A Guide to Industrial Tourism in the Bakken

During my free moments, I continue to work on my tour guide of the Bakken. I have an idea that I’ll publish in Tom Isern’s Center for Heritage Renewal Circular Series at North Dakota State or failing that at the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Williston Type2

I posted a rough version of the introduction here. Today, I’ll include the first part of the first which runs from Minot, ND to Tioga, ND and introduces the intrepid traveler to the Bakken oil patch. I apologize in advance for the roughness of this draft!

The main point of entry into the Bakken is the city of Minot (pop. approx. 41,000). Minot is the county seat of Ward county and sometimes referred to as the “Gateway to the Bakken” Minot is served by Delta airlines, has an Amtrak station, and sits astride Route 2. Route 2 serves as one of the major arteries for the oil patch. It is the northernmost east-west highway in the U.S. and follows the route of the Great Northern Railroad and it sometimes shares with railroad the term “The Highline.” The route runs from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Everett Washington and the stretch from Minot to Williston, North Dakota is among the most scenic drives in North Dakota.

Proceeding west along this route takes you through heart of both workforce housing and the productive activities of the oil boom. The transformation of this corridor is historically striking. The traffic along Route 2 picks up noticeable west of Minot, and the number of fleet pick-up trucks with corporate names stenciled on their flanks will become more common as will tractor trailers carrying equipment west into the oil patch. The border between Ward and Mountrail Counties is pocked with “prairie potholes” or small lakes amidst rolling hills.

Upon entering Mountrail County, the evidence for both the economic opportunities and social and environmental challenges of natural resource extraction becomes more and more visible among the communities in this region. These communities had only limited experience with the potential and pitfalls of dramatic growth in population as well as day-to-day industrial activity and had generally settled into quiet obscurity. They had generally experienced steady decline in population from their heights in the 1950s brought about by a combination of agricultural prosperity and an earlier oil boom which was felt especially further west in Williams County. A slightly interruption in the region’s population decrease occurred during a short oil boom in the the 1980s, but this did little to interrupt the overall pattern for the region. The first places on this itinerary to show evidence for recent transformation are the small towns of Blaisdell (unincorporated) Palermo (ca. 82 in 2013), Stanley (pop. 1,458 in 2010), and Ross (ca. 109) in Mountrail County (ca. 9,376 in 2013) in Mountrail County and Tioga (ca. 1565 in 2013) in Williams County have received the brunt of the most dramatic changes. The strange contrast between the historical lack of development, investment, or visible change and the recent boom has drawn travelers, journalists, tourists, and scholars, to the area. The bustle of the road east from Minot offers just a preview of the activity of the oil patch, and the traveler might succumb to feeling like they’re heading up the river into a Heart of Darkness.

The first distinct evidence for the economic challenges of the area comes in the area of housing which appears before any oil activity. Within 3 miles of county line modular workforce housing appears. On a low rise to the north of the Route 2 approximately 2.5 miles west of the county line, in a township called Egan (pop. 64), is a group of approximately 15 “stackable” mobile housing units. The units stand 150 m to the north of the main road and are called Egan Crest reminiscent of some affluent suburb. Each unit is based on the dimension of standard “high-cube” shipping containers (40 ft or 12.19 m long and 8 ft or 2.44 m wide) with 9.6 ft (2.86 m) tall roofs. These mobile, modular apartments have been stacked two high and feature housing for 2 workers un each 20 ft crate. In the region, they’re know as “stackables” and are seen as a welcome upgrade from life in RVs or or larger more formal workforce housing deeper in the patch. The “stackables” do not have security around them are and apparently are well-insulated and comfortable. Their isolated and scenic position surrounded by rugged farmland gives them a both serenity and vulnerability.

Some 2 mile further west and immediately to the south of Route 2 is Blaisdell RV Park. This park is the first of the informal and scrappy RV parks that make up so much workforce housing in the Bakken. The leveled area of tan gravel is situated some 100 m south of Route 2 and entered at its northeastern corner. Passing a somewhat forlorn play area, there is parking in front of a administrative building with some common area. The park itself is comprised of nearly 100 small units about half of which are small mobile homes and the other half are RVs. In 2014, two large residences carved out of semi-trailers stood at the south end of the rows introducing some of the innovative architectural approaches to life in the Bakken. The units along the west side of the park are rented like hotel rooms whereas the eastern side of the park offer lots available for rent. To the south of the park is Blaisdell Rodeo which convenes each year in early August. The town of Blaisdell is north of Route 2 and is worth a short visit to see the school house and a wood-framed prairie church.

Continuing west along Route 2, past the turn off to Palermo …

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