even passed a nuisance ordinance recently, which forced some people to haul some of their junk to the dump.
Entrepreneur Verne Waldner and his wife, Emma, are trying to create several small subdivisions, where houses would have to be framed with wood and attached to foundations. "We’ll sell you a lot, but only if you put a house on a permanent foundation," Emma Waldner says. "So when you leave, you’re less likely to take your house with you."
Inspired by an economic development study that suggested building a new truck stop, the Oklahoma-based Love’s chain opened Wamsutter’s finest truck stop nine months ago. It looks as sterile as any franchise, but it’s snaring a lot of I-80 truckers — a cashier says that a good day can bring in more than $150,000 in gross sales. The profits go off to company headquarters, as usual, but Wamsutter gets a little more sales tax.
Looking ahead, past this gas boom, Sweetwater County planner Mark Kot says, "Wamsutter’s future is in truck stops."
The essential fact is that no town would exist in this isolated, amenity-less place, if not for the industries that keep coming. If no industry needs Wamsutter anymore, the town will likely wither and die, just as many other industry towns have done. Even the commercial strip off I-80 could bust, if long-haul technology evolves to need fewer truck stops.
The Wamsutter stickers seem to realize their community has only a tenuous hold on this land. They take pride in their ability to endure against the odds, and in their oil-patch work, which takes stamina, skill, and often courage. Unlike the gorgeous, successful resort towns dedicated to recreation — with their designer blight of trophy homes and luxury SUVs — at least Wamsutter is dedicated to work.
Wamsutterites also value their rural setting. "You have to love wind, you have to love dirt" to live here long-term, Janet Geeting says.
One day, trying to photograph Wamsutter from an overlook, I ask Leroy Williams for a favor: I want to climb the town’s water tower. He’s been the town’s director of public works for 11 years, and he’s as gracious as the mayor. He escorts me up the steel ladders to the roof of the tank, 42 feet above the town. I take my pictures, and we sit and talk, perched nervously in the breeze.
We can see that the town below doesn’t go very far, and that the desert stretches to the horizon with a bleak handsomeness despite the glinting industry hardware.
Williams says he used to climb mountains in Colorado, but he got too old for that, so he climbs Wamsutter’s steel ladders instead. "It’s always windy up here," he says. "I like to come up here first thing in the morning, when the wind isn’t so bad, sit with a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise."
Ray Ring is editor in the field for High Country News.