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, Michael Amundson writes in his excellent town history, “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 Amundson 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.
November 13, 2008 2 Comments
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.
November 12, 2008 2 Comments
Sunday October 8, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana
We left Thermopolis this morning. On our way to Cody, we saw the Squaw Teats formation for the first time, though just barely, at exactly the spot where our Roadside Geology of Wyoming said it would be. When I typed Squaw Teats into Google, the first entry linked to a 2000 story on stateline.org that says that “more than 1,000 different geographical features had Squaw in them” in the United States. Some states, Maine is mentioned in the story, are working to change all those names. Apparently, this Wyoming rock formation has escaped the wrath of politically correct Native Americans. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t complained about Teats, too.
Looking at the map, there is serious wilderness on our left. That is the Wind River Range out there, and it contains many of the highest peaks in the state. No major roads for sixty to eighty miles in any direction and hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, it is an important buffer for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone from the east and south.
If the state has its way in a protracted struggle with the federal government wolf delisting plan, it would also be a place where a Wyoming citizen could kill wolves, for any reason, a position contrary to the wishes of the federal government, environmentalists or anybody with a lick of sense in their heads. This wilderness is the wolves’ best protection, and Wyoming wants to turn it into a shooting gallery. Assholes would line up twenty deep to kill a wolf.
After we stopped for a couple of forgotten items and lattes in Cody, we head out Wyoming 120 and then Wyoming 72 for Red Lodge, where we pick up Beartooth Pass. After stopping for the sublime banana-cream pie at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Bearcreek, Montana, we head up the steep drive out of Bearcreek valley, above the lovely-in-the-fall town of Red Lodge and onto U.S. Highway 212.
The 70-mile-long Beartooth, opened in 1934, was called “America’s most beautiful highway” by Charles Kuralt, but it still doesn’t bring a wave of tourists into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It crosses from Montana into Wyoming and back again during this part of its route.
There are two passes that lead into the northeast entrance, and we try to use both. This year we are going in over Beartooth and back on Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Beartooth was closed last year after mud and debris slammed down and damaged the switchbacks in a couple of places. Beartooth is only open about five months max anyway, and it usually closes sometime in October.
The valley west of Red Lodge, heavily reminiscent of German alpine terrain, was socked in a heavy fogbank, which continued more than 4,000 feet through the narrow switchbacks, hairpin and U-curves that lead to the mesa at the top. We pulled out at one spot at about 6,000 feet and were blessed with a view of what we had just driven through, now looking like an overdose of whipped cream lapping at the entire valley.
At this turn-out, I finally solved a personal mystery. We stopped at this same spot on our first trip over this pass in the nineteen eighties, and I remembered the Precambrian rock across the valley looked like the crumbling remnants of ancient civilizations. When we came across two years ago, I couldn’t find this place. And though I couldn’t see ancient Jerusalem this time, I realized that it was the same rocks. The shadows of the early morning sun had given me that moment almost two decades ago.
As we climbed to treeline, snow was blowing across the road and sticking, and the swirling clouds limited our exposure to the twenty peaks of the Beartooth Range that are above 12,000 feet. You never think that you’ll ever reach the top after what seems like hundreds of switchbacks. It was a stirring passage, and the Aerostar performed admirably all the way up to 11,000 feet and back down.
Riding across the mesa at the top, I always like looking back down into the Bighorn Basin from whence we came this morning, but it was far too socked in for those kinds of views, which gave us time to concentrate on the wonders along the side of the road itself — rows of cliffs, scattered rocks and fissures and frigid lakes. The western slopes were blissfully free of snow, and we were in Silver Gate by three. By 4:30, with Anne Whitbeck, our friend and longtime wolf guide onboard with her walkie-talkie, the Aerostar was heading into the park.
Anne caught us up on the latest news about wolves, bears and the Wolf Watchers who keep track of them. The road across Dunraven Pass is closing tonight, and there has been activity up there, both wolves and bears.
And she informs us that Beartooth Pass also closes tonight.
No wonder it was so weird up there at the top of the world this afternoon. We were among the last few to get over before it was closed.
Anne’s unerring senses are on once again, and we spend half an hour with four black bears in the high forest along the newly paved road.
First was a mother and cubs who walked along about fifteen or twenty feet from the road on a shelf about ten feet below us. They were foraging in the snow, mostly oblivious to the 20 people taking snapshots, pointing and shooting – when will these show up on YouTube?
They are in search of pine cones, and the mother gives two lessons: 1) how bears find food and 2) why they tell you not to climb a tree to get away from a black bear. Mom suddenly bolts up this conifer, and in less than a minute she is near the top, about 35 feet, after no real effort whatsoever. When she gets to the top, she begins to break off limbs with pine cones and dropping them for the young ones. (Her move appears to signal that she isn’t concerned about our proximity to the cubs, although I’ll bet she could come back down just as quickly and easily.
About a minute later, one of the cubs climbs an adjacent tree, just like a pro. Black bears learn to climb trees to avoid danger at a young age, and there are good reasons for that. I have seen a black bear treed by a grizzly over in Slough Creek, so if you’re a black bear, it’s a good skill.
But the cubbie, once it gets to the top, doesn’t seem to know what to do and is just swinging back and forth up there in the wind. Soon enough, both of them climb back down just as easily as they ascended, and soon the trio have disappeared down into the shadows of the forest. About a mile farther, we get a pretty good look at a cinnamon black bear beneath Mt. Washburn. It seems to indicate a desire to cross the road at one point but scampers back up in the trees high above the road as the voyeurs gather. Good bear.
It was our first time over the pass on the new road, which was completed again this year, and we stopped at a new pull-off with signage about the activity here – the major eruptions that have taken place here and the magma changes below Lake Yellowstone going on today.
One of the reasons we climbed Mt. Washburn two years ago was to stand at the northern end of that last eruption, and this place offers another good angle on the gap created more than 250,000 years ago. As the sun went down, the snow-capped mountains to the south turned first a fiery orange, gray and, finally, metallic blue.
October 8, 2007 No Comments