Wamsutter: This Wyoming town never seems to die

 

Wamsutter, Wyo., population all of 261, is the poster child for Western boomtowns, though if you Google it, the computer asks, "Are you sure you don't mean hamster?"

Wamsutter used to be a rough-and-tumble railroad town, named in 1884 for an obscure Union Pacific bridge engineer. The promise of the railroad first brought surveyors, tunnelers, bridgers, followed by grading crews and tie-layers. They moved on, but Wamsutter survived. It had just enough in the way of railroad business, highway travelers, winter sheepmen and summertime cowboys to stay alive. The oil patch of the 1970s and 1980s came and went, and with it came waves of prosperity and desertion.

Wamsutter lies along Interstate 80 and calls itself the "Gateway to the Red Desert." It is the only town in Wyoming's vast Great Basin, so called because the Continental Divide separates, forms a closed watershed, then comes together again at the Haystacks, a tumbled up rock formation south of town. From any direction, oil-storage tanks rise up like Oz. At night, the lighted-up tanks are a magical sight. In the Red Desert, all roads lead to Wamsutter.

Before the latest oil and gas boom, Wamsutter had a hard-core population of a couple of hundred independent souls. You'd meet a few desert rats, some who never figured out how to leave, some who'd never want to, some first-year schoolteachers, a few business owners and their fewer employees. The town supported two cafes, known generally as the good restaurant and the bad restaurant, although the "bad one" at the gas station was still pretty good. The good one, the Broadway Cafe, closed on Sundays, with management deciding which day was Sunday.

One of Wamsutter's gas stations is owned by devout Christians. In an act of charity, they gave an itinerant Ogallala Sioux work for a few months. He took all their odd bits of house paint and created gallery-quality murals of Wyoming in the restrooms. They're worth a stop.

I've known Wamsutter for years, since our outfit trails sheep into the Red Desert every winter and out again in the spring. Our sheep were the last to cross the tracks at Wamsutter — the last of hundreds of thousands that once came through. A new overpass makes it safer for the sheep, but less colorful. In the early 1990s, drought forced us to haul water to the sheep every day as we trailed. My elderly father and his partner, the one who could see to drive, decided to stay in Wamsutter's motel and haul the water from there. The boss of the oilfield service business that donated the water told us, "Hell, we spill more than that every day."

The motel was built before the last oil and gas boom. An eclectic set of buildings offered patched sheets and uncertain floors. It was run by Rose, who also tended bar at the Desert Bar, where getting 86'ed was to be avoided at all costs. To rent a room in those days, you found Rose, usually at the bar, got a room number, and returned to the motel office to take out a key and fill out a registration on the honor system.

These days, a new boom is under way — oil, deep gas and coalbed methane — in the name of "domestic energy independence." It's déjà vu for a town that's boomed before. We hear some 5,000 jobs will be created in the surrounding desert in the next few years, and already, a 1,000-employee "man camp" is going up on the outskirts of town, courtesy of British Petroleum.

Scores of "belly dumps" hauling gravel leave Wamsutter every morning, intent on crisscrossing the desert with roads. The tire-fixing business is the steadiest in town, next to the bar. If a guy can meet any one of the few single women around, she will be bound to be a hard worker.

Here's what else is new: A Subway sandwich shop, in the new truck stop, boasts that it's the busiest in the United States. The ex-con, self-tattooed owner of the Broadway Café closed his doors and moved on. The Desert Bar is still the only bar in town, and getting 86'd is still to be avoided. Outside town, the desert seems to roll on forever.

Sharon Salisbury O'Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a rancher, writer and poet from the Little Snake River Valley near Savery, Wyoming.

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