Boom-Bust, Oil Towns and the Oldest Building in the World: A Drive From Boulder to Lander, Wyoming, and Back Part Two
Read Part One of our drive here.
The speed limit sign says slow to 50 as we pull into Jeffrey City, Wyoming, a forlorn and forbidding blot on the pavement in one of the state’s most beautiful settings.
The town’s origins stretch back to 1931, all of which I learned from reading John Egan’s excellent research paper “Home on the Range No More: Boom and Bust in Jeffrey City,” Beulah Peterson Walker and her husband, a poisoned WWI vet who had been given six months to live, moved from Nebraska to take over an abandoned homestead.
She called it Home on the Range, and her husband lived another twenty years in the arid Wyoming climate. When the highway was built in 1941, they added a gas station and a restaurant featuring Beulah’s home cooking. Two years later, when the Split Rock office closed, Beulah’s place became the Home on the Range post office.
After exploration showed that the area contained ore that could be processed as yellow cake, a uranium compound used to make nuclear fuel (Jan knows more about this than me), Beulah gave up the Home on the Range moniker, and Jeffrey City, named after Dr. Charles Jeffrey, a doctor and oil speculator who invested in the local mine, was created to service the mine’s workers.
As Egan points out, Jeffrey City’s heyday came and went quickly. Uranium producers offered a guaranteed price until the mid-nineteen sixties, and the business remained slow until 1975, by which time the mine was employing more than 800 people. Additional mines were opened, and Jeffrey City began its journey to community, with businesses, taverns and churches, even its own newspaper. A grade school was built in 1958, and a high school in 1978. A bond issue approved two million dollars for the construction of a modern gymnasium in 1980.
That was the same year the mine announced its first lay-offs. Though the wages were high, the mines were dangerous places to work, and the town’s weather and isolation brought increases in crime rates and problems with alcohol and drugs. After the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979, nuclear power went out of favor, and Jeffrey City’s decline was precipitous: More than 95 percent of the population was gone by the time Reagan was sworn in for his second term. The gymnasium, built in 1980, was rarely used and soon abandoned.
Workers angered by the firings trashed dormitories and duplexes. To add insult to injury, radioactivity was found in many city residences. Twenty five years later, only about a hundred hardy folks still reside in Jeffrey City, some with visions of a new uranium boom dancing in their heads, according to a story in High Country News a couple years ago.
The long-shuttered Top Hat Motel, its prefab buildings closed up, has always been emblematic of the town’s fortunes. The Split Rock Tavern and a small general store are open. But basically, Jeffrey City, a quarter century past its peak, is going back to nature as its buildings, including the long-vacant dormitories and duplexes, the K-12 school and multi-million dollar Reagan-era gymnasium, decompose and decay.
Driving around town is a gloomy, creepy experience. Empty storefronts and bare lots. Broken windows. Exposed, bulging walls, insulation flapping. Both of us say exactly the same caption out loud as I take a picture of derelict dormitories: “Desolation Row.” The waxing moon shines down on the whole pitiful scene.
At the west edge of town we can see what looks like a semi-modern school building. To get to it, we drive along streets whose pavement has cracked and is now almost invisible, clogged with grass and weeds. Empty lots with water, gas and electric hook-ups beckon to the wind. The school building we saw is the aforementioned gymnasium, its tile roof still shiny red, with windows boarded up and sand swirling in the driveway in front.
It is dark by the time we hit Sweetwater Junction rest stop. For the first time in memory, the American flag there isn’t blowing fiercely in the wind. Must be the hour. Across the highway is the museum dedicated to the Mormon handcart experiment, a twisted Brigham Young plan to get his flock westward by pulling their own carts. It’s dark as we drop down in the Popo Agie valley that shelters Lander.
We were up early this morning. The ranch is located just below Sink’s Canyon State Park, a lush tropical riparian zone with native shrubs and trees and habitat for lots of critters, including black bears. It is also now a state park named for the place where the Popo Agie drops into a dark hole in the rocks (The Sinks) and surfaces a quarter-mile farther down the canyon (The Rise of the Sinks) It is well worth the visit.
The ranch is certainly in a beautiful location, and it takes us little more than an hour to transfer five Harley motorcycle engines from the back of a semi-truck crawling with mouse droppings onto Jan’s pick-up. We scrubbed up pretty good at the nearby foaling barn before heading back out.
Several miles east of Lander, 287 intersects Wyoming 28, which crosses the Continental Divide at South Pass and ends at Rock Springs about one hundred miles south of here. After finally reading about South Pass after our last trip up here, I want to finally see the only place that allowed wagons to cross the Divide and hundreds of thousands of emigrants to move west of the Rocky Mountains. Jan drove up here many years ago and wants to retrace his path.
