How the other half lives Western North Dakota is a completely different environment than the eastern half of the state. Sometimes residents who grew up here have a hard time recognizing it, too.

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Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure west, with brown grass and water scoring and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charlie in Search of America


As a new chapter in Western North Dakota’s history continues to unfold, it is impossible to not feel the frenzied pace of oil production throughout all areas of life. In spite of our growing pains, this is our home and people from all corners of the United States get to experience North Dakota for themselves. Welcome to Oil Country.


The sun rises over North Dakota Highway 23 marking a new day for Watford City on September 18, 2014. Likewise, it is a new era for North Dakota. As the oil boom settles in we have the privilege of being the generation that will shape our state's future. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The sun rises over North Dakota Highway 23 marking a new day for Watford City on September 18, 2014. Likewise, it is a new era for North Dakota. As the oil boom settles in we have the privilege of being the generation that will shape our state’s future. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Pumping units raise and bow their heads methodically as they always have, but now we see them in packs of 2 or 4 or even 10. Thanks to technological advances in directional drilling, oil producers are able to maximize the use of the surface area of each location and install multiple wells on a single pad, reducing the overall footprint of oil production. Rather than create 10 pads, they'll put 10 wells on one (slightly larger) pad. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Pumping units raise and bow their heads methodically as they always have, but now we see them in packs of 2 or 4 or even 10. Thanks to technological advances in directional drilling, oil producers are able to maximize the use of the surface area of each location and install multiple wells on a single pad, reducing the overall footprint of oil production. Rather than create 10 pads, they’ll put 10 wells on one (slightly larger) pad. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The frenzy of oil production is seen in full force as a caravan of tanker trucks haul crude or water past four drilling rigs that drill in unison along the same lease road. The staggering sense of urgency to create producing oil wells is unique to this region but, as one local commented recently, "It's too easy! They drill a hole in the ground and they hit oil…every time. Why wouldn't they keep drilling?" Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The frenzy of oil production is seen in full force as a caravan of tanker trucks haul crude or water past four drilling rigs that drill in unison along the same lease road. The staggering sense of urgency to create producing oil wells is unique to this region but, as one local commented recently, “It’s too easy! They drill a hole in the ground and they hit oil…every time. Why wouldn’t they keep drilling?” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
A herd of cattle pass an oil location as they come in from pasture. The serenity of North Dakota's Grasslands is disappearing which is unfortunate to be sure, but bittersweet for most as they remember the economic gains that they represent. "As much as I hate the traffic and seeing the flares and pumping unites everywhere, I'm thankful for the blessings it's brought to our community," a Watford City local shared. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
A herd of cattle pass an oil location as they come in from pasture. The serenity of North Dakota’s Grasslands is disappearing which is unfortunate to be sure, but bittersweet for most as they remember the economic gains that they represent. “As much as I hate the traffic and seeing the flares and pumping units everywhere, I’m thankful for the blessings it’s brought to our community,” a Watford City local shared. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The Maah Daah Hey Trail has even been effected by the oil field as drilling locations forced the re-routing of the 140 mile long single track trail. The term "shared trail" takes on new meaning as mountain bikers, hikers, campers and equestrians now cross paths with pumping units and oil field traffic as they cross gravel roads. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The Maah Daah Hey Trail has even been effected by the oil field as drilling locations forced the re-routing of the 140 mile long single track trail. The term “shared trail” takes on new meaning as mountain bikers, hikers, campers and equestrians now cross paths with pumping units and oil field traffic as they cross gravel roads. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Housing is arguably the biggest issue on everyone's mind. "We need to find affordable permanent housing for families" one hears over and over again from members of the community, long-time residents and transplants alike. "Affordable" and "permanent" aren't qualities that define the current housing situation. Temporary trailer parks and man-camps are the norm for oil workers. Almost 50% of Watford City's resident qualify as "non-permanent residents," meaning they work here but then travel home to their state of residence during their time off. A February 2014 survey from ApartmentGuide.com found that rent prices in Williston, N.D., ranks as the highest in the country beating San Francisco, San Jose New York City and L.A. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Housing is arguably the biggest issue on everyone’s mind. “We need to find affordable permanent housing for families” one hears over and over again from members of the community, long-time residents and transplants alike. “Affordable” and “permanent” aren’t qualities that define the current housing situation. Temporary trailer parks and man-camps are the norm for oil workers. Almost 50% of Watford City’s resident qualify as “non-permanent residents,” meaning they work here but then travel home to their state of residence during their time off. A February 2014 survey from ApartmentGuide.com found that rent prices in Williston, N.D., ranks as the highest in the country beating San Francisco, San Jose, New York City and L.A. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The population boom has created significant traffic and auto congestion on the roadways throughout the region. In 2014, the intersection of Highway 85 and Main Street in Watford City (pictured here) has seen an average of 18,625 cars per day according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, up from 7,025 in 2011 and 2,700 in 2008…that's an increase of almost 16,000 cars per day in just six years. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The population boom has created significant traffic and auto congestion on the roadways throughout the region. In 2014, the intersection of Highway 85 and Main Street in Watford City (pictured here) has seen an average of 18,625 cars per day according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, up from 7,025 in 2011 and 2,700 in 2008…that’s an increase of almost 16,000 cars per day in just six years. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
