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The Rise and Fall of a Fracking Boom Town: An Oral History

Rock Springs, Wyoming, sits on vast underground stores of natural gas and shale oil. But what was meant to be a blessing turned into a curse.

It’s always feast or famine in Rock Springs. In the 1970s, this wind-worn mining town in southwest Wyoming was the site of an immense energy boom. Men from across the country moved in to make fast money in coal, oil, gas, or trona (the raw material for soda ash, which in turn is used to make glass, paper, baking soda, and other products). My dad worked at the Jim Bridger power plant for nearly 15 years, first dumping huge trucks of coal ash, then laboring in the warehouse. He met my mom during the ’70s boom.

Then the oil fields dried up. Demand for trona fell sharply, and soon workers were getting laid off at Jim Bridger (thankfully for us, my dad was able to keep his job). As one resident, Tammy Morley, told me, “It seemed to me like the boom left all at once. The town was dead. The oil fields got sucked dry. All the rest just went away.” 

When I was growing up, a persistent anxiety gnawed at our lives. My friends and I rode our BMX bikes across the endless stretches of dusty prairie, and local kids started their own punk and metal scene—so, in some ways, it was as good a place as any to call home. But there was always an underlying uncertainty about what would happen to our town, which bubbled up in destructive ways. Money was tight for most people. The suicide rate was staggeringly high. There was a lot of meth use and the start of an opioid epidemic. 

I graduated high school in 2004 and tried to go to school in Colorado, but I dropped out. When I came back to Rock Springs in 2005, the hydraulic fracturing boom had begun. The town and its surrounding areas sit on vast underground stores of natural gas and shale oil. And the mad rush to extract this untapped store of energy changed everything.

Suddenly, every hotel was filled with roughnecks from across the country. Rent got much more expensive, and stucco neighborhoods sprouted up like an invasive plant species. Guys with huge work trucks blasted around town. Most of my friends got jobs with Halliburton or one of the other companies doing fracking out in the massive Jonah Field. At the time, we had the biggest Halliburton fracking facility in the country, its arsenal of red trucks and heavy-duty equipment on militaristic display. Schlumberger had its own battery of blue trucks and equipment on the other side of town. 

There was suddenly, too, a lot of money. But this blessing, as so much else in this country, would turn out to be a nightmare in disguise. This is the story of Rock Springs’ last boom, as told by the people who lived through it (some of their names have been changed or withheld to protect their privacy). 

Joe Myer: When you drove through the area at night, all you saw was drilling rigs.

Orlando Webb: When I graduated high school, I worked out in the oil field for different companies. So I saw the boom come and go. I started working there when I was 18. That type of labor wasn’t my passion or what I wanted to do. I did it because it was good money, and I got benefits and things like that. You have to pay for life somehow.      

Chris Schmidt: I worked in the oil field for almost two years. I was a field pump technician for Halliburton. We would fix and rebuild these huge valves that pushed water and chemicals during the fracking process. The pumps were constantly breaking down because they were working 24 hours a day. They would take one pump offline, and, while we fixed that one, they’d put another on the well. We fixed pumps for 14-hour shifts—and oftentimes longer. 

Every day, we’d show up at the Halliburton shop at 4:30 a.m. to get on the bus that chartered us all out to the Jonah Field. We’d relieve the crew in the field, and then we’d sit in the truck and wait for something to break. Sometimes it was 18 hours of nonstop hard labor, but then other times there might be like three days when you wouldn’t leave the truck. It was usually freezing outside, so you really did not want to get out of the truck.

The whole time I worked out there, I was honestly pretty fucking terrified. My second day, this guy in the shop had this huge water tank lifted up on a forklift, and, instead of strapping it down, he tried to drive really slow. When the tank started to wobble, he got out. It ended up coming down on him and literally ripping his face off—from where his hairline started all the way down to his nose. I was sitting in the shop and heard this horrible scream coming from one of the bay doors. This guy was crawling on his hands and knees with his face hanging off. 

