For most of the past two decades the United States Gypsum Company (USG) plant in Empire, Nevada, churned out sheetrock around the clock. But when the economy tanked and the real estate foreclosure crisis hit in 2008, construction companies stopped buying the plant’s wallboard, and the company town’s future was suddenly in doubt. As recently as a year ago, ninety-nine USG workers remained on the payroll, and employees and their families continued to live in Empire’s company-provided housing. But in June 2011, the town—a four-street subdivision, really—was finally abandoned and fenced off, a victim of the real estate downturn.
Today, just six months later, Empire is looking more and more like the ghost town it is. There is no movement behind the chainlink fence, except for sagebrush and tumbleweed blowing in the desert wind. The vacant drywall plant, empty barracks-style housing units, and two rusty basketball hoops on a silent playground serve as reminders of days gone by. Desert plants are sprouting up around the houses and churches, not to mention the town’s swimming pool and residential park. The airport, day care facility, and USG railway no longer function, and the post office (zip code 89405) has been closed. The mine has been abandoned too, and only white, gypsum-paved roads remain to scar an otherwise pristine landscape.
Located about a hundred miles northeast of Reno in the Black Rock Desert, Empire (and its neighbor town, Gerlach, five miles north on Highway 447), is situated in the midst of a breathtakingly scenic part of northern Nevada. The desert’s large, flat lake bed makes it ideal for setting vehicular land speed records, and it’s a popular place for experimenting with rockets. It’s also home to the Burning Man Festival, an annual, weeklong New Age art festival/party that focuses on radical self-expression and self-reliance. Burning Man attracts upwards of 50,000 people, providing a considerable, albeit temporary, boost to the region’s economy.
Inside Empire General Store, located just outside Empire’s locked gates, much of the shelf space is bare. Entire refrigeration units are empty, and the sparsely-packed produce bin contained only apples, onions, and bananas on the day I visited. The store still keeps regular hours, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. most days, but customers are few and far between. There’s no debating the fact that the closure of the town has hit the store hard.
Predictably, the local community is sad about the demise of Empire. One man spoke to me about his uncle—a 30-year employee of USG. He fondly recalled a time when children enjoyed sledding down hillsides of gypsum on large sheets of drywall. The sledding, he says, was a favorite pastime of his youth. Later, as an adult, he enjoyed four-wheeling on the gypsum mounds, and watching rail cars as they passed by.
But to be sure, the greatest adjustment for the locals who remain in the area is the loss of many lifelong friendships. Because the employees of USG-Empire lived and worked together in a tight-knit community it was said that ‘everybody knew everything about everybody.’ At least, folks say, virtually everyone who was laid off found work. Out of necessity, most of the former residents left for mining jobs in other parts of Nevada, leaving those who remain with a huge hole in their lives.
The closure of Empire has also been tough on Gerlach. Prior to the town’s decline, school children in Empire were bused to the K-12 Gerlach School. At the beginning of the 2010-11 academic year the school was educating 80 students (ranging from three preschoolers to ten high-school seniors). As of this writing, there are only nine students enrolled—total. Naturally, there has been a concomitant decrease in staff. The teachers have adapted by assuming multiple roles with, for example, the science teacher doubling as the welding teacher.
The future of Empire General Store is similarly uncertain, though the owners say they’ll stay open as long as they can. Still, the USG mining operation and drywall plant was obviously a mission-critical part of the local economy. Area residents wonder what the future holds, and whether the town will ever reopen. USG says it hopes the housing market bounces back enough to make the drywall plant profitable once again. For the foreseeable future, though, Empire is likely to remain a ghost town.