“It is a recession when you lose your job. It is a depression when I lose mine.” – Old saying.
With the recent loss of over 700 good energy jobs in Gillette, it should be interesting to readers to read about what happened during the last Wyoming bust at the most mining-oriented town in the state. Here is that story:
In February 1993, a book was widely quoted around the country, which rated the 100 best small towns in America.
Lander ranked No. 5 and was prominently mentioned by the author during a visit to the NBC “Today Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
What was remarkable about this was that just ten years earlier, Lander was mired in possibly the worst depression suffered by any county seat town in Wyoming’s history.
How Lander coped with these massive job losses and the steps its civic leaders took might be a guide for energy-based towns around Wyoming struggling right now with the loss of hundreds of coal mining jobs this month.
Today, it is hard to imagine that back in the 1970s, Lander had the biggest mining presence of any town in the state.
Let’s set the scene.
The big player was a U.S. Steel iron ore mine south of Lander. More than 550 miners worked there and most were members of the United Steelworkers Union. A few years earlier, those union members participated in what was hailed as the most generous labor contract ever written. Those families enjoyed incredibly high wages, courtesy of the union contract, while enjoying the low-cost, outdoorsy Wyoming lifestyle of Fremont County.
Not long afterward, the contract was viewed as a fiasco at U.S. Steel headquarters in Pittsburgh. Their company and other American steel companies were getting clobbered in the marketplace by cheap, high-quality steel imported from Japan and Great Britain.
In the face of this, the company wanted out of that labor contract. To do this, they had to start getting the union to agree to big concessions. Where could they start with such a plan?
Why not little Lander, Wyoming, where a statewide union presence was a minority position and the workers could be persuaded to give in? Industry leaders thought they could start a domino effect with other union employees around the country.
As editor-publisher of the Lander newspaper, I knew the iron mine wouldn’t last forever. There was more than 10 years of high quality taconite ore still available when the company started making noises about shutting down.
Despite tremendous efforts by state and local officials to convince them to make concessions, the union members wouldn’t budge. Soon the mine cut back to half its employees. Still, the union wouldn’t budge. Finally, the company announced the mine was closing and immediately sold off all materials to a salvage company.
It happened so quickly. The mine was closed. Those 550 jobs were gone.
Then the other shoe dropped.
In the early 1980s, Fremont County enjoyed a tremendous boom when processed uranium ore called yellowcake soared to record prices of $50 per pound. Mines were created overnight in the Jeffrey City area east of Lander and the Gas Hills area east of Riverton. More than 2,000 men and women were working in those mines and hundreds of other people were working for support companies.
Property tax valuations soared. Home values went up one and half percent per month for over two years.
Life was good.
It all came crashing down fast. When yellowcake prices soared, the utility companies that owned the nuclear reactors went to Congress and asked for restrictions to be removed on the importation of uranium from other countries.
America immediately exported all those uranium jobs to Australia, Canada and Russia. Soon, yellowcake was a glut on the world market and prices dropped under $10 per pound.
Towns like Jeffrey City, which had grown to 4,000 people with its own high school plus a chamber of commerce, fire department and even its own Lions Club, started to lose people.
I even started a newspaper in Jeffrey City, which lasted from 1978 to 1985. Today, the population of Jeffrey City is measured in the dozens.
Lander business leaders had been pretty smug, including this writer. I had written that Lander was bulletproof when it came to the boom-bust mineral cycles that had plagued other parts of the state over the decades.
Boy, was I wrong!
(Next week: How Lander turned itself around in 10 years).
Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books. His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.