Oil shale: ‘Everything was like it is today’ | VailDaily.com

Oil shale: ‘Everything was like it is today’

John Gardner
Vail, CO Colorado

RIFLE ” The people of Rifle, Parachute and all of Western Garfield County are hoping that the area’s current booming economy, brought on by energy development, isn’t going to repeat history.

Energy companies drilling the ground for natural gas and the continued interest in oil shale development in the region has some folks thinking about one particular day, 25 years ago this week ” a day now known as “Black Sunday.”

“It’s one of those times you remember, like when John F. Kennedy was shot,” said Ed Sands, an attorney in Rifle who moved to town in 1978 just as the energy boom was turning this quiet agricultural community into a bustling oil shale exploration hub.

Sands was an assistant city attorney in 1982 when the bust flattened Rifle’s morale.

He remembers doing yard work and listening to the radio when the announcement came over saying that Exxon USA was closing down the Colony Oil Shale project north of Parachute.

The scene the next day was uneasy, to say the least.

“Exxon brought in security officers to secure the facilities and no one was allowed on the premises,” Sands said.

Before the bust came, Arnold Mackley, a former Garfield County commissioner, said that living in Rifle was “very exciting.”

“It was very similar to what it’s like now,” Mackley said. “The town was bustling and a lot of things were happening.”

It was almost overnight that the bustle came to town, when Exxon USA moved in and took up operations in 1980. But just as quickly as the company came to town, it packed up and left, leaving the town’s residents with little but fear and loathing for what was the largest corporation in the world at the time.

Jim Handzus, maintenance technician at the Rim Rock Apartments in Rifle, was 24 at that time. He didn’t work at Rim Rock during that time but he recalls that the apartments were constructed for employee housing. In one day, the sounds of hammers pounding boards together was replaced with a silent breeze.

“Everything was like it is today,” Handzus said. “Everything was crowded and there was no place to live. Then literally in a week, everyone was gone.”

A number of business closed, and Sands said that it seemed like almost every third house had a for-sale or foreclosure sign in the window, the yards all unkempt with weeds taking over the rock gardens and flower beds.

“It was a very uncertain time,” Sands said.

Gary Miller estimated that his store, Miller’s Dry Goods on Third Street, is one of just a few businesses in Rifle that survived the bust 25 years ago. Sands agreed, saying that he remembers Timberline Sporting Goods and the Texan bar were here at the time as well.

Longtime Rifle resident Dean Hubbell also vividly remembers the bust. He heard the news the following Monday because he was traveling home from Denver and the radio was cutting out in Glenwood Canyon when the announcement was made on Sunday.

Every year since then, Hubbell’s hosted a “survivors party” in Rifle for those who chose to remain. But he remembers the feeling in town the day after so clearly that it still makes him nervous.

“You bet it does,” Hubbell said. “It really felt similar to what it does today. I remember (current director of the Colorado Department of Transportation) Russell George told me once back then, ‘I can smell the greed in the air.'”

But from destruction comes growth and development. At least that’s one way to look at it.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that Exxon pulling out was the best thing that could have happened for Parachute,” said one-time town mayor and longtime city councilman, John Loschke. “It was an interesting lesson.”

He said that the town of Parachute didn’t even have paved roads in 1980 and only had one bar, one grocery market, a liquor store and a post office. The town only had one cop and three officials.

All that changed when two major oil companies came to town.

Loschke said that two schools, today’s Bea Underwood Elementary and St. John Middle School, were both products of the time. Parachute also built a town hall and a library. Many of the roads were paved and infrastructure was put in to accommodate the expected 15,000 people. Parachute’s current population is around 1,500.

Mackley came to the area in the late 1950s to work for Union Oil in Parachute Creek. He remembers the area of Battlement Mesa when it was still peach orchards and ranch land.

“When Exxon came in they started buying up all the ranch land along the south side of the (Colorado) river,” Mackley said. “That was an Exxon colony project that ended abruptly. The whole idea was to provide housing for the oil shale workers.”

Battlement Mesa sprang back to life in the mid 1980. He said that after Exxon pulled out, the county determined it a good idea to develop the community, since infrastructure to accommodate 30,000 people was already in place.

The project was sold to a group of developers from Florida who started planning it as a retirement community, Mackley remembers. Battlement Mesa’s population is about 4,500 currently.

Sands remembers a number of Rifle roads being dirt when he rolled into town in 1978, after graduating from the University of Nebraska.

“There was no housing,” he said. “People were camping down by the river, living in very unsanitary conditions.”

Many public projects were attributed in part to the oil shale trust fund set up by the federal government to deal with the impacts of the oil shale development and growth to the region.

“The government was trying to keep up with the growth,” Sands said. “Unlike now, there was much more money pouring into the community from federal grants.”

Those grants helped pay for Rifle’s City Hall, the county library and Rifle High School and paved many of those dirt roads that Sands remembers.

Support Local Journalism