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 It is a 24-hour culture now. While most are sleeping the drilling rigs are active. Even some construction continues through the night. Once a location is approved to be drilled, earth-movers and heavy equipment roll in to level the ground and prepare the surface for oil production. "Open prairie" transforms into "oil pad," complete with operation drilling rig like this one, in less than one-week's time. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
It is a 24-hour culture now. While most are sleeping the drilling rigs are active. Even some construction continues through the night. Once a location is approved to be drilled, earth-movers and heavy equipment roll in to level the ground and prepare the surface for oil production. “Open prairie” transforms into “oil pad,” complete with operation drilling rig like this one, in less than one-week’s time. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The agricultural community has adjusted to numerous unforeseen circumstances. The dust you see here isn't grain dust, it's dirt from the nearby road that was kicked up by oilfield traffic and re-settled back on the wheat. It takes a toll on the equipment as farmers and ranchers change fuel, oil and air filters with greater frequency and make repairs due to accelerated corrosion. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The agricultural community has adjusted to numerous unforeseen circumstances. The dust you see here isn’t grain dust, it’s dirt from the nearby road that was kicked up by oilfield traffic and re-settled back on the wheat. It takes a toll on the equipment as farmers and ranchers change fuel, oil and air filters with greater frequency and make repairs due to accelerated corrosion. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
"The semi truck drivers are actually the best, they're respectful and seem to have an idea of how tough it is to move the equipment nowadays" a farmer said recently. "It's the pickup trucks that are the worst, trying to pass you at crazy speeds." Farm equipment was much easier to move before the oil boom. Now, the constant traffic forces farmers to take alternate routes that strategically avoid the most heavily traveled sections of highway. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
“The semi truck drivers are actually the best, they’re respectful and seem to have an idea of how tough it is to move the equipment nowadays” a farmer said recently. “It’s the pickup trucks that are the worst, trying to pass you at crazy speeds.” Farm equipment was much easier to move before the oil boom. Now, the constant traffic forces farmers to take alternate routes that strategically avoid the most heavily traveled sections of highway. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
"The drilling rigs of course [are obstructions], but you used to make a nice clean sweep through a field and now you have an oil well site which has a pumper, tanks, wires and poles coming into that field. So, really, the obstructions were always there but now there's just more of them," Kent Taylor of Taylor Ag Services (pictured above applying fungicide to a field near County Road 12 in Watford City, N.D.) commented about the hazards of crop dusting in the age of oil production. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
“The drilling rigs of course [are obstructions], but you used to make a nice clean sweep through a field and now you have an oil well site which has a pumper, tanks, wires and poles coming into that field. So, really, the obstructions were always there but now there’s just more of them,” Kent Taylor of Taylor Ag Services (pictured above applying fungicide to a field near County Road 12 in Watford City, N.D.) commented about the hazards of crop dusting in the age of oil production. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The rail lines are clogged with oil cars as they struggle to keep up with demand from the agricultural community. According to a recent report, BNSF has 1,016 past-due rail cars, averaging 10-days late; the Canadian Pacific Railway has over 7,500 past-due cars, averaging 13 weeks behind. What does that mean for farmers? In some cases they are still storing grain from the 2013 harvest on their land because the elevators are unable to make room, putting extraordinary strain on the industry as a whole. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The rail lines are clogged with oil cars as they struggle to keep up with demand from the agricultural community. According to a recent report, BNSF has 1,016 past-due rail cars, averaging 10-days late; the Canadian Pacific Railway has over 7,500 past-due cars, averaging 13 weeks behind. What does that mean for farmers? In some cases they are still storing grain from the 2013 harvest on their land because the elevators are unable to make room, putting extraordinary strain on the industry as a whole. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The sun sets over Watford City as cars and trucks move through the late summer haze on the truck bypass south of town. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
The sun sets over Watford City as cars and trucks move through the late summer haze on the truck bypass south of town. Image © Chad Ziemendorf

While drilling rigs might be a part of the landscape for another decade or so, Western North Dakota’s decisions today will be felt for generations to come. It’s our responsibility to ensure that, when we wake up in 5, 10 or 20 years, we’re thankful that we made every possible effort to build the community that we wanted to be a part of.

