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Slump in construction industry creates a Sheetrock ghost town

The Sheetrock producing Empire, Nev., will become a ghost town June 20. The isolated company town quit mining gypsum and dry wall production this year as a result of the construction industry slump.

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The United States Gypsum Company halted its gypsum mining and Sheetrock production in Empire, Nev. last January, after 87 years. Empire officially becomes a ghost town June 20 when the fence, erected here by workers, is completed.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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This mining town of 300 people clings like a burr to the back of the Black Rock Desert. For years, it was marked on state Highway 447 by a two-story sign reading, "Welcome to Nowhere."

On June 20, that tongue-in-cheek greeting will become a fact. Empire, Nev., will transform into a ghost town. An eight-foot chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire will seal off the 136-acre plot. Even the local ZIP Code, 89405, will be discontinued.

Many towns have been scarred by the recession, but Empire will be the first to completely disappear. For only a few days more it will remain the last intact example of an American icon: the company town.

Since 1948, the United States Gypsum Corporation (USG), which is the nation's largest drywall manufacturer, has held title to all of Empire: 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. The company also owns the town's drywall plant and the nearby gypsum quarry, a 264-acre gouge in the foot of the Selenite mountain range six miles to the south.

The end of Empire began just before Christmas, when dozens of workers in steel-toed shoes and hard hats filed into the community hall for a mandatory 7:30 a.m. meeting. Mike Spihlman, the gypsum plant's soft-spoken manager, delivered the news to a room of stunned faces: Empire was shutting down. "I had to stand in front of 92 people and say 'Not only do you not have a job anymore, you don't have a house anymore,' " Mr. Spihlman recalled.

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