Home on the Range No More: Boom and Bust in Jeffrey City

By John W. Egan

 

I'm off to Hanging Rope

On the windy prairie.

There're seven people left

From four thousand and three.

 

The mining jobs are gone.

They only lasted a day.

The money sure was great.

But now the town's blown away.

 

      In the middle of Wyoming on an empty Highway 287, there is a wide spot called Jeffrey City. Halfway between Muddy Gap and Sweetwater Station, a sign announces the population and elevation to motorists speeding through. The elevation--6,324 feet above sea level--has not changed. The population has. From two people in the 1930s to 4,500 in 1979 and back down to about 150 in 1993.[1]

      In the country surrounding Jeffrey City, the coming and going of people is nothing new. The Sweetwater River valley is a natural east-west travel corridor. It has been used by American Indians and White settlers alike. More than 300,000 people passed through central Wyoming during their journey along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s. They were farmers seeking new land in Oregon, Mormons searching for religious freedom in Utah, and miners hoping for riches in California. Forts and way-stations were built, but were soon abandoned or destroyed. A few people remained in Wyoming. They were marked by gravestones along the trail.

 

      The Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 gave the Shoshone Indians a reservation in the Wind River valley and opened the Sweetwater country for homesteading. Ranches were gradually established. Hard winters of the late 1880s broke most small ranches, but large family syndicates survived.[2] The McIntosh ranch, for example, had more than 10,000 head. Cattle were driven by horseback to the railroad at Rawlins as late as the 1930s. It was a hot, dusty, sixty-mile trip through Crook's Gap and across the Red Desert.[3]

      Jeffrey City got its start in 1931. Beulah Peterson Walker and her first husband moved from Nebraska to take over a 640-acre homestead that had been abandoned. Mr. Peterson had been gassed in the First World War. By 1931, he was given six months to live. Mrs. Peterson described her early experiences in Wyoming:

 

We had to go some place where it was high and dry. We had found out through friends that there was a place out here to homestead that was opened to sol­diers and sailors. When we got there, the first thing on our minds was to build a water well. It took sev­eral days to build the well because my husband was so sickly. I was tired, hungry, my hands were raw from pulling the rope, it raised the hackles on my neck. Even if we never got water, it was something to keep my husband going. We had lots of time.[4]

Indeed they did. They found water, and Mr. Peterson lived until 1952.

      Mrs. Peterson called her windy crossroads "Home on the Range." When the highway came through in 1941, she added gas pumps. It was the only place for people to stop between Rawlins and Lander. With Beulah's cooking, people never went away hungry. The rural post office at Split Rock, 14 miles east, closed in 1943. Mrs. Peterson took over handling the ranchers' mail, canceling letters with "Home on the Range."[5]

      In the early 1950s, prospecting at Green Mountain and Crook's Gap set the stage for the development of Jeffrey City. Bob Adams, a Rawlins restaurant and dairy owner, overheard talk of money to be made in uranium. In 1955 he set up the Lost Creek Oil and Uranium Company.[6] Lost Creek acquired mineral rights in the Sweetwater country and the Gas Hills and successfully negotiated a purchase contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Eastern banks were re­luctant to invest in Lost Creek, but Adams secured the $5 million necessary for construction of the Split Rock uranium processing mill, largely from Wyoming and Colorado sources.[7] At a critical juncture, Rawlins physician and oil speculator, Dr. Charles W. Jeffrey, offered $250,000.

 

      At the same time that Lost Creek was establishing its claims, a Utah-based company, Pathfinder, became involved in Wyoming uranium.[8] Workers from both companies began arriving at Home on the Range to explore the surrounding area.