 

Intersection Journal, North Dakota

39 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed the photos and the story! Like to see more….

  2. I grew up in Ray (class of 1965), got my education at Dickinson State University and NDSU, lived in Minnesota on Lake Superior for nine years and returned to live and work in Fargo in 1980. I love hearing stories and seeing pictures from home. Even though I live in the east end of the state, I will always consider Williams County and surrounding area the home of my heart. Thank you for showing pictures and offering a realistic and positive perspective on the new prosperity in Western ND. The people in the middle of the boom have a history of hard work and resilience. I have always been proud of the great spirit of the people there.

  3. Well I really like this story and more so that my dad’s rv parks are in one of those pictures and people don’t really relize that it’s more than just flat cold land (somtimes in the summers it’s really hot)

  4. Amazing photos! I would love to see you do something like this but focus on the oil industry and drilling near or on “special places” such as the Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

  5. Born and raised in McKenzie County , North Dakota, I really enjoyed your pictures and the stories they told. I moved to Iowa and have lived here since the 70s. I am amazed at how little the rest of the country really knows about what is happening in North Dakota. But than again, for me it is the contrast of what I remember growing up in the 50s and 60s and what is happening now that is so amazing. Congratulations for embracing the inevitable changes . Thank you for sharing them in pictures and stories.

  6. This is the town that I grew up in and Watford back then is when saturday was a quiet town and sunday the stores were shut down. Gas stations had workers that would sit and wait for customers to come in. Small hills that we played on are now levied off and have housing on them. I used to walk a mile south on this road to see friends and talk to them, now you talk to people on cell phones and don’t walk and play at their houses. Progress is good, don’t get me wrong, and it is great that it is happening in our little town. Hope to see many more of these stories to come. Allen Gifstad, Kearney Nebraska.

  7. love this article and the pics. We have been “non residence” for almost 3 years and I am in aww of how much Watford City grows each time I visit my husband! 🙂

  8. That was very interesting,hope to see more pictures and comments from my home town. sure has changed from when I graduated fromWCHS in 1957.

  9. Absolutely some great shots and a very good story. Keep them coming.

  10. Chad, I grew up in Williston. I left there at 24, moved to the Bay Area and eventually ended up in Mi. Most of my family stills resides in Williston. The town I remember was simple, quiet and pretty much uneventful. These are things I craved in my life and couldn’t wait for our annual trip “home” to renew and refresh. I would always carve out time alone to go for drives/walks around this sleepy town I grew up in. I remember vividly my first trip back after the boom… my spirit was crushed. It was like someone took away my childhood. Not being able to revisit places and attach memories to them was sobering. Almost nothing had gone unchanged. The fact that there is a “skyline” just rattles my brain. So I hear stories from my family about what is going on in the Bakken. Life there can be difficult for my parents who are getting older but my siblings have adjusted well and found a new normal. I love coming across articles or news stories about Williston so when I found yours on FB I was excited! Your photographs are telling and stunning to look at! Thank you for telling this unbelievable story, I so look forward to joining this adventure! Amy

    • Hi Amy, sincere thanks for sharing about your experiences. It is indeed incredible to see the changes, especially with such velocity. We look forward to telling more stories and are thrilled that they resonate with you!

  11. We have been here for several years and love it more everyday! We are so blessed to have a place to live and work, to support our families and worship God freely. I can’t imagine how many families would be suffering without North Dakota!

    • Thrilled to hear that you have found a home here and that you love it so much. As more and more people continue to move to ND I hope that they adopt it as their own like you have.

  12. Thank you for sharing! I will be showing these to my students who live in eastern ND, as an accurate representation of what we hear all the time.

  13. Nice pictorial. A great way for us “expats” to see our western North Dakota home. Thank you.

  14. Thank you to everyone who has read, commented on and shared this article, the response has been overwhelming and humbling. I sincerely appreciate that these stories resonate with so many people and that you’ve taken the time to share your own. It means a lot that many of you have provided your own insight and written about your personal experiences. It’s obvious that this is a special place to so many of us and exciting to see how deep your passion goes.

  15. My husband and I used to drive the U.S. coast to coast. No hurry, back roads, national parks, monuments, little towns, big cities, etc. Always loved the Dakota’s. From the pictures I just viewed re North Dakota, it sure has changed. Guess that’s progress.

