United States | A Sense of Ending

The last remnants of a US mining community

Doris Tullar outside her Gerlach house, situated on Highway 447. Tullar used to drive the Gerlach school bus, but lost her job in 2011 when the school shut down. DW GIBSON
01 July, 2013

HIGHWAY 447 IS A TWO-LANE ROAD that cuts through the Black Rock Desert of north-west Nevada. The strip of black asphalt is surrounded by wide open earth; driving across, the road in the distance often melts into a watery pool under the punishing sun. Jagged mountains fill the horizon just beyond the haze, and bullet holes pepper the road signs. After a sudden climb up a hill in the middle of the high desert, the small town of Empire comes into view in the valley below.

Today, more than two years later, only one family remains in Empire. Tammy Sparkes and her husband, Dana, bought the Empire General Store in October 2010. Now they are heading into the summer of 2013 determined to keep the store alive. “It’s been super slow through the winter,” Tammy told me. “We are squeaking by.”

Like the state it belongs to, the story of Empire begins with mining. Founded in 1864 during the American Civil War, Nevada was originally inhabited by miners who went to California in search of gold but ended up settling for silver found in the Nevada territory. Empire was the product of a later boom; in 1948 the United States Gypsum Company (USGC) built a plant here to manufacture drywall from gypsum it mined in the region. USGC employees and their families needed a place to live in the middle of the desert. Empire was built at the site of the mine as a company town—a municipality built for and occupied by the employees working for the corporation. Growing as a cluster about 15 metres off Highway 447, the town thrived for decades, all the way through the US housing-market boom at the beginning of the 21st century. From 2000 to 2007, Nevada’s median home value rose by 70 percent, making it one of the fastest growing markets in the country. When home values began collapsing in 2007, Nevada had the farthest to fall; in that year alone, the state saw over 66,000 foreclosures—more than anywhere else in the country. (For the past seven years, Nevada and Florida have, at different times, had the highest foreclosure rates in the US.) The halt in construction drained demand for drywall, and in January 2011, USGC announced the closure of its Empire plant.

When the plant shut down, so did the 13-square-kilometre town. The gate at the main entrance to the manufacturing plant was locked. Weeds infiltrated everywhere, climbing up the sides of abandoned houses, rising out of cracks in streets and basketball courts and the plastic playground in the middle of the town’s only park. The town’s two churches were closed. So was the community pool. The postal code for Empire, 89405, was eliminated. USGC installed a chain-link fence around the empty homes and boarded buildings, including the plant, now still and silent. The only building spared from the encasement was the Empire General Store, which sits closer to the road.

Empire’s highest-ever population was 750, in the early 1960s. The town was home to 500 during the housing boom, but by the time the plant officially closed, the population had dwindled to 300. USGC, which owned the homes of its employees, allowed the town to stay open until the end of June 2011, six months after the plant’s closure, so that children could complete the school year. But many parents could not survive six months without pay, and with no alternative housing or jobs nearby, families scattered to all corners of the state and country to look for work—if it could be found.

Today, more than two years later, only one family remains in Empire. Tammy Sparkes and her husband, Dana, bought the Empire General Store in October 2010. Now they are heading into the summer of 2013 determined to keep the store alive. “It’s been super slow through the winter,” Tammy told me. “We are squeaking by.”

Tammy has a tall, wiry figure and short blonde hair. She spent much of her childhood in Empire. Her father worked at the USGC plant for more than 40 years. Her mother worked there, too. Everybody worked there. Tammy always appreciated living in a town small enough to function like a big family. “You never met a stranger in Empire,” she said. “Everybody was friendly, everybody was happy. They were out here because they loved it out here.” She has one seven-year-old daughter, Sierra, with Dana; a daughter from a previous marriage, 18-year-old Jessica, has left for beauty school in Kentucky, where her father lives. Empire’s current population: three.

The Sparkes are hoping to hang on until a precious few days at the end of August, when 50,000 visitors from all around the world travel down Highway 447 on their way to the yearly Burning Man festival, a week-long encampment in the Black Rock Desert, known for giant art projects, drugs, and a massive bonfire. The store sees 90 percent of its annual business during the event. The rest of the year, traffic on the highway is limited to occasional road-trippers, rock climbers, and off-road cyclists.

