Monday, September 5, 2011

The fall of (an) Empire

For all intents and purposes, Empire, Nevada was wiped off the map this year. Owned by the United States Gypsum Corporation, Empire existed to support United States Gypsum's mining and manufacturing operation in the area. Gypsum is an important component of drywall and when the housing bubble burst, the demand for new drywall all but disappeared, bringing Empire down with it.

According to The Daily Mail, the only remnants of the town will be an eight-foot fence and a sign saying, "Welcome to Nowhere." Even the town's former zip code has been relegated to history.

When United States Gypsum first announced the closure of its plant last December, some were optimistic that the plant would stay in working order and be ready to resume operations should the economy turn around. The company provided severance pay and allowed the laid-off employees to continue to live in Empire until June 20th of this year. When it became clear that the demand for drywall was not going to increase anytime soon, the fate of Empire was sealed.

When United States Gypsum's employees learned they were laid off last year, they were also effectively evicted on the same day. The company owned and operated Empire for the benefit of its employees. Without the town, there would be no one to work for the company, and without the company, there is no one to live in the town. Even if people were still willing to live there, it is unlikely that they would have the necessary support services. The LA Times reported that United States Gypsum "essentially served as mayor, police chief and landlord." While life could continue without those roles being filled, it certainly would not be the same.

When the economy killed Empire, it may well have delivered a fatal blow to nearby Gerlach as well. The US Census Bureau has lumped Gerlach and Empire together as a census designated place, and their fates may also be tied.

In 2000, the Census Bureau reported that 225 people in the towns were employed. With the loss of 99 jobs at United States Gypsum alone, that number was cut nearly in half. The effects of the closure have already cost the area a number of other jobs as well. As the Las Vegas Review Journal reported, Gerlach played host to the children that were bused in from Empire to attend school.

Many of the teachers in Gerlach have had to move to Reno in order to continue teaching. As of June 12th of this year, the Gerlach school district had only three high school students, all of whom had opted to take classes online. In fact, the early estimates were that the entire school district, pre-school through 12th grade, would have only 12 students. Just as there is no longer a need for teachers in the area, it is unlikely that the residents will continue to be able to support the town's three bars. And it does not require any stretch of the imagination to believe that those employed in other service industries will be forced to follow the teachers' path to Reno.

Only time will tell whether Gerlach follows Empire into the history books as just another name on the long list of Nevada ghost towns.


Harveen Gill said...
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Patricija said...
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Patricija said...

This makes me wonder to what degree we can analogize these "company towns" with gentrified nature rich towns.

What happened when the real estate bubble burst and people could no longer afford their second homes? Also, I wonder if there is any town that was once gentrified and which later its lost cache?

If "company towns" are any indication, once a rural town is reliant on a source of income (in one instance on the company and the other service jobs) it is difficult for them to adapt accordingly.

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KB said...
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JLS said...

I remember hearing about this. Very interesting, and I think a unique feature of the West's "company towns."

It seems especially interesting this week, following the Burning Man festival. Gerlach is the "gateway to the Black Rock Desert," where Burning Man takes place. Every year, as many as 50,000 festival-goers pass through Gerlach on their way to the week-long Burning Man. If Gerlach is thrown together with Empire, it seems that Gerlach has not been able to capitalize on this event (or on the beauty of the Black Rock Desert) in the same way that Reno(where Burning Man supplies are sold in bulk) has.

Unknown said...
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ScottA. said...

Just recently California's last company town "shut down" as well. But there appears to be more of a future for Scotia after the company, then what has happened to poor Empire.

Pacific Lumber Company (commonly known as either PL or PALCO) founded Scotia in my home county of Humboldt. Under original ownership, the town seemed to have a long and bright future, but in 1985 PL was the victim of a hostile take over. By 2000, the Maxxam corporation had drained PL's resources that were once thought to be inexhaustible. In 2007, PL filed for bankruptcy and the town went into holding.

The holding company has just recently decided to make Scotia an independent town.,0,3215596.story

Scotia's residents are hoping to attract more small businesses to use the empty mills and buildings once used by PL, and they have had some success.

Is there any hope that Empire while be able to reinvent itself too?

hgill said...

I like the "Welcome to Nowhere" sign because it shows the sense of humor. Is Gerlach a company town as well? If it is, I wonder what kind of industry supports it. Perhaps Gerlach will survive because the industry is a natural resources one, permitting Gerlach to weather the recession.

These type of company towns always fascinate me because when the company dries up, the town usually gets deserted. Three-hundred is a pretty sizable number, rurally speaking. I wonder what is stopping the citizens from operating the town on their own.

KB said...

I am curious to what extent this is happening in other parts of the country. Are small manufacturing towns in other states, such as in the Midwest, disappearing as well? Or is this peculiar to Nevada?

Also, I am curious about why people do not stay and operate the town on their own. I would assume for many residents they do not have enough time or resources to create new industry or services. Also, why don't some people stay in the town and commute to other towns or cities? Maybe these small company towns are too far away, but I also wonder if the residents of these towns have a different sense of place. Do people in these small company towns have the same connection with the land, people, and culture that many have with other small communities that are operated by their own citizens?