Abandonment and Commemoration in the North Dakota Bakken

I returned home late last night after a productive three days in the Bakken. Our trip had four goals. First and foremost, we wanted to continue to monitor the changes in our study sites. Next, I needed to collect just a bit more information on the area between Killdeer and Watford City for the Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. We presented some of our research at Capital Lodge in Tioga, North Dakota, and, finally, I wanted to begin to do some research on the memorial landscape of the oil patch. We managed to accomplish all these goals.

1. Study Sites. I reported in March that our study sites appeared to be holding steady despite the dire pronouncements of bust in the oil patch. This August, however, the signs of the downturn were visible in every RV park and man camp that we visited. It would appear that many of the mid-sized RV parks are down to around 60% occupancy despite summer being typically the busiest time of year. Rents at RV parks have come down slightly, and guarded optimism of both residents and managers has give way to talk of alternate plans and exit strategies.

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The larger crew camps likewise seem empty. We stayed at a camp where we once had to book a room weeks in advance and navigate a packed dining room for a table. On this visit, our team was probably the only group staying in the camp. 

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The most dramatic example of camp abandonment was the 500+ bed American Lodge outside of Watford City. The camp was closed and abandoned after the city cut its power and water. Subsequently, it appears that the camp had bilked investors out of over $60 million dollars in a kind of ponzi scheme. The size and obvious reality of the camp made it clear that project did not begin as a ponzi scheme, but succumbed, in part, to the declining need for workforce housing in general.

2. Man Camp Dialogues. Our man camp dialogues have come at a pivotal time in workforce housing in the Bakken, and our effort to hold one in a workforce housing site was pretty unsuccessful. The declining number of people living in temporary workforce housing sites has made our dialogues as much a historical reflection as a way to address ongoing concerns. 

For the first time in our experiences in the Bakken, a camp refused to allow us to document life at their facility. This camp had also turned down our request to host a man camp dialogue. The camp stands near Williston in Williams County, and recent ordinances appear designed to curtail the future of work force housing. So it seems likely that the owners or management of the camp felt any research on their facility was unlikely to benefit the camp in the short or medium term. 

3. Watford City to Killdeer. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch is very nearly complete and the manuscript is almost ready to go to the publisher for review. I took notes on the route from Watford City to Killdeer and Dickinson and this will allow me to include this meaningful diversion to the main course of the Tourist Guide. The forest of drill rigs sitting in storage at Dickinson forms a useful concluding scene to my guide’s itinerary.

 

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In addition to the addition coverage of the guide, the editor in the series that has requested my manuscript suggested that I include a few more people in the guide, so I am going through the routes and making an effort to add some flesh-and-blood to the routes. 

4. Memorial Landscapes. I also plan to add something to the Tourist Guide on the memorial landscape of the Bakken. Through out the region, small, typically road-side memorials have appeared to mark the location of fatal accidents. While these are common throughout the US, they take on a particular poignancy in the Bakken where they often feature in critiques of the oil patch and the changes that they have brought to the local communities.

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There are a few of these memorials that are well-maintained and prominent on the Bakken byways and I plan to include them in the Tourist Guide as well as a few of the lesser known memorials that dot the back roads of the region.

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