 

      Two names were changed in 1957. Fast-growing Lost Creek became Western Nuclear Corporation. And Home on the Range became Jeffrey City.[9] Most of the new nuclear workers wanted to honor Dr. Jeffrey. Mrs. Peterson retired her post office cancellation stamp. In 1958 she remarried and built a filling station next to her house. By the late 1950s, the town had grown to a few dozen houses and trailers, Walter Irwin's tourist cabins, the Split Rock Cafe, Eddie's Cafe, and, of course, Beulah's Home on the Range.[10]

 

      Uranium was a completely new business. People did not know much about it, but were eager to learn. Uranium is not found in a pure form in nature. Ore deposits have concentrations of about 0.1 percent. Usable uranium is even a smaller fraction. Facilities such as Western Nuclear's Split Rock mill produce yellow cake, a uranium-rich compound from which nuclear fuel is made.[11]

      For security reasons, the AEC offered a guaranteed price to United States' uranium producers until the mid-1960s. When the AEC ended its purchases, the mining industry scrambled to secure long-term contracts with utility companies at an average price of $8 a pound. As late as 1972, the market price for uranium was below $5. The Arab oil embargo and new nuclear power plants produced a surge in uranium prices. In 1974, uranium went above $14 a pound. By 1975, it was above $30.[12]

 

      Because of low uranium prices, the early 1970s were hardly boom years in Jeffrey City. From 1970 to 1975, there was no clear mining pattern. The annual value of mined ura­nium in Fremont County varied from $9 million to $13 million.[13]  After 1975, things took off.

 

      By 1977, Pathfinder and Western Nuclear had more than 800 employees and an annual payroll of $13 million, both growing quickly.[14] Jeffrey City had a bank and a credit union. There were three bars and cafes, a bowling alley, motel, and laundry. Activities included Little League, the Lion's Club, and the Oregon Trail Homemakers. Four churches were formed: Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist. At the end of the year, the community received a Christmas present, Dr. E. B. Burgoon, a medical doctor, opened a practice. The town now had a lawyer, L. M. Chipley, and dentist, Dr. Dale Sackett. And Jeffrey City had its own newspaper, the Jeffrey City News.[15]

      Uranium mining kept growing. The Big Eagle mine opened in July. Japanese investors planned new mines.[16] Local business kept growing, too. At Driller's Delight Cafe and Bar, Angie Shull had 20 employees. A band played there six nights a week.[17] At Coats Motel, occupancy averaged 95 per­cent for three years. The gas station next door sold nearly a million gallons annually.[18]

      Housing was scarce. Every apartment and mobile home lot was occupied. The employee bunkhouse was packed. New workers camped in their trucks.[19] Beulah Walker sold part of her homestead to the mining companies. Pathfinder built dozens of prefabricated houses. Western Nuclear spent more than $1 1/2 million for streets and housing.[20]

      As Jeffrey City continued to grow, so did its schools. In the 1930s, Beulah Peterson worked to get a school at Home on the Range. The families in the district had to provide the building and pay the teacher $60 per month. After 8th grade, children boarded in Lander, 60 miles away, to attend high school.[21] The elementary school was completed in 1958, the junior high was added in the 1960s and the high school in the 1970s.[22] One local resident, Collette Music, noted that only her oldest daughter had to go to high school in Lander.[23] In 1978, voters passed a $850,000 school improvement bond. The strength of Jeffrey City's economy resulted in 'AA' and 'AAA' bond ratings.[24]

      Life wasn't easy in the boom days in Jeffrey City. Residents complained about the wind and cold winters, true of most Wyoming communities, but they disliked the lack of services and the isolation of Jeffrey City.[25] Although high wages were the main reason for living there, mine work was dangerous. Cave-ins and heavy equipment accidents were always a possibility. Both Pathfinder and Western Nuclear took out full-page advertisements in the weekly newspaper on safety issues. Even so, a few miners were killed in accidents.[26]

      More often, the fatal accidents were on the highway, with excessive speed and alcohol involved. News reports usually mentioned young mine workers in their late teens and twenties.[27] With so little to do, alcohol and drugs were a problem. A former mine worker recalled that one could get any drug one wanted in Jeffrey City.[28]

