September 2001 – Jeffrey City – Wyoming Ghost Towns
A Forgotten Communities Primer:Jeffrey City, Wyoming’s Post-Industrial Ghost Town
A derelict Jeffrey City street corner.
Mention the American West, and pretty soon talk turns to ghost towns. If you’ve never actually seen one its concept is familiar: You know, Festus and Matt ride into a deserted false-front main street, in a howling gale that blows tumbling tumbleweeds.
Then, when Rod Serling appears, the eerily enticing image is complete. From here on those caught in the mystique tend to spend long hours scouring the purple sage for abandoned main streets sporting creaking shutters, and saloon pianos that inexplicably play “Ragtime in the Wind”.
But unfortunately, even though places like this exist to some extent, they are rare now. Let’s face it: this is the strip-malled 21st Century, and the historical Wild West, approximately 1860 to 1890, is receding quickly.
Naturally there’s been time for vandalism and natural decay. Nowadays most false fronts have collapsed into shallow cellar holes, and exploration often requires federal permits, trained archeologists or dental picks.
One of many vacant miners’ duplex apartments.
But don’t despair. Some accessible classic ghost towns remain and, editors permitting, I’ll speak of them in later articles. For the present however, here’s a non-traditional forgotten community that would also make Rod Serling proud.
Jeffrey City, Wyoming, is that place, but unlike 19th-century counterparts its origin was the atomic bomb. Cold War uranium mining built the city in the early 1950s, but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed it 30 years later.
Sixty miles from the nearest municipality, Jeffrey City now rests virtually forgotten on an isolated two-lane highway. Adjacent to the old Oregon Trial, the town’s once-modern duplex apartments and miners’ dormitories sit boarded up on weed-choked streets.
Nobody wants Wyoming uranium anymore. Thus, almost no one wants Jeffrey City. Several years ago it’s entire K-12 school system closed, leaving more vacant buildings, including a huge multi-million dollar Reagan-era gymnasium that now languishes alone on the vast range land.
Antelope roam its grounds and peer through the dusty grand glass doors. Inside, a lobby clock’s time matches that in every other local school building: frozen at 8:30, when electrical power ceased. A short distance away, rows of cable TV service boxes line empty streets a high-tech graveyard for signals also long dead.
Power has been pulled from this modular miners’ dorm.
However, not all is quiet. Like most ghost towns, a few loyal residents remain. That’s just enough to keep one bar and a post office open. After all, when all else fails one might as well have a brew, play darts, write family and hope for the best.
Such is Jeffrey City life.
But perhaps it’s no different than Ragtime-era mineral boom towns gone bust. Pride dies hard, so talk still turns to the high life uranium once provided. On lazy afternoons at the Split Rock Bar these debates continue, and if you wish to partake or listen, do this:
From Casper, Wyoming follow Wyoming Highway 220 West 71 miles to Muddy Gap. Turn right on U.S. 287 West for 23 miles. Jeffrey City is on the left.
By the way, while traveling 220 you’ll pass Independence Rock, where Oregon Trail pioneers chiseled their names, established trading posts and then abandoned them along the path to fortune.
Ah, the more it changes the more it stays the same.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.