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Booms and busts have left mark on Rifle

Photo courtesy RIFLE CREEK MUSEUM
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Since nearly the beginning, Rifle has seen a number of booms and busts in its 100-year history. And while the city is enjoying a boom cycle today, officials are hoping to avoid yet another bust cycle again in the future.Most of the boom-and-bust cycles have revolved around the energy industry including mining for vanadium, coal, oil shale and natural gas.

It all started right after the Depression when World War II came along and rejuvenated the old vanadium mill, said John Scalzo, a longtime resident and former mayor of Rifle. Vanadium was the start of the boom and bust. Rifle was just a sleepy little cattle town with farmers and ranchers.Coal mines had opened in the area as early as the 1890s along the Grand Hogback near Rifle Gap, along with the first experiments with oil shale. In 1916, the federal government set aside more than 45,000 acres, known as the Naval Oil Shale Reserves, on the Roan Plateau for oil shale research. In 1923, the U.S. Vanadium Company opened mines on Rifle Creek with a mill northeast of Rifle. The Federal Bureau of Mines started an oil shale research project in 1925 at the base of Anvil Points.But the Great Depression caused the vanadium mine to close in 1932 and the mill was dismantled.The mill had put a lot of people to work, Scalzo said. Half the guys lived on a little, small farm and subsidized their income working at Union Carbide, but it didnt pay well.During World War II in 1942, the war demand for vanadium resulted in the re-opening of the old vanadium mine, which operated as a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corp. However, the old mill in east Rifle was shut down in 1958 and a new one opened in west Rifle, where uranium was processed along with vanadium.

By 1972, there were 16 active natural-gas wells in the Rifle area. The OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s had caused an oil shortage, and the federal government put huge amounts of funding into new oil shale research.People came from all over the country for the hundreds of jobs that were advertised. Many of them slept in culverts and under bridges because communities did not have the housing or infrastructure to handle the masses. Projections were that Rifles population would swell to about 20,000 by 1990.But that all came to a screeching halt when federal money for oil shale was cut off. Exxon Corp. shut its gates without warning on May 2, 1982 commonly referred to as Black Sunday putting thousands of people out of work.About 2,500 people were out of work in one afternoon, recalled Mayor Keith Lambert, who had moved to Rifle around that time. In a community the size of Parachute or Rifle, that was a tremendous amount of people.Lambert said the mood was somber as businesses closed and people moved out of town.There was a lot of heavy drinking going on, he said. It was a devastating impact. Some families just picked up and left. We had neighbors across the street who were having a barbecue on Saturday night. On Sunday they were gone.Houses sold for dirt cheap.Half the houses on my block were for sale and my house lost $30,000 in value in a weeks time, Lambert said.



In 1991, Union Oil Co. also closed its experimental oil shale research plant.In recent years, the area has seen another boom from development of natural gas. There are currently more than 2,500 natural-gas wells in Rifle and another 1,000 planned for 2006. Garfield County could reportedly have more than 10,000 active gas wells before 2015.On top of that, there is renewed interest in oil shale. Shell Oil has been conducting a research and development project in the Piceance Creek area.Officials in western Garfield County are trying to handle the impacts the energy industry is having on the communities as well as prevent another bust situation.Were trying to avoid a full-on onslaught because were not in a position to handle that kind of increase in population, Lambert said. Gas is already here, and were dealing with it. But then you put on a new layer oil shale and we have the impacts of that on top of it.And some believe because of the nature of the energy business, another bust in the area is inevitable.There will be a semi-bust when all the wells are drilled, Scalzo predicted. There will always be gas people working here for maintenance. But once its drilled out, well have a small bust.Like others, Scalzo suggests that the answer is for the industry to slow down.In my opinion, we should spread out the economy and not let them drill everything at once, he said. If they slow it down, well have good energy for a long time.


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