Boom-Bust, Oil Towns and the Oldest Building in the World: A Drive From Boulder to Lander, Wyoming, and Back Part One
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Como Bluffs, Wyoming
The light is dying as we reach Como Bluffs. I jump out of the truck to get a photo of the oldest building in the world, but even in big sky Wyoming, my lens won’t gather enough light to capture much beyond a dark structure silhouetted against the last twilight.
Oh well. We weren’t in any particular hurry to get home, but making Como Bluffs before daylight ended was the last goal of the drive. The Como Bluffs ridge, its outline vaguely visible to the north, is the site of major dinosaur discoveries and international intrigue that dates back to the nineteenth century. Some of the world’s finest dinosaur specimens come from this Dinosaur Graveyard. The ridge is also home to diamondback rattlesnakes, who like to nestle amidst the bones.
The first transcontinental railroad rumbled by here on the way from Laramie to Rawlins, and the first transcontinental highway followed, passing Como Bluffs and Medicine Bow, about eight miles west of here. The Fossil Cabin I’m trying to photograph, constructed in 1933 by Thomas Boylan, is made of bone fragments from the nearby site, hence the designation “oldest building in the world.” It is about the size of the body of the huge Diplodocus skeleton found on the ridge that now hangs in the New York Museum of Natural History. (The Fossil Cabin, an adjacent two-bedroom house with barn, outbuildings and corral, all on the National Register of Historic Places, can be yours for $275,000 or any reasonable offer.)
Had we come one week earlier, before the clocks fell back, the timing would have been perfect. But no daylight savings this week and no photographs.
It is a minor disappointment in a two-day excursion whose origins date back a couple of weeks ago when I offered to accompany my friend Jan Otto to Lander, Wyoming, where he was going to pick up some motorcycle parts from his sons’ ranch. He took me up on my proposal, and we had a great time passing through some long, lonely stretches of Wyoming. Jan has made the trip to Lander many times, and it is part of our regular route to Yellowstone. But there is always something new to learn on these roads.
Billie and I love traveling more than just about anything, and learning more about places we visit or drive through has become a major part of the experience. When I was younger, it was enough to just have a visual image that correlated to the place on the map. Today I yearn for context and some familiarity with places I pass through. Jan shares the same inclination, and since we’re in no big hurry, we manage a leisurely drive that allows me to take lots of pictures of all the places along the route that have interested us over the years.
We left yesterday about 10:30 a.m. Veterans of the slog through the northern Front Range metroplex from Longmont through Ft. Collins, we skirt the west sides of Berthoud, Loveland and Ft. Collins, patient in the knowledge that the real drive doesn’t start until we hook up with 287 again at the north end of Ft. Collins.
It’s noon by the time we get to that point, and we are soon heading up canyon, past Livermore and the Red Feather Lakes, where a diamond company wants to do exploratory drilling, an idea that strikes me as not good for anybody except perhaps the company doing the drilling. It is one of the most scenic areas along the route, and to me, a large diamond mine would destroy the wonder, along with the road system, water, animal life, residential area and habitat above the Cache la Poudre River. Local residents oppose it, and you should, too.
We stop in Laramie at the Chuckwagon, and Jan fulfills his craving for a donut while I grab a grilled-cheese sandwich and some coffee before we hit I-80 for the ninety-mile drive to Rawlins. We do get some wind, which you can never escape, and a couple of squalls produce brief snow flurries on the windshield, but it is the benign version of The Eighty that greets us today. The Elk Mountain anticline has its own weather system, and the Hanna basin looks as dry, weather-beaten and lonely as ever. It is really windy as we pull into Sinclair, where Jan fills up the truck. A couple of gulls and a raven are trading chances to ride the wind and hover motionless over the parking lot for short periods of time while I take some shots of the refinery.
Sinclair was founded in 1923 as Parco, an acronym for Producers’ and Refiners’ Company, after the refinery was built. Parco was the definition of a company town; PARCO owned the stores, town buildings and homes. In 1927 the refinery exploded, killing 16 people, still the worst loss of life in a Wyoming fire. PARCO soon went belly up and was sold along with the town in 1934 to the Consolidated Oil Company and renamed Sinclair eight years later when Consolidated became Sinclair Oil Company. The refinery is the largest in the state, and according to an RCRA Facility Fact Sheet can convert up to 85,000 barrels of crude each day into fuels and asphalt.
It wasn’t until 1967 that people were allowed to buy their own homes in Sinclair. Most of the town was listed, in 1987, on the National Register of Historic Places. There are a total of ninety-three buildings, including an ornate hotel and forty-nine buildings and homes considered contributing.
