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Slump in construction industry creates a Sheetrock ghost town

The Sheetrock producing Empire, Nev., will become a ghost town June 20. The isolated company town quit mining gypsum and dry wall production this year as a result of the construction industry slump.

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"Every day we made it was a day closer to economic recovery. But [the recession] just outlasted us," says Steve Conley, who began working here in the early 1970s. He rose to become quarry foreman, the same title once held by his father, Bud, who retired in 1987 after 33 years of service. "I was born in a haul truck," the younger Mr. Conley jokes, adding more soberly: "This is my home."

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Until January, the quarry was a noisy place. Blasts of ANFO, an explosive, punctuated the still mountain air, dislodging white, chalky chunks of ore from five terraced pits, the largest a half-mile across. A fleet of haul trucks shuttled 60-ton batches of gypsum six miles up the highway to the factory, where workers pulverized it, cooked it up past 500 degrees F. in massive kettles, and shaped it into the wallboard delivered for construction across the American West. Before the miners used trucks, they ferried 1,800-pound payloads along an aerial tram in colossal steel buckets, trailing blotches of spilled powder below.

By some accounts, the Empire facility – known here as "the gyp" – encompasses the longest continuously operating mine in the country. The mining claim, originally established by Pacific Portland Cement Co., dates to 1910.

Now the quarry is silent, its roads blocked off with gravel berms to discourage trespassers. The factory has been empty since Jan. 31. And Empire, a scrap of green in the desert, is already starting to fade. Lawns once immaculately tended are choked with weeds. A fence is rising around the perimeter. Residents say it makes Empire look like a "concentration camp." If someone doesn't find a new use for this place, the town will eventually vanish. When dust blows in from the desert, no one will be here to sweep it away. It will start erasing signs of human habitation in a place that has been settled since 1923, when miners established a tent city.

By the end of May, all but a handful of workers had already made the forced exodus. Before they left, many tossed their corporate hard hats high into the branches of a neighborhood tree, creating an impromptu monument to their lives here.

Those lives are all about to change drastically, because leaving Empire doesn't mean just moving down the road. Jobs in the immediate vicinity are scarce. Empire is located in one of the remotest corners of Nevada, which has long led the nation in unemployment. Apart from Gerlach – a neighboring hamlet with fewer than 200 people that shares its schools with Empire – the nearest town, Nixon, is 60 miles to the south on a reservation owned by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

Calvin Ryle began working in Empire on July 1, 1971. In January, he helped bring the last piece of drywall off the line. Standing beside a conveyor belt in the factory, where his son also worked as a maintenance mechanic and his daughter-in-law as a quality-lab technician, Mr. Ryle raised his hand and pressed the stop button for the last time.

"I've been here for 39 years and seven months," Ryle said at the time. As the plant's quality supervisor and former general foreman, he set the record for longest continuous service – "I've never missed a single day, never been injured." Shutting down the conveyor belt brought him to tears. "The worst thing you can hear in a board plant is silence," Ryle said. "You're a part of building America. It's not just making Sheetrock here."


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