      There were thefts, bar fights, sexual assaults and rapes.[29] The most famous incident was a homicide. Fred Gore shot and killed his wife, Hazel, on the night of Nov. 13, 1979. He was drunk--he had a history of heavy drinking. Previously, he had shot the windshield out of their truck while Hazel was driving. Because the county sheriff had mishandled Gore's confession, he was tried on charges of involuntary manslaughter. After a three-day trial in Lander, he was convicted and sentenced to three to seven years in prison. While awaiting sentencing, Gore was arrested for drunk driving.[30]

      In March 1979, the name of a nuclear power plant became part of America's vocabulary. Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suffered an "unexpected event." A cooling malfunction, combined with human error, produced a partial meltdown of the nuclear plant's core. The containment building held most of the radioactivity; however, there were significant releases into the atmosphere. The appearance of official confusion and public deception was reinforced by a newly released film, The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda. The movie, portraying an incompetent and dangerous nuclear power industry, played to packed theaters all summer. Whatever the merits of nuclear power, the American people were now skeptical.

      Ironically, the year following the Three Mile Island accident was the peak of Jeffrey City's boom. A Coast to Coast hardware store and a Food Farm grocery opened in March.[31] Unions and management fought over wages at Pathfinder's Big Eagle and Lucky Mc mines. After a short strike in May, a settlement was reached. Wages ranged from $11 per hour for laborers to more than $20 per hour for skilled workers.[32] The Jeffrey City Chamber of Commerce was formed in August. Residents studied the possibility of incorporating the town. Voters approved a fire district. Property valuations rose. Hub Thompson bought land from the McIntoshes to develop the Red Desert subdivision east of town.[33]

      When school began in the fall of 1979, there were 622 students enrolled. The elementary wing had just been completed. A new school bond issue for $2 million for improvements and for construction of a new gymnasium was approved in January 1980.[34] Despite the school , the Chamber of Commerce, new stores and new subdivisions, Jeffrey City remained a town built on one industry--uranium mining. About 1,000 jobs depended on uranium.[35]

      In April 1980, Pathfinder announced the first significant layoffs in Jeffrey City's 24-year history. More than 300 jobs were lost at both the Big Eagle and Lucky Mc mines by the end of May. Big Eagle laid off more workers that summer. In August, Western Nuclear cut 118 jobs. In September, Big Eagle had a third round of layoffs. In October, 100 more people lost their jobs at Lucky Mc. And in December, Western Nuclear's Split Rock processing mill laid off 40 employees.[36]

      Western Nuclear supervisor Ted Keller described his im­pression of laid-off employees, probably only a few.

 

They really crapped on us. Most the workers lived in company housing. Walls were kicked in, heating units ripped out, and carpets ruined. What do we owe our

employees? A paycheck every Friday. We tried to do a little more... I'd never do it again.[37]

      Pathfinder's John Atkins said it wasn't that bad, but then the damaged townhouses belonged to Western Nuclear. A fire burned the Baptist Church. Someone vandalized the school. Others shot out automobile windshields. Electric lines to the mines were sabotaged.[38]

      During the fall of 1980, it became clear that there was a serious problem in the nuclear industry. The market for yellowcake had evaporated. From its historic high of $43 per pound in early 1979, the price plummeted to $28, and was still falling.[39]   Senator Malcolm Wallop called for protective tariffs or import restrictions on foreign uranium.[40] Senator Al Simpson appeared stoic: "The state can revert back to its traditional economic base supported by ranching and tourism. Those who cannot conform will have to leave Wyoming."[41]  Representative Dick Cheney worked for passage of two bills in Congress to fund clean-up operations of old government uranium sites and to establish a rational policy for nuclear waste storage.

