A Typology of North Dakota Work Camps 1

This weekend, I took a trip to western North Dakota to check out “oil patch” were the North Dakota Bakken Oil Boom is consuming several western counties. This trip was part of my newest project focusing on the archaeology of work (aka man) camps and other forms of short-term settlement in the western Bakken counties of North Dakota.

It was remarkable. The area included in the Bakken Oil Fields has become a 70 sq mile industrial part. Huge trucks, small trucks, heavy equipment (including equipment associated with the traditional farm economy), buses for workers, and other vehicles filled the roads even on the holiday weekend. My traveling companion, the indefatigable Bret Weber, assured me that the traffic we witnessed was, in fact, light compared to what he witnessed on an ordinary working day several months before. Prof. Weber is a Ph.D. in history and a licensed social worker with a serious professional interest in housing issues. He and I are going to collaborate on documenting the history and archaeology of these man camps, and he will also bring an eye toward social policy and social justice issues to our work.


The purpose of our trip, of course, was not to document the traffic in the oil patch, but to collect some basic data concerning the man camps in the area (and, yes, the local residents call them man camps) and think about how to approach documenting them in a systematic way with a small team. The first step to doing this was to establish a basis for our sampling strategy. While we considered a regional approach that sampled camps in a number of areas (for example, north of Williston, south of Williston, and in Ft. Berthold), but we soon discovered that the there were not vast difference between the camps in various areas and studying camps in a single county – for example Williams County for which Williston is the seat, could help focus any archival and policy related efforts. We also considered the function of the camps – whether they were in support of a particular mission associated with the oil industry or constructed by a particular company, but soon realized that many of the camps housed a range of different types of workers – often from different companies.  Finally, we concluded that the best approach to our study of man camps would be a sampling based on a rough typology of camps. We felt like there were clear differences between at least 3 types of camps and I’ll attempt to unpack this typology over the next few days.

Type 1: This most prominent and best known type of camp. It features prefabricated trailers brought in from outside the area on an industrial scale. The trailers rest on a bed of leveled gravel or pea-rock in neat rows. In some cases there are well-made, poured concrete footings or “rails” on which the trailers rest. Each of the trailers has power, water, and appears to be hooked into a sanitation system. The pipes and cables are typically routed beneath the trailers.  In general, the appearance of the units in the Type 1 camp is uniform.


Each trailer has two to four windows on the outside and most often a single door.  The walls are either wood paneled, aluminum, or fiberglass. The windows appeared either covered with blinds or fabric draperies. Some windows had non-functioning shutters. All of these trailers had a single doors on the long side of the structure. The door was the size and design of standard steel-type domestic doors and were typically reached by a small set of wood stair or metal stairs with wood treads.  The roofs were either pitched or vaulted with a few examples of flat roofs.  In one case, the trailers were designed to be stacked atop one another. Some trailers had satellite television receivers attached to exterior walls. Some had air-conditioning units on their flanks or roof.


In the several Type 1 camps that we visited, the trailers had lot numbers neatly painted on the sides or had parking spaces that allowed the residents to pull their vehicles up immediately outside the trailer. Other than this, however, we found few objects outside of the trailers to distinguish one from the next. Very rarely there was a small grill or a set of camping chairs. The areas around the units were clean with little signs of trash or discard. No weeds grew amidst the gravel and the entire camp appeared neat and orderly. Some of the larger Type 1 camps provided secure access.


For some of the largest camps, there was common space set aside for the residents and exterior the individual housing units.


In most cases, the Type 1 camps were established by either major companies invested in resource extraction in the Bakken oil patch or by companies who specialize in the support of the oil industry.  Some of these camps housed workers who came to the area for a single project; for example, a work camp supported the construction of a rail depot near Tioga. In other cases, camps houses individuals working across the patch for different companies with different jobs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s