Back to the Bakken Again

One of the great things about sabbatical is that I’m a bit more free to do research that involves travel. This weekend, Bret Weber and I have returned to the Bakken with our guide for the industrial tourist. We expected to spend most of our time simply ground truthing our guide, but we managed to do a bit more than that.

We decided to travel from outside of Berthold, ND in Ward County to Stanley in Mountrail County on old US Route 2. This is a very different road from modern US Route 2 which carries four lanes of traffic through the heart of the oil patch. Old Route 2 is paved west of Stanley and goes through some nice countryside as it ascends the Missouri anticline. We documented a couple RV parks along the route of the road, and spent a bit of time in the town of Palermo which has seen significant infilling with mobile homes and RVs throughout. Palermo has generally seen better days. The attractive 1936 school with some fine art deco touches testifies to the prosperity of the town in first decades of the 20th century.


We continued west along old Route 2 through Stanley, ND, the county seat of Mountrail county and a town which has seen a significant increase in both permanent and temporary housing in the last half-decade. We stopped briefly in Ross, ND where we visited two RV parks documented by the North Dakota Man Camp Project. One of these RV parks had a nice mudroom available for our inspection: a fine example of vernacular architecture typical of the Bakken.



We then continued along old Route 2 into Manitou township. If you are an industrial tourist and have time to visit one place in North Dakota, I might honestly suggest visiting Manitou. The former town has completely vanished except for the consolidated school which stands abandoned with a small, neglected mobile home, RV park nearby. Note the Dutch Colonial touches:


Around the area stands a brand new salt water disposal site designed to handle some of the byproducts of fracking. Further north is a massive raid yard where North Dakota crude is collected for shipment to refineries around the U.S.


Heading further west along old Route 2 provides ample opportunities to contrast oil production and the western North Dakota landscape. Even a mediocre photographer like me can manage some dramatic shots.


Old Route 2 descends into the White Earth Valley east of the town of White Earth. The most impressive landmark along this route is Panchos. Panchos was originally a dance hall, cafe, and bar that opened in 1955, during the peak of the first oil boom.


The dance hall and cafe are long gone, but the bar is still open. We talked to the bartender there and it took very little effort to imagine the clubs earlier days when bands played on a stage to patrons from the towns of White Earth and Manitou who had money to spend from their hard work in the oil patch or as local ranchers and farmers. The bartender told us that, in its prime, there were 20 tables in the dance hall that could be moved aside for roller skating. There was a little cafe serving t-bone steaks and french fries for $2.50 and icy cold beers for $.50. The bar preserved hints of the building’s more august past and some dusty old memorabilia on the walls. Pancho died in 1985 and his kids, now in their 80s, still own the place. It’s worth a stop.

After checking in on some of our study sites around Ray and Tioga, we decided to enter Williston by heading south through Wheelock toward the Route 1804 (the Lewis and Clark Trail) that runs along the north side of Lake Sakakawea. The countryside here saw exploratory efforts in the 1920s and 1930s include an exploratory well of over 10,000 feet drilled by a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California. At the time, this well was among the deepest in the western U.S. The drill bit broke before they hit oil.

Today, there is plenty of evidence for oil exploitation that we caught in the evening light.



  1. Bill, nice Art Deco shots. Here’s the Steve Martens statewide context to filter it through:


    1. Thanks, Aaron! I’m really looking forward to his book!


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