      The nuclear industry is on its knees right now largely because the government has no coherent, workable policy on nuclear...issues. We are going to have to make

      use of nuclear energy in the years ahead if we are to maintain our economy and standard of living, but that will be possible only if the government has a sensible

      program that provides the necessary safety regulation without setting up unnecessary roadblocks.[42]

      Ronald Reagan's victory over President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election was heralded by the Jeffrey City News as a return to nuclear power. But political rhetoric could not overturn the realities of the market. At a press conference in January 1981, Governor Ed Herschler predicted that the uranium industry would be sick until the year 2000.[43]

      During this period of layoffs, radioactivity had been discovered in Jeffrey City homes. Investigators found leachate from the Split Rock mill's tailing ponds outside the fenced perimeter. Western Nuclear battled to keep its Split Rock mill license. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (once the AEC) favored relicensing, Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was opposed. Through the summer, Western Nuclear and the DEQ negotiated terms. In December, most mill workers were laid off, as noted above. In January 1981, the NRC relicensed the mill, but there was little ore to process.[44]

      The year 1981 did not prove any better than 1980 for Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City News editorials sought reasons for the collapse of the nuclear industry. The editorials identified two issues. First, government regulations were destroying an already crippled industry. Second, nuclear power would not re­bound until public fear was eased. Although editor Paul Menser believed the fear was irrational, he recognized that it was pervasive.[45] Developer Hub Thompson said of regulation: "When it starts killing the economy, it's going too far." Of course, he had the misfortune to invest in real estate at the end of the boom.[46]

      Many people in Jeffrey City expected a short slump. Uranium employment still was at about 500. On June 4, the Jeffrey City News printed its only extra edition. Western Nuclear was to lay off 244 workers.[47] Rumors had circulated around town for weeks. People were angry that no warning was given. More than the actual loss of work, this layoff killed any hope that uranium mining would come back. Editor Paul Menser wrote that Jeffrey City would never die, that nuclear power would rebound someday.[48]

      But within two years, most of Jeffrey City was gone--the people, the trailers, the prefabricated houses, and the businesses. Every person who could pick up and leave left. A week after the Western Nuclear layoffs, the company spon­sored a town-wide yard sale.[49]

      Paul Menser left in August. The Food Farm and the Coast to Coast stores closed, the buildings were hauled away. The credit union closed. The Oregon Trail Homemakers folded, to Beulah Walker's disappointment. At the mines, layoffs continued until Western Nuclear and Pathfinder had skeleton staffs.[50]

      In 1982, Pathfinder was bought out by Cogema, a French government-owned enterprise.[51] There was talk about rehiring, but none occurred. France, heavily dependent on nuclear power, was most likely building up its reserves while the price was low.[52] By the end of 1982, fewer than 100 employees remained on the combined Jeffrey City payrolls of Western Nuclear and Pathfinder.[53]

      Even the ministers left town. One by one, the Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches stopped holding services.[54] The million-dollar gymnasium was completed after the bust. School enrollment dropped to 250 and continued to fall. The Wyoming legislature passed a law to cover school bonds of districts which had entirely lost their source of income.[55] In 1983, Jeffrey City State Bank closed and the Jeffrey City News stopped publishing.[56]

      A siege mentality has settled over Jeffrey City. For the next 13 years, there was no respite. In 1993, a 3,000-square-foot house, with garage, sold for under $10,000. Three town­houses were sold in 1993 for $9,000--altogether. They were to be moved to another town.[57] A few people were still employed at the mines, doing reclamation work.[58] This meant that the mines would be shutting down for a very long time. Beulah Walker, in 1993, was in a Riverton nursing home. Her house, with its "Home on the Range" sign, still sat next to the highway.[59]

      Two gas stations divided what little business remained. At Driller's Cafe, Angie Shull said she made enough money to pay the light bill.... [60]

      The school had 43 students and twelve teachers for all grades from kindergarten through high school. One junior high boy described Jeffrey City as "a kinda dead town, but some people like it." A high school girl was more blunt. "Life in Jeffrey City sucks." By necessity, teachers had to cover many subjects.[61] The auditorium has a maximum capacity of 640 people. The swimming pool was closed. The music room was stacked with shop lumber. Unused classrooms were used for storage. The high school coed basketball team, given national exposure in an article in National Geographic in 1993, was disbanded before the article was published.[62] The million-dollar gymnasium was rarely used. Tiles were beginning to peel up and the concrete was cracking.

