People said Williston, North Dakota, would boom for decades. Instead, Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith learned, it went the way of every other legendary boomtown.
L ife in a modern boomtown is living on the frontier but with a smartphone. I spent nearly a year in an oil boomtown: from summer of to winter ofI worked in the Bakken oil patch out of Williston, North Dakota. At the time, politicians, geologists, and much of the national media claimed the town would be booming for decades to come. They were all wrong. Williston, a rural community in an Indian service area with ties to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, found its population ballooning.
Most of those coming to town were men looking for work. Much of the hiring by oilfield companies was pitched toward veterans, but in the wake of the crash, anyone who could swing a hammer had a shot at landing a job. Williston was swamped by out-of-work carpenters, plumbers and contractors of every stripe.
At the beginning of the boom, many oilfield jobs had provided ing bonuses, housing and per diems to the ever growing migrant workforce — benefits trumpeted by the oil industry, the media and local lawmakers. By the time I arrived, however, the perks had mostly dried up. The ro were cluttered with clunkers with out-of-state plates, wheelers, and construction crews. Under the yawning blue of the endless sky and cradled by rambling waves of prairie grass on either side of it, the busted macadam of Route 2 existed as the most visible mundane daily reminder that everything and everyone was a bit overwhelmed.
The Williston job services office estimated at the time that eight new people were arriving in town every day. Williston grew from 12, to over 30, residents in a few short years, according to some estimates. Most likely those estimates are low. Migrant workers had come not only from the heartland, but from everywhere. I lived with a group of Jamaicans, and worked with several Congolese immigrants.
Several guys I knew had worked the silver mines in Elko, Nevada, then moved to Williston when the price of silver dropped. I imagine many of them drifted down to Texas to work the Permian once Williston went bust. Before I met them, I thought of these kinds of transient workers as a relic of the dust bowl.
Now I think about them every day.
I landed a job at a crane rigger and swamper for a company that moved oil rigs. I feel stumped every time I attempt to find an adjective that captures how hard the work was.
An average day in the patch runs between 12 and 14 hours, much of it back breaking. While many oilfield jobs required two weeks on and two weeks off, I was on call every day. The longest week I recorded working was 95 and a half hours. I once worked hours over the course of 14 days. To the men I worked with, this was unexceptional. It was considered bad form to show how much you were struggling on the job. Guys got run off for looking weak or operating a step behind. I worried over my lack of size, strength and skill.
We worked through all kinds of weather. The coldest I ever worked in was F. I was never provided cold weather gear by the company I worked for, although I asked for it multiple times. Frostbite was not uncommon. One guy joked that you could tell a real oilfield hand by the fact he was missing the fleshy part toward the tip of his nose.
There was always a lot of talk about real oilfield hands. Pride was one thing no one can take from you out there. I hate to admit it, but I did not.
Boomtowns by de find ways to take your money as fast as you make it. When large amounts of cash flood a small town in an incredibly short period of time, a kind of localized hyperinflation occurs. The most precious commodity in Williston, outside oil, was housing. Inrents in north-west North Dakota surpassed those of San Francisco to become the most expensive in the nation. It was the best deal in town.
Inflated prices affected every aspect of life.
Shops and restaurants had trouble staying staffed. Take one. There was a shortage of hospital workers, teachers and cops. A thriving black market developed. Sex workers set up at motels, advertising hourly rates on Craigslist. Sex trafficking became a big problem in a small town. Crime in general escalated. Police officers reported increases in alcohol-related and drug related crimes, property and traffic crime, domestic violence and prostitution.
Some statistics appear to support the idea that the crime increase was unremarkable as it simply mirrored the population increase, but this misses the point. The Williston police department had 22 officers on staff in and received 4, calls for service. In many ways, every boomtown is alike. Had a teamster from s era Pithole stepped through a time warp and found himself and his mule clopping down Route 2 in Williston in the late s, he would no doubt have recognized some of what he saw.
s from the period tell the story of Coal Oil Johnny, a dimwitted young man made rich by oil overnight. When he saw a play he liked, he bought the theater troupe. Tired by the rigors of travel, like a modern-day one-percenter would a Learjet, Johnny bought a train. John Wilkes Booth was an early investor in oil. By the end of the civil war, Oildorado was flooded by veterans of both the blue and gray. Since Pithole, oil has completely transformed human existence. From transportation to textiles to pharmaceuticals to farming, petroleum has become the basic building block for every facet of modern life.
Boomtowns have powered that transformation. Like wrenches and drill bits, these towns are best thought of as instruments meant to assure the utmost efficiency in removing valuables from the earth while gaining the most possible profit. They are not a flaw. They are a feature. Boomtowns bust when the resource dries up or becomes too expensive to extract and the work leaves town. Williston natives had seen it all before.
Before the s, Williston boomed in the s. Another hand told me that during that same period he had taken to poaching, illegally hunting to put food on the table for his family. Oil companies have used this business model for more than years. I left Williston inmy belongings loaded up into my Ford Ranger pickup.
I was heading back east to return to what I hoped would be a simpler, less dangerous life. My move was well timed. Companies laid off workers, migrants fled, and support businesses shuttered. North Dakota went bust. Had I decided to stay, I would have been out of a job within a year regardless.
Most people I met during the boom could be described as poor or lower middle class. Many of us bought nicer stuff during those years, and some of us I know used the money they made to transition into more stable work. That said, it would be hard for me to name a person who somehow changed their station in life, who used the boom to grab a higher rung on the ladder of the American dream.
I am absolutely certain however that, as it is apparently impossible for them not to in our current economic system, that the rich got richer. The broken down bodies of generations of oil workers are one testament to the world of oil extraction, so are blazing forests and soupy glaciers.