Brian: As weird as it sounds, I actually really miss my job in the oil field. I was a centrifuge technician. Pretty much all my crew did was related to cleaning drilling equipment and fluid. It wasn’t that dangerous for me, unless we were having massive problems with well bores to where the rig could burn down, which happened a few times. But for the most part it was real safe. It was hard work but super chill overall.

It was a different social climate than most jobs, which I enjoyed. When someone had a problem with you, you’d walk off-site and fight. And then you were good. You’d tell someone to eat a pile of shit if they told you to do something you didn’t want to do. You’d get fired from any other job if you did that.

The camaraderie from working out there was very real. You’d work with these guys for so fucking long, such long shifts. If someone started shit with you at the bar, these guys would beat the fuck out of that person. They actually had your back. There were weird drug addicts and shit, but most of the people out there were good people trying to make a living for their families. There was more camaraderie in the oil field than any other job I’ve had. Even working in oil fields in other states, you end up running into people that you met years and years ago, and it’s awesome to see those people. 

Andrea: I think it was a fairly common perception for people in Rock Springs to see college as a waste of time and money. You could make so much easy, quick money in town. Once you start making that kind of money, it’s hard to stop. I saw this a lot at the high school, kids saying, “Why should I go to college when I can work in the coal mines or at the power plant?”

But for a lot of these kids, they didn’t get a trade they could apply outside the oil field. Many of them would do the same stuff over and over again out there. Had they gone to college and taken classes in welding or mechanics, say, they would’ve set themselves up for the future a bit more. But again, I could always understand why they’d see college the way they did. Especially when you have the cars, trucks, house, and big toys—you have to keep up with the payments, and it’s hard to get out of that cycle.

Not a lot of those kids saw that the boom would end.

Brian: I was drinking heavily for about eight years while I was working in the oil field and paying for my dad’s cancer and all that shit. Unfortunately, I almost drank myself to death. But then I woke up one morning and finally decided to make a shift. I honestly don’t think I’d be alive right now if I didn’t leave Rock Springs. 

Chris Schmidt: There was a lot of drug use in the oil field. The party lifestyle in that line of work is thrown in your face all the time. That was probably the biggest negative for me. 

Chris Hawks: One of the first things you see when you drive into Rock Springs is a giant billboard about meth and going to jail. 

Nate Martin: Meth is a rural drug, and it’s also connected to the oil field. We’ve all heard the stories of people working these long shifts and 100-plus-hour weeks with this dangerous equipment—and some of them do meth to help them get through. So some people take it for work reasons, but of course there’s a lot of recreational usage, as well. The fact that you could easily cook it yourself made it widely available in places like Rock Springs. It’s harder for people to make now since there have been restrictions on some of the ingredients, but it was pervasive at the time. Since the town is isolated, you could just make meth in your trailer or anywhere else. My friend had a trailer on the outskirts of town, and we’d have these raging parties out there. We knew no one would call the cops because the trailers on either side of my friend’s were both meth labs. 

Pete: Doing meth is like being myself but times 10. You’re really excited and love everything, you want to talk with everyone about everything. But then you don’t want the buzz to end. It’s great, and it feels good, but everything goes downhill once you start using the needle. You use that fucking needle and you become a person you never wanted to be.

Injecting it is ridiculous as far as how much it fucks you up. It’s like the movies, man. You hit it and it puts you in a completely different world, almost like you’re dreaming. I smoked meth for a long time before I injected it. I always thought people were nuts for shooting dope. My buddy who just passed away was actually the first person who hit me with a needle. I fell in love with it. 

I was doing a lot of dope with my ex. She and I moved out of my buddy’s house. She was my best friend for around 10 years before we ever got together. We started doing dope together in our house out north of town. When I tried to commit suicide, it was all the other shit we were dealing with plus doing dope, so it was all amplified times 10. I was going to work and being generally unstable, doing a bunch of mushrooms and other drugs, too. It doesn’t work. Maybe it does if you’re good at it, but I wasn’t good at it. I was trying to be in a relationship and live life and do drugs at the same time. I sucked at it. When I told my girlfriend we should stop shooting dope, she said, “Well, you can,” and kept doing drugs in front of me. We’re really good friends still, but it was some shit we had to go through.