 

* * *

      The sun is setting in a clear sky. There is only the slightest breeze. Split Rock can be seen between the boarded up townhomes. Sagebrush and grass grow waist high in the streets. On a corner, a sign indicates "4th St. S." intersecting with a street whose name has been worn away. The basements of prefabricated houses are evidence of the people who once lived there. Walkways and steps lead up to concrete holes, all exactly alike. Telephone poles with streetlights hover over empty mobile home lots. Utility hookups no longer send elec­tricity to television sets tuned to "All in the Family." Water trickles from a faucet. A small evergreen tree, carefully planted, has managed to survive, brown and bent by the wind.

 

The author holds the M. A. in history from the University of Wyoming. In the 1990s, he was a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Kansas. He has taught history of the American West, history of Wyoming, and specialized courses in 20th century American history. He first became acquainted with Jeffrey City while on a bicycling trip through the West.  This article was written in 1993 and Jeffrey City continued to lose population in the next 15 years.  

     



[1]"Jeffrey City Census Data Inaccurate," Jeffrey City News, July 3, 1980; Paul Menser, "Jeffrey City: the Slow Death of a Boom Town," Casper Star-Tribune, Marcha 28, 1982. Establishing an accurate population in a boom town is extremely difficult. The 1980 cnesus figure of 1,276 is below the combined totals of mine employees and school enrollment. The number of 4,500 is widely reported and seems reasonable.

 

[2]T. A. Larson, History of Wyoming. 2d edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), pp. 9, 172.

 

 

[3]Bill Coats interview, April 7, 1993.

 

 

[4]"Original Homesteader Tells What It Was Like Back Then," Riverton Ranger, June 22, 1978.

 

[5]"Homesteader Remembers Days Before Mining Community Built," Riverton Ranger, June 13, 1980.

 

[6]"Bob Adams: Steen Story Caught His Eye," Riverton Ranger, June 19, 1980.

 

[7]"Bob Adams Pioneered Way for Wyoming Uranium Mill," Wyoming State Tribune, June 23, 1957.

 

[8]Articles of Incorporation, Pathfinder Uranium Corporation. Wyoming State Archives, Cheyenne.

 

[9]"Bob Adams, 1917-1982: A Life Remembered," The Rawlins Daily Times, Oct. 9, 1982.

 

[10]"Grocers Have Seen Jeffrey City Grow," Jeffrey City News, Sept. 3, 1981.

 

[11]"Jeffrey City Draws Workers," Jeffrey City News, May 18, 1978.

 

[12]"Uranium: A Look Ahead into Uncertainty," Casper Star-Tribune, Jan. 27, 1980.

 

[13]William Ochs, An Economic Analysis of Fremont County, Wyoming. (Lander: Fremont County Planning Commission, 1976).

 

[14]Jeffrey City News, May 26, 1977.

 

[15]Jeffrey City News, Nov. 23, 1977; Dec. 15, 1977; Jan. 19, 1978; Aug. 31, 1978.

 

[16]"Big Eagle Mine to Open," Jeffrey City News, June 23, 1977.

 

[17]Angie Shull interview, April 5, 1993.

 

[18]Bill Coats interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[19]Jeffrey City News, Nov. 17, 1977; June 8, 1978.

 

[20]Jeffrey City News, Oct. 14, 1977; Nov. 17, 1977.

 

[21]"Homesteader Remembers Days Before Mining Community Built," Riverton Ranger, June 13, 1980.

 

[22]C. J. Stull interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[23]Collette Music interview, April 8, 1993.

 

[24]Editorial, Jeffrey City News, May 25, 1978.