  16. My family is from Keene, ND. I grew up in New Town and Williston. Thanks for the great pictures. They capture both the chaos and the beauty of my old home.

  17. There are so many beautiful stories in our community that deserve to be told, thank you for doing it in such a creative and reverent way! We can’t wait to read more!

  18. I grew up in williston. Just returned from a 60th HS reunion. What a change no more sleepy town or peaceful walks out to Twin Lakes for a quit day. Cemetery used to be in the country now in the middle of traffic and so much building. I enjoyed all the pictures . Glad I was able to see some of the changes in person.

  19. I was very impressed with your comments and photos. Embracing change and using its momentum to propel the area in a positive direction is a one-time opportunity. An opportunity to enhance the changing culture and use it to benefit the community now and in the future. Your vision is one that few would see or act upon. You are to be commended for your article and bright outlook. I love North Dakota. My Dad was born outside of Dickinson and we still have relatives that live in the area.

  20. The thirty-one years I lived in North Dakota are the longest time I’ve lived anywhere. My husband and I moved from Miot, ND to Vermont in 2007. The changes shown in the pictures are overwhelming. I really appreciate the chance to see them.

  21. Great picctures! Brings me back to the summers I spent growing on the Thunderbird Ranch south of Ray on hwy 1804. My cousin lived in Watford, we spent many an hour ” cruising” on the streets as teenagers back in the early 90’s, we were lucky if there were two other cars in that street. So crazy how much it has changed. I still make it up there once a year or so. I have family in Trenton, Ray , and Tioga. The pictures are bittersweet to me. Thanks , great job.

  22. This was really eye-opening! I grew up in a small town called Lansford, just shy of the Canadian border. My school only went up to 6th grade (until it shut down in 2006) and our population was only about 150. We had three churches and a bar, that was about it. Our gas pumps didn’t have card swipe slots, and our mechanic took every weekend off. Just a few years ago, Zimny Oilfield Services based it’s operations there and I started to see the changes happen. For the most part, they are respectful…but of course there’s always a bad apple in every basket. But it’s not all bad- the bar and the local cafe are thriving on the traffic. And I now work out in Tioga making much more money than I could anywhere else. I have a lot of respect for the people that live and work in the oilfield!

  23. I grew up in North Dakota and it is tragic to see what’s become of it because of the oil industry. Those pictures make me want to weep. A once beautiful state now ruined by greed, oil and industry. Shame on you.

  24. Thank you Chad for bringing me back home. I was born NW of Watford City and grew up there. My for the changes. Have been back many times and seen the changes. It is bittersweet for me. However I am glad that the community can realize the benefits that come with such economic activity. There are disadvantages also and I realize that. But I do appreciate the photo’s and videos. Thank you so much.

  25. I’d like to hear some stats on “job creation.” The energy industry has saved many households from foreclosure in other states. It would be great to get out of “survival/crisis” mode. Again, high standards start at the top. Pay attention who you vote for.

  26. Formerly a Tioga, ND resident, many of my family still live in the area, Grandchildren work in the oilfield.
    Beautiful pictures!

  27. I grew up just a little outside “oil country” in a small town with a cow on the hill… I left in the early 90’s and spent roughly 20 years in Florida until returning 3 years ago. I have not been in the heart of it all since moving back but have spent some time in Dickenson and Minot. As a true outdoors lover I would really like to see and hear your impact on the wild life. 20 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to take most of those pictures without catching a pheasant or deer or maybe even a few antelope. It seems to me that all the new homes and so called progress it’s running the wild life right out of the state and with no where to go.

  28. Hi- I just picked up the photos of Western North Dakota. guess I had heard about the drastic changes in the landscape there and also wonder for the folks who have homes out there. Years ago, when the children were small,My husband and I loaded up a cooler of frozen food from the freezer, another box of groceries, sleeping bags and a tent and would load up our family of 6 and go traveling out that way! Loved that area and can hardly imagine how different it must be for the residents of that area My husband, Ken and I had farmed out here in the southern Red River valley, for over 60 years and just this past year dear Ken passed away with kidney failure. Ou son farms the land, and I am still on the Homestead here. . Thanks for the photos. much appreciated!
    Will watch for more photos, okay? Thanks! Mary Nash, Colfax, North Dakota

  29. it looks like the Santa Fe Railroad Line, and full of Natures Wild Flowers and Untrampled landscapes!

  30. Thank you very much for the pictures. I am a graduate of wchs in 1970. I will always consider N Dak mainly Watford City. Thank for sending the pictures of changes. Life keeps changing.

  31. Fabulous photography! It looks like it should be featured in one of those deluxe photojournalism books with leather covers!

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