Boomtown North Dakota: An Introduction

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Monday morning I rolled out of the driveway at 4:30 am in the Suburban bound for North Dakota.  The dogs settled down into their crates expectantly.  I was in Wyoming heading north before the sun rose, then across the Black Hills into South Dakota before lunch.

Once I headed north  toward the North Dakota line the truck traffic became constant.  Drilling rigs, pipes, derricks, mobile homes, and all the necessities of a 21st century boomtown blew down the two lane highway at 70+ mph headed toward Western North Dakota.  In the last fifteen years I have spent several weeks a year in Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, but this was my first time into North Dakota.

I stopped for three hours to let the dogs loose in the cover around Bowman Reservoir just north of the state line.  Even around a reservoir in a steady rain you could see the signs of drought.  The edges of the reservoir were cracked mud and the grass beyond the reeds was thin.

Making money farming and running cattle year after year would be a tough business.

That night in Dickinson I paid four times the rate I would pay in South Dakota for a hotel room.  The hotel was  full of single men covered in mud.  All of them came and went from the motel in oversized pickups running diesel or propane covered in mud.  North of Dickinson the next day into the heart of the oil patch the truck traffic was constant, the building along the state highway frenetic, and the federal and state highway construction rushing ahead of the winter.

There are not a lot of native North Dakotans.  It is a sparsely populated state and the western half even more so.  But the ones I spoke with over dinner or coffee understood what was happening.  They were living in the modern version of the Klondike Gold Rush.

The era of the man camp is passing.  I saw plenty under construction, but the real estate agents and local government officials wanted sustainable development.  And they knew the boom town economy would fade to something less.

Would it be the century old dry land farming and ranching one step ahead of the bank or something more?  The landowners were suddenly wealthy.  For the first time in generations they had no debt and a long term income separate from agriculture.  They were facing the prospect their children would stay at least another generation.  But stay for what?

The town I visited was almost dead two years earlier.  These towns across the high prairie might have had a thousand people in 1900 but only two hundred today.  No restaurant, no hotel, no government buildings, nothing to stay for in this town.

But now suddenly a dilapidated house from the prior ’80s boom and bust went for $3,330/mo.   I had seen and worked in the oil boom in the 1980s in Texas and Oklahoma, but those were populous states with roads, pipelines, and trains.  Western North Dakota is two lane roads with no shoulders, nowhere near enough pipelines, plus not enough hotels, restaurants, gyms, theaters, or even the modern conveniences of a forwarded deployed military base.  Even the original train track that put the town on the map was gone.

Along every high way north of Dickinson RVs and fifth wheelers were parked against any structure with heat and running water.  You cannot go a block without seeing help wanted signs, particularly in entry level jobs.  Why would anyone work retail when they can make a hundred thousand dollars a year in the oil patch?

The best thing state governments around the United States could do for their unemployed, particularly single unemployed, is to get them transportation to Dickinson.  The only reason you cannot work in Western North Dakota is because you are disabled.

The first development in Western North Dakota around Williston was a disaster.  If you want to see why Libertarianism has to stay on the shelf with Atlas Shrugged go to Williston.  Seeing if we can provide a sustainable alternative is going to be an interesting part of my next year.

I just spent four weeks on the road to Wisconsin, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota on business, conservation, and pleasure.  Check back for my reports on what the “fly-over” natives taught me.

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