Mary: Back in the day, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rock Springs was a pretty awesome town to grow up in. But when I graduated, it changed because of the boom and the drugs. It went to shit. Nobody cared about anybody else anymore. 

People who came in only saw it as a money-making town—and where that could happen really quickly. People from all over were very enticed by that. And then they realized it was a good place to get fucked up and do drugs, and word got out to people who sold drugs. You could make money quickly, rip people off, rob people.

I didn’t really start doing drugs until around 2005. I remember going to football games on Friday nights when the whole town would show up. But then drugs, especially OxyContin, took hold of a lot of people. I lost so many friends when OxyContin came around, both losing them to death and just losing people as friends—people who you thought were family but fell in too far. Everybody and their mother did Oxy: lawyers, doctors, all sorts of people doing it behind the scenes. The epidemic was very real. It was crazy how fast things would unravel for people once they started doing OxyContin. 

The first time I tried it, I actually threw the other half of the pill out the window because it made me sick. I said I’d never do it again. What felt like a few weeks later, I was fully addicted.

Walt: I lived in an old warehouse on Pilot Butte off and on for many years. That whole area was ridiculous. It’s the drugs, booze, parties, the shitty bars that are gross but somehow comfortable. It’s the whole attitude, the danger, the excitement of that danger. That’s the culture.

A few months after we moved to Rock Springs, this drunk woman is pounding on our door late at night. She’s yelling after my mom. Something about Pedro and if my mom was sleeping with him. I’m surprised my mom stayed inside. She’s a little scary herself. The woman eventually left, but not before hitting our truck. Shortly after, we learned that she found Pedro and apparently murdered him.

That street was a carnival of shit all the time. You never knew, when you’d walk into a house, if some giant dude would be standing on a kitchen counter trying to shoot heroin in his arm.

Joe Myer: I remember pallet parties out in the woods where dudes were getting guns pointed in their faces. People would set these huge fires in the desert. I’ve lived in other places, but none so gnarly as Rock Springs.

Kathleen: I remember when I turned 21 and started going to the bars. It’s more common now for women to be heavily tattooed. At that time, it was still novel here. I had tattoos on my chest with words on them. Guys would be very rude about it. There would be like 20 guys surrounding me and my friend at the bar because we were the only women there. I definitely felt like prey in a way. 

Guys would get really mad if you turned them down. I’ve been called a cunt and everything else by guys I turned down. There’s definitely a lot of hunger. Many of those guys were from out of state, so they were only looking for someone to warm them up at night.

My dad always asked me why I didn’t settle down with an oil field guy. It wasn’t for me. There were so many men, but a lot of the oil field guys seemed kind of the same. They’re there for work, and it’s all a big money game. They don’t care about the place. That’s their mentality. It could be scary, for sure. Since the guys had a lot of money, they’d want to buy you drinks, then they’d expect things from you afterward.

Dudley Gardner: You can look at the Astro Lounge and see it as a continuation of what was happening with the prostitution on K Street in the 1970s. It’s one of the oldest strip clubs in the country. It’s a rocking and rolling place.

Stacy: Since the ratio of men to women is so high, I grew up being very comfortable around men, which isn’t to say that I didn’t have some negative interactions. Sexual harassment and abuse are definitely prevalent there. Women are such a commodity, which made for very different interactions between genders. I never lacked for male attention, that’s for sure.

I used to do theater in high school and would do performances at the community college, as well. The day I turned 18, the Astro Lounge called and asked me to come strip for them. I have no idea how they knew I’d turned 18. I remember being in the kitchen of my childhood home in Rock Springs and talking to this guy on our yellow rotary phone. He said he heard I could dance. He offered me $2,000 just to go down there and talk to them. I said, “Fuck no.” I think that says a lot about the male-female dynamics in Rock Springs.

Rock Springs was always one of those places where you’d feel on edge and hyperaware of your surroundings. There was always something that could go wrong. It was a tough place to grow up in a lot of ways, especially as a woman. There’s something you feel in your body when you come into that town that makes you feel a bit sick. Your body remembers the trauma of what it was like to be there.

