Moral Low Ground


Empire, Nevada, Recently a Bustling Mining Town, Literally Wiped Off Map by Recession

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Once a bustling gypsum mining town of more than 750 people, Empire, Nevada is no more. Located in the Black Rock Desert about 100 miles northeast of Reno, the town’s 300 inhabitants have packed up and left. The town’s 89405 zip code is going the way of the dodo as well.

Empire’s gas station and Indian taco stands have been a familiar sight to the 40,000-plus attendees of the annual Burning Man festival, held just north of nearby Gerlach. But what really mattered was the United States Gypsum Corporation (USG) mine and plant, a 136 acre patch of godforsaken (but extremely profitable) scorched sands that was the economic lifeblood of this town. USG is the maker of Sheetrock, a trademarked brand of drywall used in building construction.

Here’s what the Gypsum News, USG’s magazine, said about Empire:

At its height, Empire was home to more than 750 people… The folks who make their homes in Empire are one big happy family. Here, you could rent a company-owned two-bedroom home for $250 a month, or an apartment for as little as $110. Water, cable TV, sewer, trash, and Internet service were all provided and paid for by the company. Workers were awarded gold-coloured construction helmets when they reached 25 years of service and wore them with pride. No one bothered to lock cars or homes. Kids had the run of the neighborhood, but were still in hollering distance come dinnertime. It boasted four dusty streets lined with cottonwoods, elms, and silver poplars, dozens of low-slung houses, a community hall, a swimming pool, a cracked tennis court, and a nine-hole golf course called Burning Sands.

Indeed, Empire was America’s last company town. USG was, until recently, the nation’s largest drywall manufacturer. But when the bottom fell out of the housing market, the drywall industry was, naturally, devastated as well. USG lost $1.5 billion over the last three years, and so the show is now over for dusty Empire.

According to the Daily Mail, Empire’s residents were informed just before Christmas last year that the town was shutting down. The employees were told that they would no longer have jobs or homes in Empire.

Calvin Ryle, a USG employee since 1971, pressed a button that effectively shut down the plant. “I’ve been here for 39 years and seven months,” he told the Daily Mail. “I’ve never missed a single day, never been injured.” Ryle cried as he shut the plant down.

Many former USG employees have found work in Nevada’s booming gold mines. Others have left the area completely. The impact of Empire’s demise has been felt beyond the confines of the tiny town; in nearby Gerlach, where Empire’s children went to school, there are now only 12 students instead of 73. Needless to say, the 23 school employees are anxious, although they have been offered jobs in Reno schools.

A sign towering above Empire’s gas station reads “WELCOME TO NOWHERE.” That sign has never been more true than it is now.

Nowhere indeed. (Photo: Alan Turkus)

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