Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ephemeral towns around Wyoming's Great Divide Basin

The view east from Bairoil, Wyoming.  
(Click images to view larger)

Through history people have lived around the margins of endorheic basins.  Some are filled with water, like the Aral Sea in Central Asia, while others are seas of dunes, like the Tarim Basin in Western China, once an obstacle that split the Silk Road into two routes to avoid the Taklimakan Desert (rough English translation:  If you go in, you won't come out), that occupies its interior.  The Taklimakan is so dry that natural mummies, so well preserved despite their 3000+ years that you can look into their faces and imagine them alive, sometimes emerge from the sand.  Some have red hair and blue eyes, immigrants to China from Europe. 

Tuyuguo, a still-occupied town on the margin of the Taklimakan Desert.

Endorheic is a technical term that describes places with no external drainage—rain that falls in these basins doesn’t find its way to the ocean, instead evaporating in place or seeping into groundwater.  Death Valley, famously hot and below sea level is endorheic.   

Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin (GDB), another endorheic basin, is not so well known or so well protected, and many people don’t know that the Continental Divide splits around it after descending from the Wind River Mountains to its north.  In all, it occupies about 3,900 square miles of mostly BLM land, with significant areas owned by ranchers, leased by energy companies, or occupied eccentrically (or creepily if that’s a word) by a handful of desert dwellers. 

Were it not for energy extraction, there would be little reason for most people to live near this harsh place.  It shares Wyoming’s howling wind and frigid winter with the rest of the State, but none of its spectacular mountains, though the Ferris, Green, and Wind River ranges are visible from within.  Around the margins are ephemeral towns that come and go with the fickle energy market:  Wamsutter, Lamont, Bairoil, and Jeffrey City.  A few larger and more permanent towns occupy sites along the Union Pacific Railroad to the basin's south:  Rawlins and Rock Springs are the largest.

I’ve photographed in and around the GDB for years, usually drawn to abandoned houses in the interior or wild horses that live there, or to desert places like the Honeycomb Buttes, but in January Ed Sherline and I left Laramie to have a look at some of these towns, each with its own character, and all temporary.  I doubt that any have the staying power of China’s Silk Road towns, still present all of these thousands of years after they were established. 

Jeffrey City is perhaps the most “famous” of the GDB towns among ghost town aficionados and in the boom-bust history of the West, though it isn’t truly a ghost town;  50-100 people still live here. In summer, cross-country cyclists stop for a meal and a place to sleep after pedaling across this particularly empty stretch of Wyoming.  In winter, snow drifts into abandoned townhouses and dormitories built to house workers during the uranium boom in the late 1970s.  A church, a bar, and a potter's shop are still used, but most other businesses as well as a modern brick building housing and Olympic-sized swimming pool are closed up tight.  

Bachelor Apartment #2.  Jeffrey City, Wyoming.
 Named “Home on the Range” by its first homesteaders in the 1930s, the town was renamed in the late 1950s for C.W. Jeffrey, a Rawlins doctor who financed a plan to extract uranium from nearby deposits to fuel nuclear power plants.  Jeffrey City boomed until the nuclear power industry suddenly declined after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979.  In fact, the decline was breathtaking.  95% of Jeffrey City’s residents left in a two-year period.  The story is fascinating, and I won’t reproduce it here, but if you’re interested, an Idaho researcher named Michael Amundson published an engaging and comprehensive history that can be accessed online (pdf).

Ed and I skirted the eastern and northern margins of the GDB on a snowy, grey, windy day, stopping in Lamont and Bairoil before finding a campsite at the little-used Jeffrey City landfill in Crook's Gap, chosen not for aesthetics, but because it occupies a drainage perpendicular to the prevailing wind.  We woke before dawn, made coffee, packed our frozen and unwashed dinner dishes, and headed back north to photograph Jeffrey City in the dawn light.  Then, like many before us we drove away.

Grandma's Cafe (then "Anelope" [spelling correct] Cafe), Lamont.  

Trailer, Lamont, Wyoming.

Trailer, Lamont.

Well pipe, Bairoil, Wyoming

International truck.  Bairoil.

Truck interior, Bairoil.

International truck door.  Bairoil.

Baptist Church.  Jeffrey City, Wyoming.

Hair, Etc.  Jeffrey City Quonset hut.

Green Mountain Bus Lines.  Jeffrey City.

Volkswagen with no volks.  Jeffrey City.

Trailer and town homes.  Jeffrey City.

Not town home.  Jeffrey City.

GMC truck interior.  Jeffrey City.

No comments:

Post a Comment