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Slump in construction industry creates a Sheetrock ghost town

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Until January, the quarry was a noisy place. Blasts of ANFO, an explosive, punctuated the still mountain air, dislodging white, chalky chunks of ore from five terraced pits, the largest a half-mile across. A fleet of haul trucks shuttled 60-ton batches of gypsum six miles up the highway to the factory, where workers pulverized it, cooked it up past 500 degrees F. in massive kettles, and shaped it into the wallboard delivered for construction across the American West. Before the miners used trucks, they ferried 1,800-pound payloads along an aerial tram in colossal steel buckets, trailing blotches of spilled powder below.

By some accounts, the Empire facility – known here as "the gyp" – encompasses the longest continuously operating mine in the country. The mining claim, originally established by Pacific Portland Cement Co., dates to 1910.

Now the quarry is silent, its roads blocked off with gravel berms to discourage trespassers. The factory has been empty since Jan. 31. And Empire, a scrap of green in the desert, is already starting to fade. Lawns once immaculately tended are choked with weeds. A fence is rising around the perimeter. Residents say it makes Empire look like a "concentration camp." If someone doesn't find a new use for this place, the town will eventually vanish. When dust blows in from the desert, no one will be here to sweep it away. It will start erasing signs of human habitation in a place that has been settled since 1923, when miners established a tent city.

By the end of May, all but a handful of workers had already made the forced exodus. Before they left, many tossed their corporate hard hats high into the branches of a neighborhood tree, creating an impromptu monument to their lives here.

Those lives are all about to change drastically, because leaving Empire doesn't mean just moving down the road. Jobs in the immediate vicinity are scarce. Empire is located in one of the remotest corners of Nevada, which has long led the nation in unemployment. Apart from Gerlach – a neighboring hamlet with fewer than 200 people that shares its schools with Empire – the nearest town, Nixon, is 60 miles to the south on a reservation owned by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

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