An Oil Shale Bust Survivor’s Story

“It’s been 25 years and we’re still here….”

Only a couple of dozen people still living in Rifle can make the claim they survived “Black Sunday,” the day Exxon pulled out of the oil shale business on May 2, 1982.

I am one of them.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Before that fateful day, it was the best of times from the growth of the oil shale industry. Jobs, money and a boom of economic activity overflowed into Rifle from 1978 to the spring of 1982. So many retail business sprung up that Rifle was able to support two newspapers, even though its population was still around 5,000. As the advertising sales manager of the Rifle Tribune, some of my biggest customers were real estate agencies. Full page ads were the norm. Exxon, Unocal and other major oil company big-wigs, in addition to high ranking government officials, would drop into the paper as if we were the center of the universe.

This must have been similar to the pioneer days of Saint Louis when the West opened up a hundred years ago, I thought. As a young single female in a sea of men coming out to work in oil shale…well, my dance card was always filled. I bought a Victorian house in downtown Rifle. In January of 1982, I was planning on a big vacation trip to Australia.

Black Sunday
Then it became the worst of times. I was watching the Sunday TV news with a builder friend when we heard Exxon had pulled the plug on oil shale. A board room vote and a 30-second press release put thousands of people out of work and ruined lives in Western Colorado. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

My friend was perhaps one of the smartest business people at the time. He called all his workers that night and let them go; the next day he turned off his work phone. (He’s still in construction to this day.) Other business people hung on to the bottom and lost everything.

I came close to being one of them.

The Tribune closed. My home purchased at $85,000 was now worth $35,000-if I could have found a buyer. The nation’s economy was such that there were few places to go even if I had wanted to walk away like so many did. I put up my piano and other valuables for sale to make ends meet.

Those who went bust left, those who went broke stayed
Rifle became a special community during those bleak days. Regardless of our economic situation before May 2nd, oil shale’s demise put us all on equal footing and we hung together to survive. A banker helped me find a part-time job. A local gas station let me pay off my tires in installments so I could commute to Aspen to clean houses. Public Service techs waited weeks to turn off my electricity when I fell behind — and even then, they only turned off one of my meters, so I still had some heat and lights.

Holding down three part-time jobs and commuting hundreds of miles to work left little time for social life. I had roommates to help with the house payments, but that turned into more social work than a paying endeavor. However, my story was no different than others who struggled to stay in Rifle. Only after the rock bottom year of 1985, did the Rifle locals start seeing signs of a slow decade-long rebound.

Here we go again
After living in almost 20 years in hardship, what is it like during these current boom days of oil and gas drilling and another possible oil shale revival? It is very similar to 25 years ago– land speculation; lots of jobs and money; traffic; and many strangers in town-and a lot of promises by oil companies about their commitment to our community.

My reaction to these “good times” is probably a lot like my fellow Oil Shale Bust survivors: we are keeping our money in the bank so that when all of this goes bust again, we will be able to buy up some cheap property and hang on until the next boom. My husband and politics take up my social life now. He claims I’m too much of a pack rat, but I look at each item as a liquid asset for a future electric bill.

Some things in life have come full circle: I still have my old house, I’m back into the journalism business and I’m still planning on that vacation to Australia.

Read more about the Oil Shale Boom and Bust:

‘It doesn’t feel the same’ … as it did back then, say those who witnessed the downturn

A Black Sunday memory – bust led to desperate times

Economy similar to last boom

May 2, 1982: The day Exxon hit the road

Survivors of bust from Rifle, Parachute recall Black Sunday

GarCo commissioner didn’t fit in during oil shale boom

From the governor to families, oil shale bust spared few people

Is town of Rangely ready for oil shale’s return?

Oil shale’s bright promise gave way to dark days after Black Sunday

Who’s digging where

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About the Author

Leslie Robinson

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