The Abandoned Bakken

This past weekend, Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I headed out West to promote our new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and to visit some of the sites that we documented over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. 

As usual, we spent a good bit of time riding around in Richard Rothaus’s truck and talking about what we saw and what it meant. As importantly, for me, this trip through the Bakken focused on what we should do next (if anything) and how and whether to end a project that has tracked the boom of workforce housing in the Bakken (from around 2012) to its decline in 2018.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Abandonment. I’ve been observing various forms of abandonment in the Bakken since as early as August 2015. This spring’s trip was no exception, but instead of seeing evidence for abandonment that we could use to reconstruct a sites earlier history, we’re now seeing sites that we’ve documented – or even stayed in – for years being dismantled or abandoned. For example, Capital Lodge, which served as our home base in the Bakken for the first few trips to the region, is now being dismantled and the modular units being sold off, bit-by-bit. 

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Near Alexander, two large workforce housing sites have been removed and relocated. The MSpace camp which stood on a rural road outside of Alexander, ND has been completely removed. In fact, we found most of the buildings from the camp in a lot just off the side of Route 85 north of Alexander. 

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The site of the settlement itself, which opened in 2013, is now abandoned.P1010964

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The rough camp outside the old school in Ross, ND is now abandoned as well, and the stackable units in Egan Township are being prepared to be moved to Midlands, Texas.

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2. Methods for Documenting Abandoned Camps. We discussed how to approach documenting abandonment in the Bakken. We both agreed that some kind of survey project could capture the material left behind at the sites if we could receive permission from landowners. It seems likely that the communities would also have an interest in our efforts to document the material left behind after a camp departs. Documenting these sites would have to include collecting movable objects, fixed assets like electrical and sewage hooks up, and changes to the landscape like leveling, scoria roads, and gravel for sites.    

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We also acknowledged the need dig into the various official records of the settlement sites to determine their legal status, property ownership, and any requirements for clean-up and restoration of the sites as well as their prior history.

Finally, we began to discuss how many sites would for a useful sample to say something meaningful about abandonment in our study area. As importantly, we discussed what we mean by abandonment. Do we mean that the sites have to be completely closed or that they’re in the process of being closed? Is our goal to document the remains of the use assemblage or post-abandonment site formation (understanding, of course, that both will be visible and documented).   

3. Settlement Patterns. I was intrigued to notice that some areas seem to have experienced a bit less abandonment than others. For example, the camps around the town of Alexander appear to be largely abandoned and removed, whereas the sites to the west of Watford City, tucked into the hill between the town and the Watford City Gas Plant, appear to still be occupied and the camps around the intersection of US 85 and Route 200 appear to be in rough shape but occupied as well (although the Bakken Buffet building has been removed). The ongoing use of these sites perhaps reflects the distribution of activity in the Bakken and their locations outside of the jurisdiction of local towns which have worked to eliminate temporary settlements – man camps, RV parks, and the like – in their jurisdiction and to transition workers to more permanent housing and hotels. 

4. The Temporary and the Permanent in the Bakken. We drove through the Watford City and admired the growing ring of new building around the town. As I noted a couple of years before, some of the apartments look similar to the mobile and modular housing that they served to replace suggesting that certain elements of industrial and residential design have started to overlap.

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What was equally striking this time through the Bakken was that many of these new constructions were occupied by the same assemblage of trucks and equipment that we saw at camps indicating that they served as worker housing (as well as family housing). A banner advertising four-bedrooms with four-and-a-half baths hint that some of these apartments are designed to accommodate groups of workers and to provide them with their own spaces. More than that, the buildings themselves showed sign of wear that suggested rather low-quality construction. 

In other words, both the residents of the housing may well be temporary. Of course, the permanence of an apartment buildings or even a hotel is relative as the image below of an abandoned modular home site with the closed “Shut-Eye Motel” in the background. 

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While I understand that permanent housing is as much defined by its tax status as anything else (and this has attendant benefits to the local communities), it still leaves to my mind a interesting tension between how our ideals of community and settlement have become increasingly defined by economic relationships that stand in as proxies for social values.

5. What’s next? So far, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has published a few articles and a book, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the data that we’ve collected or the arguments that we can or want to make. We have another book in the pipeline (scheduled for 2019) and contributions to some other projects in the works, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something a bit more sweeping and general.

In fact, I had a bit of a crisis on the trip as I read Hern, Johal, and Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017). The book reminded me that our work on the Bakken is really a contribution to a global story of petroculture. At the same time, petroculture is an expansive and dynamic body of thought that stretches from climate science to literature. Framing our work in the Bakken around these conversations is a daunting task, but I’m increasingly thinking that this is the most valuable contribution that our work can make (and by making our work visible to the current discussion of petroculture, we’re making our work visible to other scholars as well). 

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