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.