The town was designed by the Denver architectural firm, Fisher and Fisher. What is unique and wonderful is the Spanish Colonial stucco style and tile roofs of many of the buildings – ubiquitous in the Southwest but not easy to find around here. The contrast between the refinery’s monolithic, metal structures and the plaza’s refined architecture couldn’t be more striking.
The twin towers of the once stylish Parco Inn are the dominant elements of the elegant plaza and park. I have seen websites that say the Parco is being restored, but it still looks in pretty bad shape, and nothing seems to have changed from the last few times we have stopped by.
A Sinclair Pipeline Co. website says that its 24/7 computerized control center, which monitors flow and pressure of the extensive pipeline system, is located here, too. “Our pipelines carry crude oil and refined petroleum products. Federal government statistics show that pipelines have a safety record unequaled by any other mode of transportation,” the company boasts. “We need your help to keep it that way.”
That last sentence is no exaggeration. What the website doesn’t mention is that in the early 1990s, the Wyoming Department of Environment found extensive contamination in the ground below the town because of – what else? — the refining activity. “Hydrocarbon and metals contamination from refinery operations has been identified in the soils and groundwater in and around the refinery. This includes contamination identified in groundwater beneath the Town of Sinclair located adjacent to and west of the refinery. Twenty-five areas have been identified where past or present wastes were/are managed, and there are an additional 18 areas identified where there is concern environmental impacts may be present.”
So the company has been complying with a clean-up operation since then – up to a point. I could find violations dating through at least 2007. Both the government and the company agree that the site can’t be officially detoxified until the plant is closed down. And since the United States hasn’t built a new refinery in thirty years, that is not likely to happen until every speck of oil is sucked from beneath Wyoming and the surrounding states. Too bad for Sinclair residents.
Today, for some reason, the fountain in the circle in front of the Parco Inn catches my eye. Mostly that is because multiple images of mountain lions are carved into the stone. I had not noticed this before, and though I can find references to the fountain on the web, there is no explanation of who did the work or why the mountain lions are there.
We stop in Rawlins for a latte at Deb B’s, the drive-in shack where Billie and I always pause. While we are waiting, I get a photo of a leaking oil tanker in the parking lot and the Hoot and Howl restaurant in the Quality Inn with the familiar Rawlins mountain backdrop across the street. Then it’s north on 287 to the Muddy Gap.
Wyoming 287/30 here runs along a eastern flank of the Rawlins Uplift, a kind of failed mountain range that gets geologists all jiggly, before dropping down into the far eastern end of the Great Divide Basin and past the old oil town of Lamont, now just a café, a couple of shacks and outbuildings. We could be in a Twilight Zone episode, pulling into a parking lot where the sign in the window of Grandma’s Café says OPEN but it never is.
Lamont, along with Bairoil a few miles west, was an outpost for the Lost Soldier-Wertz Oil Fields. Discovered in 1916, Lost Soldier has been a particularly large and steady producer of both oil and natural gas ever since. Lamont is in the eastern part of the field. According to the Wyoming Places Wiki, the district was named after two soldiers looking for whiskey who were caught in a snowstorm and never returned. The search area became known as Lost Soldier District, a name that stuck after oil was discovered.
The late afternoon sun comes out from behind the clouds and illuminates the flatirons along the Ferris mountain range behind the café; the uplifted rocks look like huge discs stuck in the side of the mountains by Pecos Bill.
The Muddy Gap turn-off picks up the Oregon Trail along the Sweetwater Uplift, a flat stretch that wagon travelers in the 19th century found particularly hospitable, with food, water and hay for the animals and perhaps a bit of shelter from the fickle Wyoming wind and weather. Just past the turn-off is Split Rock, at more than 7,000 feet an important Oregon Trail landmark. The landmark could be seen a full day’s wagon journey from the east, and for two days behind as they continued westward.
The Oregon Trail wasn’t just one trail. There were many routes west, but nearly all of them converged on this stretch. The Sweetwater Valley led across the Great Divide Basin to South Pass, the gentlest grade over the Continental Divide into present-day Utah. The Sweetwater was opened to homesteading after the Ft. Bridger Treaty of 1868, and though most small ranchers couldn’t make it, some large ranches still drove herds sixty miles to market in Rawlins into the 1930s.
The Pony Express used this route. “Split Rock Relay Station was a crude log structure with a pole corral and was located on the south side of the Sweetwater River,” says a Pony Express website. “Pony Express lore tells that William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody exchanged horses at Split Rock Station on a record ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back. Due to another rider’s untimely death, Cody was forced to do an extra leg to his normal relay and eventually covered a total distance of 322 miles in 21 hours and 40 minutes, using 21 horses in the process.”
Whatever. As the road heads west past Split Rock, the formation looks like a gun sight for a giant musket aimed right along the highway for twelve miles into Jeffrey City.
Next, Jeffrey City, Lander, South Pass and Medicine Bow.