A Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch

This morning I posted a draft of the introduction and conclusion to my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch to the online publishing site Medium. I’m just a bit excited about the experiment and will almost certainly publish drafts of the rest of the Guide to Medium over the next few days

I used Medium, rather than my trusty WordPress blog for a number of reasons. First, it seems more suited to long form reading and while none of the individual sections of my guide are long by Archaeology of the Mediterranean World standards, they are just on the edge of tl;dr status on a typical blog. So I wondered whether the clean interface on the Medium would make it easier to read.

More importantly than that, Medium allows readers to comment on specific paragraphs rather than just comment at the level of the blog post. This is a very helpful way of collating comments on a longer manuscript and allows readers to post their immediate gut reactions to a particular section.

My plan is to use the comments assembled at the Medium to revise my manuscript prior to submitting it for peer-review and publication. As readers of this blog know, this project places me a wee bit outside of my traditional, academic comfort zone, so I’m particularly eager to get some feedback on how I do as a historian of North Dakota, as a commenter on our modern, industrial condition, and as an author of something more popular than scholarly (although this work has clearly academic goals).

I intend to serialize my tourist guide over the next couple of weeks, but for this first group of posts, I have focused on my introduction and a fairly rough draft of my concluding comments. More of the tourist guide proper will follow, so please stay tuned!

A Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.1. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections



Fractured Land Author to Speak at the University of North Dakota

On Thursday, October 30th, Lisa Peters the author of Fractured Lands will speak in the East Asia Room of the Mighty Chester Fritz Library.  The book has received a positive review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and I’ve offered my thoughts on it here.


While making a poster for the book, I took a few minutes to think about the font used on the cover. I think it’s a version of Cochin, but it’s clearly a transitional serif font. I suspect the use of this font for book covers is designed to evoke the cover of Larry Potter books which used a version of Cochin to evoke the fantastic and anachronistic world of the young wizard (or whatever he is). As someone who wrote a fairly long dissertation and endless articles under the oppressive gaze of Times New Roman, I’m sort of over transitional serif fonts. I can vaguely grasp the point of it on the cover. I suppose it is designed to evoke tensions between her father’s fascination with North Dakota oil and her own desire to move forward into a greener, more environmentally friendly world.  

Ironically, the book is set in a modern serif font, Escrow, made famous by the Wall Street Journal. I thought that was a nice touch, considering the topic of the book! I might have dumped the Larry Potteresque title and run an old style serif font like Garamond throughout. I like the intimacy of the Classical/Old Style fonts and I think they’d be fitting for a memoire. 

Font situation aside, her talk should be good fun. I’m donating some of my time from North Dakota Humanities Council affairs to organizing this talk, so it’s sponsored by the NDHC.

Here’s the link to the live stream on the day of the talk.


Memory and Place in Grand Forks

I was out for my evening “run” last night (which is actually more of a trot or a shuffle) and I had a remarkable experience.

As I was heading out Belmont Road in Grand Forks and complaining to myself about the persistent headwind, I passed an old man and said “Hi” as I usually do. He was walking with a cane, and presumably out enjoying the same lovely fall day that I was ruining for myself by running.

He said, as I ran past, “It’s been a long time since I could do that.”

I responded, “I’m just trying to hang on for as long as I can,” thinking about the fall weather.

He didn’t hear me so I doubled back to tell him what I said. When I got back to him he told me a story completely unprompted. 

He said that when he was in about second or third grade, the concrete sidewalk where we were standing had buckled a bit and had fallen apart. He and his two friends where riding their bikes down this little hill and Johnny Erikson’s front wheel grabbed on the crumbling concrete sending him over the handlebars and skinning his knees badly. He then told me that they sat there a while while he bawled because they weren’t doctors and didn’t really know what to do. When Johnny stopped crying they went on their way.

He then pointed to the massive elm tree by the side of the road and said, “This tree was there then and it was large, just as it is now…. and that must have been, well, at least 50 years ago.” 