Laura: I worked at a bar and felt like I had the best gig, because I got to meet people from all over the place. A lot of those oil field workers were super excited to be making such good money. But man—when it ends, it ends. There’s no life. That’s when you see the crumbling.

I managed a bar for about eight years. The high ratio of men to women is no joke. There were tons of men during the boom. We were busy on the weeknights because that’s when everyone was in town. You’d look around, and there would be 80 to 100 men, from the higher-ups all the way down to the grunts. We weren’t unique in that way. That was every bar you’d go to: just hordes of men. A lot of the service workers were female, which drew a stark contrast.

There’s a lot of extremity. You have these guys who work 70 hours a week. When they’re off, they’re binge drinking. That’s why I left the bar industry in Rock Springs. I did enjoy my job for a long time. I loved booking live music. But looking around, you see how that turns into life for some people. That was a little terrifying. I didn’t think I could do it much longer. Some people end up turning the bar scene into their life.

Chris Schmidt: I don’t think we’re a special or unique generation. We reflect a lot of the culture that’s always defined Rock Springs. From new mines opening to fracking in the oil field or construction, the entire life of Rock Springs has revolved around a boom cycle that’s not sustainable. 

Laura: My dad worked in coal; it’s what we do. We would take tours out there as kids. You’d get this little black rock candy and a hammer. It’s cool when you’re a kid but seems kind of weird and dark when you’re an adult. 

Ashley: Maybe five to seven years ago, there was a boom, but Rock Springs was in a bust phase when I went to junior high and high school. I graduated high school in 2019. My dad works in the oil field, so I’m able to gauge the boom-and-bust cycle based on how much work he has.

To run an oil field operation, you have to invest a lot of money in industry-related expenses to get the insurance, certifications, and equipment, not knowing if you’re going to be able to use that equipment again the next year. So I think the boom-and-bust cycles facilitate a constant unease about your financial situation. The culture can become very negative when that’s what you and everyone around you are feeling.

Wes Carter: I’ve known a lot of people who killed themselves. It also depends on your definition of suicide, because I’ve known a lot of people who O.D.’d or drank themselves to death. 

Mike: It seems like every year someone from our graduating class dies of suicide or overdose.

Brian: At this point, I’ve known over 15 people who killed themselves in Rock Springs. A lot of people in that town self-medicate. Regardless of whether your parents were alcoholics or addicts, the conditioning is different with suicide being around.

Jesse Reed: I don’t see Rock Springs going through another boom. It will never be like it was, not with the way things are going now. They just closed up some of those places: Halliburton, Schlumberger, some of the others. I know a lot of people who got laid off. The oil industry isn’t looking good right now. We had the biggest Halliburton facility in the country, then they laid everybody off. There’s no money in the city budget. I hope it gets better, but I just don’t know. I hope something changes. Right now, man, it’s scary.

Les Georgis: Power plants are transitioning to natural gas, and that will be the death knell for electric power from coal, and any coal mines. You don’t have the cost of mining or transportation. You build a pipeline, ship it in, and that’s that. It will be the death knell for the Jim Bridger plant and mine, as well. Point of Rocks has their bar out there. It will most likely fold when the power plant closes.

It’s the same problem at Wamsutter. I don’t know how many people actually work at that plant. I can’t imagine what will happen to it.

Chelsea: It’s hard to imagine what Rock Springs will look like in a hundred years. It’s so dependent on oil, coal, and fuel resources like that, but those things aren’t infinite. And it’s not a place that shifts much. They’re not looking for what’s next. 

Kara: I do wonder if Rock Springs would ever become a ghost town. Maybe it wouldn’t deteriorate that far, but I think it’s going to wither more as the coal industry fades away. I can see all those new subdivisions going vacant and people staying in the older neighborhoods.

Laura: There’s pressure for you to get married, buy a $400,000 house, and have a lifted truck and all the toys. You see all your friends with these expensive toys and houses. But what happens if you lose your job? There’s no industry to temper that or help people transition and develop new skills. You can’t have that lifestyle and then decide to go work at the Post Office or something like that. You can’t manage those expenses unless you work one of those high-paying energy jobs. There’s no way. 

