Life in a fracking boomtown: man-camps, meth labs, strippers, and the gas gold rush

“House-Arrest Amber,” Featured Dancer at Whispers. Photo: Mark Ebner.

Veteran muckraker Mark Ebner of "Hollywood, Interrupted" has a knack for producing beautiful writing from ugly subjects. Scientology, pit bull fighting, celebrity scandals, scam artists... you name it, he's investigated it.

Now, Ebner travels to a town several hundred miles north of Deadwood, South Dakota. In a state wracked by joblessness, this little enclave is home to a new gold rush: Fracking.

It's a long read, filled with detail about the lives of workers in "man camps," and the hookers, strippers, and service industry workers that attend to the laborers' needs. Snip:

In a country with an unofficial underemployment rate of 20%, the tiny railroad whistle-stop of Williston, North Dakota near the Montana border (population 17,000 and spiking) is currently at capacity: There’s not a motel room to be had in the city, housing prices are double what they were a year ago ($300,000 for a two-bedroom home), and the daily onslaught of new arrivals is reduced to living in their cars, RVs, sporadic tent cities or the rapidly proliferating “man camps” – clusters of trailers in an open field that pack in oil patch workers dormitory style, sometimes six to a room. Access to running water and simple sanitation is so rare that public businesses have had to lock their bathrooms to discourage makeshift sponge baths or the dumping of wastewater. Meanwhile, throughout the region, fast food professionals can make $15 an hour and waitresses start at $25 an hour, with a bonus if they’ll stay in the job for at least six weeks. (Pizza Hut brought in campers-vans just so its counter help could afford to live there.)

But mainly what they need are truck drivers: The same 18- to 25-year-old demographic that’s economically the hardest hit everywhere else, with nothing more than a high school diploma and a Commercial Driver’s License, are here racking up six-figure fortunes. (Williston boasts a 4% unemployment rate.) As one local developer put it, “I think they should round up all the Occupy Wall Streeters and bring them up here. Come up here and occupy these jobs. There are jobs everywhere.”

FRACKED UP!: Hollywood,Interrupted Visits America’s New Boomtown


  1. Yep, been there and left.  Lot’s of stories and people there.  Regardless of how you feel about fracking and oil production, it really is a unique situation.  I would have stayed had I found somewhere to live.

  2. I actually haven’t ever stopped by an “occupy” event, but my guess is that a great deal of the occupy folk aren’t too keen on things like fracking, oil industries, etc.

    I don’t know if that invalidates a point.  Sometimes, if you really need money, you gotta take whatever work is available.  At the same time, I’d never begrudge a person for not taking a job that went against their deeply held convictions.

    1. As I understand it, the point of Occupy isn’t so much “I’m broke because I can’t get a job no matter what I do” as it is “I’m working/have worked what should be considered a reasonable amount (or maybe even much, much more) and barely make a living while the nobs at the top (like, say, oil industry magnates) are rolling in dough and controlling the system to keep things this way”.

      1. But the mainstream media, especially the media popular in backwaters, claims that they’re just trying to camp for free when they have nothing to complain about, or if they are unemployed, they’d rather complain about not getting a job, rather than actually getting one.

        Which is a popular strategy by the guards of prisons, to keep the inmates from working together.

  3. “It’s like every other boom that’s happened since the Gold Rush,” says Sara. “It brings out the assholes of the earth.”

    Watched the Frontline thing on the mortgage crisis, then read this article.  That line hit me right between the eyes.

  4. Williston is my hometown, and it’s strange to keep seeing it in national press. The boom is quite a mixed blessing out there. My family haven’t had to deal with too many of the downsides (yet), but they’re obviously there. Anyway, I think that comment about the Occupy folks kind of misses the point, right? I take it that the Occupy movement is about increasing pressure to hold Wall St accountable for wrecking the economy. It’s not like the protestors are out there wandering around looking for work, and all they need is a bus ticket out to western North Dakota. 

    1.  Exactly!  Occupy isn’t about getting a specific group of kids jobs, it’s about reforming the entire system that creates massive inequality, including lack of jobs.

  5. “In a state wracked by joblessness”? Actually, North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. This has been a consistent feature of the state for a long time. I’m sure this is helping keep it low, but it was never high.

      1. USA Today, March 2011  “North Dakota economy soars, population soars”.  I love when ignorant people say stupid things.