 

[25]"Survey Reveals Jeffrey City's Thoughts," Jeffrey City News, Oct. 25, 1979.

 

[26]"Miner Killed in Accident," Jeffrey City News, Jan. 24, 1980.

 

[27]Jeffrey City News, Aug. 24, 1978; Jan. 4, 1979.

 

[28]Jes Shull interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[29]Jeffrey City News, Sept. 21, 1978; May 3, 1979; Dec. 13, 1979.

 

[30]Casper Star-Tribune, May 21, 22, 23, 1980.

 

[31]"Business Booms," Jeffrey City News, March 15, 1979.

 

[32]Jeffrey City News, May 17, 1979; May 31, 1979; June 7, 1979.

 

[33]Jeffrey City News, Jan. 17, 1980.

 

[34]Jeffrey City News, Sept. 6, 1979; Jan. 17, 1980.

 

[35]Menser, "Jeffrey City," Casper Star-Tribune; Geoffrey O'Gara, "Jeffrey City's Ghosts," Western Energy Magazine, July 1982. Any attempt to get a hard number for employment is difficult. Most Western Nuclear and Big Eagle employees lived in Jeffrey City. Lucky Mc employees lived in Jeffrey City and Riverton. Also, employment turnover averaged 100 percent every six months. The figures given come from mine managers. They represent all employees at Western Nuclear and Big Eagle and about half of Lucky Mc employees.

 

[36]Jeffrey City News, April 17, 1980; May 22, 1980; Aug. 21, 1980; Sept. 18, 1980; Dec. 18, 1980.

 

[37]Quoted in O'Gara.

 

[38]Jeffrey City News, May 14, 1981; Aug. 6, 1981.

 

[39]"Industry Boom Goes Bust as Nuclear Industry Falters," Wall Street Journal, Aug. 14, 1981.

 

[40]"Wallop Uranium Proposal Radiates Monetary Promise," Casper Star-Tribune, Oct. 6, 1980.

 

[41]"State Needs to Prepare for Economy 'Bust'," Casper Star-Tribune, Oct. 17, 1980.

 

[42]"Bills May Remove Uranium Barriers," Casper Star-Tribune, Dec. 6, 1980.

 

[43]Menser, Casper Star-Tribune.

 

[44]Jeffrey City News, April 10, 1980; May 18, 1980; Jan. 15, 1981.

 

[45]Editorials, Jeffrey City News, Jan. 9, 1981; May 21, 1981.

 

[46]Geoffrey O'Gara, "Jeffrey City from an Outsider's Viewpoint," High Country News, Dec. 25, 1980.

 

[47]"244 Workers Laid Off by Western Nuclear Today," Jeffrey City News, June 4, 1981.

 

[48]Editorial, Jeffrey City News, June 11, 1981.

 

[49]Menser, "Jeffrey City."

 

[50]Jeffrey City News, Aug. 27, 1981; Sept. 16, 1982.

 

[51]"French Firm Buys Pathfinder," Jeffrey City News, April 1, 1982.

 

[52]Ron Wilmes interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[53]Jeffrey City News, Dec. 9, 1982.

 

[54]Patricia Blackman interview, April 5, 1993.

 

[55]"Bonding Bill to Help Jeffrey City Schools," Jeffrey City News, Feb. 17, 1983; Collette Music interview, April 8, 1993.

 

[56]Jeffrey City News, July 14, 1983; Sept. 1, 1983. Technically, the News did not close, but moved its operations to the Wind River reservation where it became the Wind River News. It no longer served the Jeffrey City area, however.

 

[57]Jes Shull interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[58]C. J. Stull interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[59]Bill Coats interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[60]Angie Shull interview, April 7, 1993; Ron Wilmes interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[61]Carol Rogers interview, April 7, 1993.

 

[62]Thomas Abercrombie, "Wide Open Wyoming," National Geographic, January, 1993.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeffrey City in the summer of 2003. Phil Roberts photograph