Fracking Made Personal

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading popular treatments on fracking. While in the Bakken I read Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land in anticipation of her visit to UND at the end of the month (more on that soon!). I then, while ambling about Amazon.com admiring Punk Archaeology, I bought Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking in Oxford University Press’s What Everyone Needs to Know series and picked up Russell Gold’s, The Boom as well for fun. (Ok, I also indulged my hobby of Late Antiquity and bought Jonathan Conant’s Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700, but I won’t talk about that book in this post.)


I really want to write about Peters’ book, because in some way it’s the most interesting in presentation and the most relevant to any stray North Dakotans who might stumble on my blog, but Prud’homme, Gold, and Peters all do something similarly in their work. They begin with first person anecdotes about the boom. Gold talks about his liberal, aging-hippy parents being offered $400,000 by Chesapeake Energy to lease the rights for the gas under their rustic retreat in central Pennsylvania. Prud’homme finds himself at a public debate over fracking in New York City. Peters is on her way to be by her oil-loving father’s side at his death bed. For some reason, popular books on the oil boom and fracking demands a kind of first person intimacy.

I got to thinking about why these authors used this particular device to introduce their treatment of fracking. It’s not like fracking has been dehumanized in the mass media. The oil-smeared faces oil workers have already offered a human face of the industry, but these books seem to substitute a different face. They have replaced the dirty hands of the laborer with the soft hands of the journalist. Appealing to middle class ambivalence about fracking, the writer takes on the confusion of information confronting someone who might have oil stocks in their portfolio and appreciate their performance, but also have a twinge of guilt that perhaps profiting from petrochemical industry is not compatible with genteel environmentalism.

One of the key aspects of this bourgeois environmentalism are the attitudes of Gold and Peters toward private property. Peters, in particular, demonstrates a delicate ambivalence. On the one hand, she recognized the homesteading claims of her grandfather who tried to make a living from the difficult North Dakota soils. She admired her grandfather’s prescience in retaining mineral rights to his land and making leases to oil companies. Her childhood and environmentalism developed, ironically, from the conversion of these oil rights to property on the scenic St. Croix river and a lovely cabin. On the other hand, Peters knowingly trespasses on the St. Croix property after it was sold to reminisce about her childhood. Elsewhere in the book she was traumatized when she encountered an overzealous security guard at a fracking sand quarry. The final encounter in the book, which involved spreading her father’s ashes at a well site, was made more sweet when an oil field technicians at the well gave an impromptu tour rather than chasing the family away from the site. Despite his generosity, Peters made clear that the risk was there and the reader could only think of the earlier encounter at the quarry. In fact, a key tension throughout the book is the complexities of ownership whether of oil, property, or mineral rights, and the benefits and (ethical and emotional) risks associated with ownership.

In a sense, then, the story of the oil boom revolves around a complicated American dream which recognizes property ownership – whether the Jeffersonian farm, the modern suburban retreat, or the urban condominium – as part of a package of rights derived from a particular reading of John Locke. Environmentalism, in contrast, appears to ask the individual property owner to resist the fullest expression of those rights for the common good. In some cases, the state intervenes as mediator between the rights of the individual and the community, but Peters’ book problematizes this relationship between the individual and property.

The first chapters of Prud’hommes and Gold’s book likewise articulates the oil dilemma facing Americans as they locate themselves between the arguing factions, competing narratives, and the conflicting myths of private property, energy independence, and progress. I’m no environmentalist, but I do worry that the emphasis on the individual story undermines the genuine power of collective action. By making the hard work to keep the oil industry safe and as environmentally and culturally sensitive as possible a distinctly middle class operation guided by a set of middle class expectations, we run the risk of minimizing the responsibilities of the state (as in the federal, state, county, and local governments) and the community (loosely construed as people who share space, resources, and social ties) to negotiate the complex interests of its stakeholders.


Public Art, Grand Forks, and Joel Jonientz

We had a beautiful day yesterday celebrating the state of North Dakota’s 125thaversary and the art (and life) of Joel Jonientz. We hung his mural on a bizarre storage unit at the intersection of Walnut St. and S. 5th Avenue in Grand Forks. It looks great there. It got a nice story in the Grand Forks Herald. About 40 people came out to the event.