When I was in high school, kids who graduated could work in the mines and make a killing. That’s not the case anymore, and we haven’t replaced it with anything. What are people looking forward to as far as their career? I think women manage it better because we’ve had to: Women have always thought of multiple careers, like teaching, nursing, getting into banking, or moving somewhere else to see what’s out there. Women just don’t get paid as much. For men, it’s pressurized. You either leave completely and go to school or do something else, which is fairly unlikely; or you have to go into some type of mining or mineral extraction. What do you do when those jobs aren’t there anymore?

Nate Martin: What Wyoming will do when coal dies out is the multimillion-dollar question. There doesn’t seem to be any appetite at all as far as a concerted effort to diversify the state’s economy. There are people working on it, but it’s going to be hard. It already is hard. Rock Springs has a few other things going for it—the trona mines most notably. Right now the state is trying to execute this land deal where they’re going to buy a bunch of land that’s rich in trona and try to mine it. It honestly sounds insane and completely stupid, especially since the economy is getting destroyed by the pandemic. [Editor’s note: A private company ended up outbidding the state for the land.] 

But what will happen to Rock Springs? It’s going to shrink. It’s going to become quiet. I grew up during a bust. The boom that brought my parents to Rock Springs was long over by the time I was coming of age. It didn’t boom again until the year I left. My whole experience of the town is during a bust period, and that’s what it’s entering into again. But the difference now is that there’s not a boom on the other side of this bust. Coal is not coming back. Natural gas is abundant and cheap, so it’s not going to be the moneymaker it once was. People are moving away from fossil fuels in general. 

Laura: There have been people who try to push Wyoming toward renewable energy. Before he left office, Governor Matt Mead proposed plans for economic development outside of mineral extraction because he could see the writing on the wall with coal. But not many people got on board. He was trying to supplement Wyoming’s economy and help the state before all the mines and coal industry crumbled. Unfortunately, soon after he left office, mines in Gillette and Kemmerer closed, and it nearly happened in Rock Springs.

I feel like we’ve gone backward. People here have doubled down on mineral extraction. Who knows how the pandemic will affect all this? Some of those oil, gas, and coal companies have used Covid-19 as an excuse to leave Wyoming, but I think they were on their way out anyway.

Nate Martin: There’s going to be a very serious reckoning facing Rock Springs in terms of, “Who do we want to be? What do we want to be? What kind of town do we want?” But I think a lot of people in Rock Springs ignore those types of questions. They latch onto the economy that’s there—the jobs that are there—and they ride it like a horse. You have the stereotype of the rugged individual that’s prevalent here in Wyoming, but in reality, the Western mining town has no control over its own fate.

Natalie: I worked in the open-pit mine at Jim Bridger. I worked as a glorified shop hand and then on the production line, which was extremely tedious.

I had an interview to work underground at Black Butte, but it made me feel claustrophobic to be down there. It’s barely wide enough to drive a pickup through. There’s a lot of groundwater, which I didn’t know going in. I was wearing my steel toes, but most people wear waders. The water went up to the top of my boots, and yeah, it was pretty cold. The temperature stays around 35 degrees in that mine. 

I work in one of the trona mines now. Basically, you get all your gear on, including a respirator that can let you breathe for about an hour if there’s carbon dioxide in the air. You go down, and thankfully it’s wider than the coal mines, and it stays about 65 degrees down there. It’s easy to forget that you’re 800 feet underground. I go to my work table and wait for my boss to come out of his morning meeting to let me know what needs to get done.

Two union organizations have approached us, but, right now, we’re not unionized. When one union was talking to us, our company basically said they’d give us the money we would’ve paid in dues as bonuses. But that never happened.

Chris Hawks: I remember driving through not long ago and looking at this hill that they had strip-mined. The landscape was totally different. Flying over it going from Salt Lake to Denver, you could see the coal seams. The amount of earth they’d moved was absolutely staggering.