Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
Bainville, Roosevelt Co (p84 11-14)
When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently expanded public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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A turn into the Yellowstone Valley

Note: sorry about the delayed posts–real life, and work, interfered in October.

In the 1984 survey of Montana’s landscapes for the state historic preservation office, when I turned southward at the Bainville depot, a Great Northern Railway landmark now sadly missing from the landscape, I understood that a new phase of the project, and of the state, was opening up before my eyes as a cold February turned into March.
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I first encountered Fairview, at the tip of the Lower Yellowstone Valley and a product too of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project, which I addressed in earlier posts this fall.

Historic Hotel Albert, a 3-story brick relic of the homesteading boom

Historic Hotel Albert, a 3-story brick relic of the homesteading boom


Fairview then and even more so now was a place of transition between the agriculture made possible through the engineering marvel of the federal irrigation project and the slowly creeping westward push of the oil boom associated with North Dakota’s Williston Basin.
Ft. Gilbert highway marker, north of Fairview: note oil well to the right

Ft. Gilbert highway marker, north of Fairview: note oil well to the right


As I drove south along MT Highway 16, I passed through the Lower Yellowstone Project towns of Crane, Savage, Sidney, and Intake–discussed in earlier posts–and then hit Interstate I-94: the first interstate I had seen in weeks. But instead of turning into Glendive, the major town in the region, I veered to the east to explore Wibaux County.
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I knew a bit about Wibaux through the standard narratives of Montana history because here stood the ranch house of Pierre Wibaux, one of the most famous early cattlemen in Montana. The house had long served as a heritage tourism stop, even as a state welcome center since Wibaux is positioned a few miles west of the Montana-North Dakota border on I-94. In 1984 I knew that I wanted to visit the ranch house, and see the monument erected to Wibaux to commemorate his life and achievements.
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I also found, however, the heavy imprint left in the wake of the Northern Pacific Railroad as it headed into Montana and aimed for the Yellowstone Valley. For the next several weeks I explored this connection between rail and river that so defines the valley still today.
Underpass separating MT 16 from the Northern Pacific mainline at Wibaux

Underpass separating MT 16 from the Northern Pacific mainline at Wibaux


Wibaux is a town of bars–the Shamrock became my favorite in 1984, but the Rainbow Bar, housed in a building with more than a nod to Northern Pacific iconography, and the Stockman Bar were always worth a stop. Among newcomers in 2013, the Firelite was friendly but the big hit with locals and visitors was the Beaver Creek Brewery, a microbrewery way out on the plains of Montana.
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With old historic hotels, business blocks, and bank buildings–one transformed into the town library–still intact, here is a commercial historic district just waiting one day to be placed into the National Register of Historic Places.
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Besides the bars, however, I enjoy Wibaux for its sense of a western ranch town, even in the face of the expanding reach of the Williston oil boom. There is the 1950s contemporary-styled Wibaux County Courthouse; the county fairgrounds south of town; and a bit farther south on MT 16 the historic Nunberg Ranch, which is listed in the National Register.
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Also listed in the National Register is the striking St. Peter’s Catholic Church, certainly a Gothic Revival landmark when the congregation built it on a high point west of the business district but then made into a western landmark with the addition of river stone in 1938. Here was a statement in the depression era: we are here and we are proud.
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But if you turn to the north, however, on the other side of the tracks is the life of the community, the school. And this image of the high school football field is perhaps the best way to close a post about Wibaux. Yep, it is small, determined, and still here, even when many think it should have blown away decades ago.
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