Tammy and Dana had hoped to make the store their full-time work—but that was not to be. “We only had this place a few weeks before they announced the plant was closing,” she said. “It was tough. And it still is. We get our power and water from the plant, so all we can do is hope they keep that turned on for us. Otherwise we’ll have to leave, too.”

Like over 7 million Americans, Dana and Tammy hold multiple jobs, commuting back and forth to the city of Reno, about 160 kilometres to the south. Dana teaches for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a college-based programme for training commissioned officers. Tammy works as an ordnance officer, overseeing 167 soldiers. In 2010, Tammy completed a year-long tour of duty in Iraq. She is proud of her military service, but at the same time, it’s clear she is overwhelmed by her workload and the travel it demands. “I wish I never had to leave this place. It’s the feeling of coming over here,” she said, a smile springing to her face. “The second you crest that hill and you see this town, it’s like the whole world just left you.”

The USGC plant’s closure has not just affected the residents of Empire. With the town emptying out, neighbouring Gerlach—a community of approximately 200 residents spread over eight square kilometres—suffered an economic strain, too. Families in Empire relied on Gerlach’s schools, with children bused 11 kilometres north on Highway 447 each morning. The high school and the elementary school in Gerlach were mostly filled with children from Empire. When the town shut down, the student population dwindled from approximately 60 to 10. As a result, the high school was closed, and all the teachers at both schools were laid off, except for one, who was charged with the task of instructing the few remaining students at the elementary school. The last three high school seniors finished their education online.

Two teacher’s aides assist the remaining teacher. In addition to helping in the classroom, the aides also transport students, manage administrative tasks, and look after the school grounds. This was a reccurring theme that I encountered on a drive I took across the US to talk to Americans in recession-hit towns: in schools, restaurants, offices and stores, those who kept their jobs absorbed the work of those who had been laid off.

Doris Tullar used to drive the Gerlach school bus, and still lives in Gerlach. Even now, she smiles when recalling her first days on duty. “I was so scared, so nervous,” she said. She has a small frame, and it’s easy to imagine her getting physically overwhelmed by the oversized steering wheel or high-set driver’s seat. But she learned to handle it, and she fell in love with the job. “It made me very sad to have to give my keys back,” she said with the frivolous laugh she often tacks on to serious statements. “The whole reason I started driving the bus was the kids. My biggest concern was always the kids.”

Tullar first heard about the school’s closure from students on the bus the week before Christmas in 2010, well before any public announcements were made. She did not receive official notification until the last day of class in 2011, when she was made to sign a “separation agreement”. I asked her how she felt signing that piece of paper, how it felt saying goodbye to the kids and the responsibility and the income. “It’s just sad,” she said—words that she repeated often during our conversations. However I varied my questions, the response inevitably came, “It’s just sad,” usually followed by her thin laugh. Eventually she added, “It wasn’t until the last day of school that it finally hit me: this is it; this isn’t going to be happening any more. It took a long time for all of us to stop crying.”

With Empire gone, Tullar is worried for Gerlach. So far, the town has managed to survive because most of its residents are retirees who do not need to generate much income, living off social security and modest savings. But since Empire’s closing, Gerlach, too, seems hollowed out, as if some better part of itself has been lost. “There are not many people here now, not many kids,” Tullar said. “It’s not as happy without little kids running around doing things. It’s lonely and sad.”

Many people I spoke to in Gerlach speculated that new reserves of precious metal might be found in the region, reinvigorating the economy—the same speculation that, more than a hundred years ago, led to the creation of Nevada. “There’s a lot of things we’re hearing of gold mines opening up,” Tullar said. “So maybe it’ll encourage people to come back.” I found no official information, however, that suggested this possibility. “We’re all in hopes it’ll come back eventually,” Tullar said, wistfully, though she did not specify what exactly she meant by “it”. Perhaps she meant all that had gone missing: her opportunity to make a living, the younger generation, Empire.