The program started at Centennial Part where we all admired City Councilor Bret Weber’s public orator and the fine broken clock that celebrates the timeless traditions of the Northern Plains.


We then crossed the street and admired Joel’s mural. Bret told the story of how Joel and he got together on the mural project. He left out a few parts and for the historical record, I’ll clarify here.

First, when Bret began talking about public art in Grand Forks, I mentioned that Joel had painted murals with Americorp in Seattle and was (cough, cough) never all THAT busy.  So Bret and Joel and met at J.L. Beers – a local beer and burger place – to hash out details. I drank beer and Joel and Bret hashed. 

The result of that was a proposed mural by Joel. It appears to have involved sheep. I never saw this draft of the mural, but I hope they were as awesome as these sheep.

Bret was not impressed with Joel’s sheep, and told me so. 

I told Joel – probably after a beer or two – that Bret wasn’t feeling his mural. Joel laughed about it in that way that artists sometimes laugh leaving you unsure whether he was hurt or had just added Bret to his list of people who would never get it.

Bret, of course, had not communicated this to Joel, but the next time the two were in the same place, the first thing Joel said to Bret was “I hear you didn’t like my mural.” He then told Bret to go and look at his stuff. Bret later admitted that this was usually something you did before commissioning a piece of public art, but it didn’t matter because Joel was able to repurpose some of his Fatty Arbuckle work into the perfect mural to hang across from a police station and next to a rail line.

In a less public venue, it will be fun to recount the adventures involved in moving the prepared, but unpainted panels into Joel’s van late one evening…

Here are the murals, which were finished by students and colleagues in the Department of Art and Design at UND.




It was cool to see the community embrace public art and got me thinking about what more I could do to make Grand Forks a more interesting place.

Abandonment in the Bakken

I think I’ve blogged on this before, but my most recent trip to the Bakken presented a landscape inscribed with abandonment. The abandoned towns of western North Dakota are well-known and celebrated. They speak to the tradition of temporary settlement in the North Dakota landscape. 

One my favorite sites this trip was the Madson Grade. This was a massive fill grade created by the Great Northern Railway in 1913 to descend the Madson Flats just west of Watford City, North Dakota. The fill covered a massive, 60 ft high tressel which is visible in this post card. Today, the Madson Grade extends for about mile and is clearly visible to the north of US Route 85 on its way east into Watford City. I’m not entirely clear whether this massive grade fill ever was used to carry rail traffic into Watford City. Any additional information on the history and function of this would be much appreciated!



There remains a bit of evidence for the history of the fill:




I’ve posted this photo before, but I was really struck by our visit to Ponchos in White Earth, ND, and the bartender’s description of the place’s glory days in the 1950s. The bar was once made prosperous because US Route 2 (now nothing more than a dirt road) passed outside its door. When new Route 2 was built about mile to the south, it bypassed both the town of White Earth and contributed to Ponchos’ and the town’s decline.


This made me think of the town of Alexander which we visited on Monday. The town saw over 12,000 vehicles per day (or about a car every 8 seconds) pass through town since the start of the oil boom. When the bypass opened last week, the traffic stopped passing through downtown, apparently, quite abruptly. It’s hard to imagine Alexander suffering the same fate as White Earth, but settlement in western North Dakota and the movement of traffic through the oil patch is a fickle mistress.


The Bakken boom, has introduced more examples of abandonment. I’ve been particularly interested in seeing evidence for abandonment at RV parks that house the temporary workforce in the region. As residents moves from one hot spot to the next, pulls up stakes for the winter, or finds permanent housing, they leave behind all sorts of things that are too difficult to move or relatively valueless.






Pots, pans, and trash: (As an aside, I sampled this assemblage, by collecting the trash can filled with pots and pans and putting it in the back of my pick-‘em-up truck. I not only loved the feeling of scavenging (and had to resist picking up other things throughout the rest of my trip west), and also have been thinking about the ethical and “scientific” aspects of sampling discard from the near workforce housing in the patch. More on this next week after I document my grab sample more carefully.) 


They also abandon the infrastructure that tied their temporary homes to the grid:



The shifts in the character, focus, and nature of workforce housing presents an opportunity to document the Bakken boom as a dynamic phenomenon rather than as a static assemblage. 

