Kyle Cassidy photographs the homes of oil workers in North Dakota in The Bakken Goes Boom.

Inside the Temporary Homes of North Dakota Oil Workers

Inside the Temporary Homes of North Dakota Oil Workers

Behold
The Photo Blog
March 14 2016 11:03 AM

Inside the Temporary Homes of North Dakota Oil Workers

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Truck driver Clint Breeze. Camp near Tioga, North Dakota. “The longest I’ve ever worked was 57 hours straight with a two hour nap in the middle. It’s tough. It’s a rough life. The oil doesn’t stop coming out of the ground, it’s got to be tended to.”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

Making an oil boom is about more than just figuring out how to get the black stuff out of the ground. It also requires establishing services and facilities—including, first and foremost, housing—for an influx of workers staying for an unpredictable amount of time. 

The task has been a tall one in Western North Dakota, where thousands of oil workers and, sometimes, their families, have flocked in the years since technological advances made possible the extraction of oil from a reserve called the Bakken Formation. A new collection of studies on this great migration, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota, which was edited by William Caraher and Kyle Conway, is available from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as a free download. It can also be purchased in print

Photographing oil workers had never crossed Kyle Cassidy’s mind, but when the Digital Press asked him to contribute imagery for the book, he traveled nearly 2,000 miles from Philadelphia in February 2013 to investigate the housing situation in the region. He’s visited two more times since and plans to go again. 

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Tioga, North Dakota. Hess refinery in the background. Hess and its predecessor Amerada Petroleum have been in the Bakken since the beginning.

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Scott Collins, camp in Watford City, North Dakota. “They told me I needed to have some money in my pocketbook because it’s going to be high-priced, if you can even find a place. Just to park this mobile home is $700. To rent a house, $3,000 a month. That’s cheap. I had to get a roll of duct tape when I got up here for my sewer. $13. The local businesses here gouge people.”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Keith Day. Camp near Alexander, North Dakota. “When I got here, I hitchhiked up here, I didn’t have nothing but a bag on my back. I stayed at a church. There’s only one church over there that will let you sleep there, in Williston. I stayed there about three or four days, and then I found a room for rent for $100 a week.”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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While homes, apartment complexes, and other permanent residences have been built to house workers, the accommodations Cassidy photographed were temporary, including RVs, tents, and “man camps,” or energy company–built barracks. 

“One thing that North Dakota is definitely not interested in is a bunch of ghost towns and abandoned equipment rusting in fields, so in many cases what you’re allowed to do in terms of building is highly regulated,” Cassidy said via email. 

Today, a drop in oil prices has slowed production, which means there aren’t enough workers in the state to fill all the available real estate. But at the height of the boom, the region struggled to make room for the flood of new arrivals. Cassidy found the challenge most memorably encapsulated in the story of Gregg Thompson, an artist from Washington who moved to Williston, North Dakota, in 2012 and, unable to find an open apartment or a hotel room, briefly lived in a dumpster—an experience he recorded for his YouTube channel, where he goes by Gregg Zart—before moving into an RV.

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Double room at Capital Lodge, near Tioga, North Dakota. This camp closed down in 2015.

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Samantha, Wheelock, North Dakota. “The boom has brought good and bad. For everybody here it’s brought good and bad. For jobs, I mean, I work at a convenience store and make a very, very nice salary to manage the store. It’s been a very good thing for me. For a lot of people coming here they’re finding what they’re looking for.”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Gregg Zart left the Pacific Northwest looking for work in the oil patch. He spent his first few days in Williston living in a dumpster and later became a YouTube celebrity with his updates about life in the Bakken.

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Wheelock, North Dakota. Families from Utah moved to the Bakken to work in the oil industry.

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

Living in rough conditions in an isolated environment made for tight, if fleeting, communities. But since none of the workers were able to predict how long the boom would last, Cassidy said, most didn’t bother getting too invested in their lodgings. As a result, a lot of them didn’t look especially lived-in, particularly the barracks, which were, according to Cassidy, “almost clinically barren.” Indeed, home in North Dakota, for some of the workers Cassidy interviewed, was simply a place to catch a few precious hours of sleep before another long and grueling day in the field.

“There were some people who were practically monastic—they worked, they slept, they sent money home.”

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Tioga, North Dakota. Waiting for work outside a series of portable housing units. Even at the height of the boom, work, particularly in trucking, could be irregular.

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Larry, camp in Watford City, North Dakota. “This kind of lifestyle is just nothing new to us. But we are at an age now where our kids are all gone ... so, why not come out here for a while and make some real money?”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

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Valeria. Coffee stand at the entrance to a camp near Tioga, North Dakota. “I was only supposed to be here for a week or two. Since I didn’t have a plan, I thought I’d look around for a job. But all the jobs around were like 12 hours a day, six days a week. And I couldn’t do that with my son.”

Copyright Kyle Cassidy

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.