Deep into no man’s land in western North Dakota, the flat, endless landscape is interrupted only by hulking equipment and oil drilling facilities—and the temporary towns built to house the workers who operate them. These are the North Dakota “man camps,” where thousands have migrated since 2006 to find work on the oil rigs when the industry is booming.
“The amount of oil an oil company expects out of one well is a big secret, so no one knows how long the boom is going to last,” says photographer Kyle Cassidy, who documented these towns for the book, The Bakken Goes Boom, published by University of North Dakota’s Digital Press. “So you send all these people out, but you don’t know how long there will be work. . . . You basically have to set up a city that can be taken back down.”
The Philadelphia-based photographer traveled to North Dakota at the request of two University of North Dakota professors, archeologist Bill Caraher and historian Bret Weber, whose research on the oil industry’s temporary infrastructure led to the book. Caraher and Weber break down the living situations into three categories for their research: Type 1 includes professional barracks, or large lodging complexes, most of which provide food and other resources and are equipped with gyms and TVs. Type 2 are temporary houses, such as the rows of uniform one-story homes depicted in many of Cassidy’s photos, which have sewage and plumbing attached. Type 3 is the least permanent: tents and RVs with neither sewage nor water systems.
Those living in Type 3 camps, says Cassidy, were typically people who hadn’t been recruited by the oil company, but had come out to see what kind of work was available. During a boom, when there’s plenty of work to go around, they would stay—and some would move into more permanent housing. Others kept living costs low by pairing up with a few others in an RV, sending the extra money home to their families. Most traveled light, accustomed to unpredictable work and constant change.
That goes for the towns as well. Cassidy traveled to several different remote towns across the western part of North Dakota, where they were the only civilization for miles. When an oil company finds oil, it needs people, equipment, housing, sewage systems, food, stores, and roads to bring it all in on. Cassidy says that there are whole building companies that specialize in these temporary cities—like military barracks or lodging for the Olympics—and they must follow regulations to ensure the encampments don’t turn into permanent ghost towns when the oil industry hits a bust.
One town Cassidy visited over the course of his three week-long trips to the region was Wheelock, North Dakota, which has been a ghost town several times over the course of the last century. “The town was fascinating for me,” says Cassidy. “It’s a mixture of permanent houses and RVs, and it’s small enough that you can walk from one end to the other in five minutes.” One photo of Wheelock shows a woman holding a little boy in a cowboy hat outside a more permanent trailer; in another, a woman hugs her two girls in the snow outside a faint green clapboard house.
Today, a drop in oil prices has halted production in many of these makeshift towns, forcing people to move away and saddling the state with a massive real estate problem. Cassidy hasn’t been back in months, but he’s eager to see how the towns are faring. He’s waiting for Caraher and Weber, who are tied to a teaching schedule, but he thinks they’ll go back soon: “People are interested in what’s going on now that the oil prices have gone down.”
All Photos: Kyle Cassidy