I also took some glamor shots of the boom. After so many trips to the oil patch, I’ve become more and more attuned to the beauty of this part of North Dakota. (And before you think it, I know these shots are cliche!)





Celebrating Joel Jonientz’s Mural

This weekend the city of Grand Forks will hang a mural painted by Joel Jonientz and residents of the Near Southside Neighborhood and some of Joel’s colleagues in the department of Art and Design.

You can check out Joel’s progress on the mural here.

I was involved in putting Joel in contact with my buddy Bret Weber who is on city council. I feel pretty confident in saying that the project was a pain in the ass for both Joel and Bret, but it will be nice to have the mural hung to commemorate Joel’s time as part of our community.

The event starts at 11:30 and is at the corner of Walnut and South 5th St.

JoelnssND125 web new

Here’s the official press release.

The City of Grand Forks, along with the Near Southside Neighborhood, will commemorate the 125th anniversary of North Dakota statehood with the unveiling of a mural.  A celebration will start at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, at Centennial Park in downtown Grand Forks.  Located at the intersection of South 5th Street, Walnut Street, and Kittson Avenue, Centennial Park – anchored by a clock tower — was developed 25 years ago to mark the State centennial.   The event will then move across 5th Street to unveil a mural sponsored by the Near Southside Neighborhood.  Part of the Mayor’s Urban Neighborhood Initiative (MUNI), the mural project was a multi-year neighborhood effort involving brainstorming, fundraising, and hands-on community participation.  This event will also celebrate the life of local artist Joel Jonientz, creator of the mural, who passed away unexpectedly last year.   Jonientz was an art professor at UND, and his UND colleagues  helped complete the mural in his honor.   The event will wrap up at the 2nd floor of Rhombus Guys.  All are invited to attend this community event

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.


The Most Depressing Dog Park

I find dog parks relatively depressing. I felt this way even before I got a dog. I know that dogs enjoy space to romp free especially those confined by small backyards, apartments, or dangerous suburban roads. I also like seeing people enjoying time with their dogs. Domesticated dogs have been humans’ companions for millennia and so it is hardly surprising that we set aside space for them in our daily routines.

At the same time, something about dog parks rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the idea that dogs have come to deserve specific space within our urban fabric. This is a kind of respect that not all humans enjoy.

Maybe it’s the opposite. I find depressing the idea that dogs need to be enclosed in a particular space as an 21st century urban reminder of the tragedy of the commons. Because people can’t be trusted to manage their dogs, they have to be set aside in their own space to protect the whole community from irresponsible dog owners. Being terrified of dogs – even those on a leash and frequently mine – I realize that this is reasonable policy to have (and I wish it were extended to squirrels), but it still is depressing.

IMG 2038

Despite these things, I dutifully take my very excited pooch to the dog park every day. He rampages about blissfully ignorant of the potential ethical pitfalls surrounding (literally) his exuberance.

Our dog park in Grand Forks takes depressing to the next level. It is built on the flood plain of the Red River in an area called Lincoln Park. This park was built on the site of a neighborhood called Lincoln Drive which was inundated by the 1997 Red River Flood. Now the park and site of the neighborhood are on the river side of the flood walls that protect the town.  They put up a historical marker at the center of the park telling the history of the community there. It’s very nice.

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It does little, however, to assuage my guilt over letting my dog run wild over the subtle undulations that are the streets and alleys of a neighborhood. Lines of mature trees remember shaded sidewalks and roads. Isolated trees stand in forgotten yards and the clearly visible depressions settle under the memory of lost homes. It feels like letting my dog run around a battle field and makes me remember the opening of the first book of the Iliad. Serious bummer: 

ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι



The expansion of Grand Forks to the south and the construction of pre-plighted cookie-cutter houses in a ramshackle halo around the traditional urban core (forming upper middle class favela) only makes me feel worse. I recognize, of course, that it would be problematic to rebuild on a floodplain, and it is responsible and even noble to use this space as a community park. It really is beautiful in the early fall. 

At the same time, it all feels so very sad.