Not far out of town we drive along a long, reddish escarpment. Stopping at the top of the rise to look back and take some pictures, we are absolutely blown away by the Red Canyon. I had seen this on Google Earth; the Quickbird satellite image shows it as a blood red blemish. From here the canyon is beautiful beyond description: miles of reddish, uplifted Jurassic nugget sandstone cliffs with sprinkles of red like spilled paint.
According to the BLM, Red Canyon was formed sixty million years ago during the uplift of the nearby Wind River range. Today’s highway is cut above the red cliffs. Jan drove this road in 1969, and he remembers looking UP at the cliffs. After we get home, I check Google Earth, and sure enough, there is a Red Canyon Road, unpaved but very visible because of the red dirt, that skirts below the cliffs, probably the route he took on his Harley almost forty years ago. It shows up as a winding red line in one of my photos.
The first oil well in Wyoming was drilled near here, and the area has produced more than ten million barrels of oil since 1884. It is significant wildlife habitat, and the Nature Conservancy owns and operates Red Canyon Ranch in the middle of the canyon, along the Little Popo Agie River, to help keep it that way.
South Pass is an important enough place in American history. Native Americans, of course, knew of the gentle, wide pass over the Continental Divide that allowed wagons, and early trappers found it, too, but it wasn’t until 1832 that a caravan of twenty wagons crossed. Hundreds of thousands of people followed.
“Most emigrants have a very erroneous idea of South Pass, and their inquiries about it are amusing enough,” wrote emigrant Lorenzo Sawyer: “They suppose it to be a narrow defile in the Rocky Mountains walled by perpendicular rocks hundreds of feet high. The fact is the pass is a valley some 20 miles wide.”
After passing a mine west of the road and a huge field of rows of rock walls across from it, we find the turn-off for South Pass City and pull in to get a view of South Pass itself, its broad expanse illuminated in the sun. The old Carissa mine, now being restored, is just above the village, which is nestled in a stream valley cut below the South Pass plateau.
We stop in the parking lot, and while Jan adjusts some of the load in back, I walk over to the historic town site. South Pass City began as a stage and telegraph station on the Oregon Trail in the 1850s and moved to its present location after gold was discovered in 1866. Population swelled to about two thousand before settling at about one hundred after the boom ended. The sign says the population today is “about seven.”
During the summer months, the old historic town is open to tourists, but today everything is closed down, and the empty streets look like a movie lot where Sugarfoot or Maverick might walk out any time. The buildings have been nicely restored, and except for wooden walkways and other safety features, the town looks much the same as it does in old photos.
We drive up out of town along an incline that is filled with snow, past the cemetery and out onto a flat plain, which as it turns out, is South Pass itself. After a couple of miles, both of us think that perhaps we are not going toward Atlantic City, another old mining village that Jan remembers. We spot another truck and flag it down to ask where we’re going. A guy in his late thirties, dressed like his teenage son in camouflage greens and browns, says we’re aren’t going to Atlantic City, so we turn around and follow him until he heads off on a side path. I’m guessing they were looking for antelope.
A few miles skirting the domed hills around the river valley, and we are in Atlantic City, a larger town with wooden shacks, homes and buildings spread out across a hill. There are two places to eat, and after finding smokers in the one Jan remembers, we settle on a sandwich shop next door. The waitress is friendly, the burgers, fries and coffee plentiful.
I manage to ask the Homer Simpson question: Why is the town named Atlantic City? Had I noticed that the village on the other side of South Pass City was called Pacific Springs, I wouldn’t have had to ask, but after mentioning that she got that one a lot, she said it is because the town is located on the Atlantic side of the Divide. Doh!
Noticing a laptop on the counter, I inquire about internet reception. “It’s dial-up,” she answers, frowning. “I tell my friends, ‘don’t send pictures’ because it takes forever to download.” However, she added, the state last year got a grant to bring wireless to remote areas, and they hope to be hooked up in a few months.
We’re back on 287 before two p.m., and we have decided to take another route back to Laramie through Medicine Bow and Como Bluffs. We turn left at the Muddy Gap onto Wyoming 220 and follow the Oregon Trail for some forty miles along the Sweetwater River to Wyoming 487, which takes us through Medicine Bow and into Laramie.
We pass a couple more Oregon Trail landmarks on 220, Devil’s Gate, a place where the Sweetwater River passes through the rocks, and Independence Rock, where some people are skittering around along its dome. (Next time we’ll stop a both.) The shadows deepen across the rock formations as we turn on 487 to cross the rugged Shirley Basin. On the long, quiet drop into Medicine Bow, the outlines of the giant wind towers that stretch across the Hanna Basin can be seen, lifeless in the gathering twilight.
Just as I am about to explain that trains are always running through Medicine Bow as we pull into the parking lot of the Virginian Hotel, a long freight train is rumbling through in the twilight, another one behind it in the distance. Nine miles east of Medicine Bow, we are at Como Bluffs and the beginning of this story. Hope it was a good one — Jan even got a picture of the Fossil Cabin.