Plains Folk

The Bakken


Since commencement of the Bakken Boom, we people of the northern plains have been bombarded with images of the oil patch. These portrayals range from the pollyanna-esque (everything about to the petroleum boom is wonderful, and if you don’t think so, you are unpatriotic) to the critically alarmist (everything about the petroleum boom is terrible, and if you don’t think so, you must be some sort of petro-tool).

Whether you live in the oil patch, or you are on the outside looking in, you may have wished for some reasoned voice, the voice of someone who observes meticulously over extended time, who brings both critical and empathetic faculties to bear–in other words, a scholar on the ground.

In a new book from North Dakota State University Press, we have the work of such a grounded scholar–two of them, in fact: William R. Caraher and Bret A. Weber, both of the University of North Dakota.

The book is The Bakken: An Archeology of an Industrial Landscape. It is the first volume in the Heritage Guide Series of NDSU Press, a series that aims to chart the heritage landscape of the northern plains for informed travelers. Its volumes will carry scholarly authority, but be written in prose accessible to the literate public. They will invest the land with story and bring the landscape alive for those who traverse it.

Caraher is a history prof who identifies more as an archeologist. Weber is a social work prof with a PhD in History. They bring tools to the workplace.

Archeologists deal with material evidence, which is why the book spends time “highlighting infrastructure, ranging from truck stops to pipeline hubs.” Weber has a particular interest in housing policy, which leads him to the collection of stories from the man camps. The authors make note of sites of “recent environmental catastrophes and the locations of prominent accidents commemorated by communities and loved ones,” and they treat such sites without lecturing. “Finally,” they say, “we periodically leaven the guide with some of the individuals we have met throughout our research in the oil patch.”

The content is laid out in driving tours, with maps. Tour 3b, for instance, runs from Wildrose to Noonan to Crosby. It includes Robert Heuer 1-17R, Continental Resources’s first paying well in the Bakken.

Here and there our narrators hit pause while they reach back, before the current boom, to pull in historical context. As an example, as Tour 3a enters Epping, they note, “In the early twentieth century, the rail yard at Epping was the center of controversy surrounding the supply of coal to the region. During the harsh winter of 1907, desperate residents looted coal from a Northern Pacific Railway locomotive parked in the town. Newspapers reported similar incidents across the state, along with stories of families frozen to death after burning their possessions for heat.”

In a concluding chapter Caraher reflects on the archeological theory and the scholarship of tourism that informs the work. In key passages he notes the tendency of tourism to simplify landscapes and peoples for the sake of easy consumption. This, as a scholar, he seeks to combat by eschewing soundbite judgments.

This caution is good precedent and example for the heritage guides from NDSU Press as the Heritage Guide Series unfolds.

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