Nevada town gets wiped out by recession

Empire Nevada

A gas station in the now-defunct town of Empire, Nev. Image: aturkus/Flicker/CC BY

The town of Empire, Nev., has been wiped off the map. Even the town’s zip code has been deleted. The company owned-town was the last of its kind, and was a victim of the recession. Located about 100 miles north of Reno, the town was owned by the U.S. Gypsum company, which mined the mineral and turned it into drywall Sheetrock for the construction industry. The company is the nation’s largest supplier of Sheetrock. But the factory shut down on Jan. 31, 2010. The 99 employees were reduced to four who stayed to clean things up. After that, residents were given five months free rent to finish out the school year.

Welcome to Nowhere

As of last Monday, the town ceased to exist. All 300 former residents have moved on and even the town’s zipcode, 89405, no longer exists. All that remains is an eight-foot tall chain-link fence around the 136-acre plot with a sign reading “Welcome to Nowhere.”

The mining town was founded in 1923. It was bought by U.S. Gypsum in 1948. In its heyday, the town had a population of more than 750. The company rented apartments to its employees for $110 to $125 dollars a month, and two-bedroom houses for $250. The company provided water, sewer, trash, cable TV and Internet access free of charge. It had four tree-lined streets, a tennis court, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a community hall. Former residents say it was the kind of place where you could leave your door unlocked and never worry.

‘The recession just outlasted us’

The drywall industry peaked in 2006, when the company had $297 million in profits. But over the past three years, U.S. Gypsum has reported losses of $1.5 billion. With the recession has come a vastly reduced demand for Sheetrock. Steve Conley, who was employed by the company since the early 1970s, said, “the recession just outlasted us.”

Calvin Ryle, 62, who worked at the plant since 1971, was given the task of shutting down the conveyor belt for the final time. “The worst thing you can hear in a board plant is silence. You’re a part of building America. It’s not just making Sheetrock here,” he said. The plant’s maintenance foreman, Aaron Constable, reported that Ryle wept as he shut the belt down.

Gold mines and gold helmets

A great many of the employees have found work in Nevada gold mines, an industry that is booming. The Gerlach-Empire school, to which the 23 Empire children were bussed every day, has been reduced from 73 students to just 12.

Rumors abound that if the economy recovers, the plant will reopen. But most former residents are not holding their breath. Ryle told the Christian Science Monitor before he moved that he planned to leave his gold helmet behind in his house. The gold helmets, worn with pride by the factory workers, were awarded to employees after 25 years of service.


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