  6. Gramp’s voice in the back of my head says:
    “Sounds like a damn good ROI, son.  Much better than graduating with 100K in debt and a useless BA in Underwater Basket Weaving, or it’s equivalents, Art History or Philosophy.”

  7. ” this potential windfall has been sitting for half a century like dinosaurs’ blood beneath a thick layer of marine shale, waiting for the magic bullet to arrive that could liberate it”
    Dude, what did that poor metaphor ever do to you? No need to torture it. I don’t know whether I would call his writing beautiful or overwrought.
    I’m another local who’s been writing about North Dakota for a long time. I don’t mind all the authors who have the sudden urge to visit the state like the ones I’ve interviewed from as far away as Germany and Australia. But I do wish they would take the time to get the details right, like the fact that North Dakota has always had a low unemployment rate (mostly because anyone with any ambition leaves the state) although underemployment has been a chronic problem. The flood of money is  the big difference for the state now (aside from the housing shortage), as is the suddenly competitive job market. As recently as 2008 we’ve had state legislators argue against a minimum wage increase on the grounds that “$8 an hour is a good wage.” I just hope that when the boom eventually and inevitably fades, the good wages stick and we don’t go back to being Mississippi with better roads.

  8. One of the cable channels had a 4 or 5 part series about a year ago called “Boomtown”,  about the effects of the fracking boom on the tiny town of Parshall, ND. Definitely a mixed blessing.  Most of the landowners owned just the land and not the mineral rights,  so not alot of local people were seeing the money tree shake. Lots of money was coming in, but so was crime, and the roads were getting ripped to shreds by the constant truck traffic. The town was making lots of money selling their water, but the farmers were wondering what they were going to do after the town had drained the reservoirs down below where their wells reached.

    Overall it seemed like they were going to end up like most lottery winners. Party like a rock star for a while, and then live with the mess after the party moves on.   

  9. All of this happens because North Dakota is small, so the effects get magnified. Putting 8,000 more people in a town of 9,000 has a very different impact than putting 8,000 people into a city of 500,000.

    The unemployment numbers, housing prices, and all

  10. I’m from eastern ND and have family there. They look at it like a loud obnoxious party. Mostly they’re just glad it’s all on the opposite side of the state from where they live. Western North Dakota has always been a meth haven, now it’s a fossil fuel funded meth haven.

  11. In a lot of ways this looks like a classic case of the “mineral curse”, where the land you are sitting on is high in some natural resource, so a big company moves in, employs a lot of people in low skill jobs encouraging said unskilled workers to move in, and then when the minerals dry up they leave and the town is saddled with a whole lot of jobless people with no skills.  Worse, thanks to a combination of local corruption and the tax structure, the town usually doesn’t see much money from those operations and spends a lot on extra services, leaving their finances a mess, which is only compounded when the jobs suddenly depart and unemployment spikes. 

    In a decade or so the area is probably going to look like South West Virginia. 

    1. That’s exactly what will happen.

      Even worse:  people are projecting these fields will stay active for a very long time.  

      Unfortunately, this isn’t proving to be the case.  The gas wells are going dry much quicker than anticipated (purely anecdotal, from the geologists I work with.  I have no evidence).

      So, the minor economic boost given to the area through land rights and royalties will be far shorter than they imagine, amplifying the effect you described above.

  12. This sounds an awful lot like northern Alberta (specifically Fort McMurray) 5 years ago, except ND is on a smaller scale of what went on there. With the demand for oil starting to climb again, everything is taking off here in Alberta again.

  13. I like that the story got completely and totally derailed when the author met an attractive dancer at a strip club, then had dinner with her, then went into her life story, then told us about her workplace, then put up two pictures of he–

    What’s that? oil stuff?… right. oil. Nikking. Huh? Oh right. Frakking.

  14. “the tiny railroad whistle-stop of Williston, North Dakota”  Williston is not a whistle-stop (or flag stop as Amtrak calls them) but a regular stop for all passing passenger trains.  Unlike most stations on the route it even handles checked baggage and is handicap accessible.

  15. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a Battlestar Galactica reference yet, so here it is.

  16. For those who don’t know about the industry: fracking is not an ongoing job.  You go in with about 7 semi-trailers piled with your equipment, do the work for a couple of weeks, then move out to the next location, which might be a mile away or might be 50 miles away.  All the trailers (and most of the workers) go with.

    What you leave behind is a lot of frakking waste.  (And yes, that is a Battlestar Galactica/Firefly reference.)

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