CASPER, Wyo. | For a busted boom town poised to make a comeback, Jeffrey City still looks like a ghost town.
A tattered, water-damaged phone book from 1989 dangles in an abandoned phone booth on the main street.
What was a school for 600 students is mostly boarded up, its population down to one lone little girl who is bused in from her rural home and taught by one teacher.
Once spiffy townhouses still hosting a few tenants stand next to the gaping hole of an abandoned building basement.
But while wind blows dust down the main street and ruffles the weeds in abandoned foundations, Energy Fuels Inc. from Colorado is busily moving ahead to revive the old Sheep Mountain uranium mine, just eight miles south of town.
The project that would bring 170 permanent employees to the area. And that doesn’t count the 200 construction workers who would help get the new project built.
Given that in 2010 the U.S. Census found only 58 residents in Jeffrey City, the prospect of a construction crew to build the mining operation and then 170 people earning good money to operate it could shake the empty foundations of the town that at its height had 5,000 residents.
The first influx of workers would be in 2015 when Energy Fuels plans to hire about 110 to build a processing plant. Energy Fuels will also need 40 workers to construct the open pit and another 50 to work in the underground mine — a total of 200 construction workers in the tiny town that lacks a gas station or grocery store.
A gathering place
Isabel Hiatt hopes to see more customers at the Split Rock Bar and Café, which she purchased in February. It is the only place to eat in town, and it has been building on the small business it has serving the nearby ranchers and drivers passing by on the road from Lander, 49 miles to the west, to Casper, 100 miles east and north.
Hiatt’s efforts and a good tourism summer brought the biggest crowd seen in the café for years to breakfast in late June. After a slowdown in late morning, the lunch crowd was joined by six French tourists on Harley Davidson motorcycles doing their American swing through the West.
They had left from Rock Springs in the morning and were headed in to buy cheeseburgers at the log-cabin-style restaurant where a life-sized cutout of John Wayne greets visitors inside the front door and animal heads decorate the walls.
Behind the bar is the cribbage board that lists the champions of the Annual Cribbage Tournament for each year, including Hiatt as the latest winner.
Her purchase of the café that has risen and fallen with the fortunes of the mining town fulfilled a dream she had since she waited tables at the Split Rock when she was 19.
Hiatt says she “was raised at the foot of Green Mountain” and went to school in Jeffrey City from kindergarten to fifth grade. Buying the café is a strategy to get her off the road, where she now works as a heavy equipment operator for a construction company. She hopes to retire eventually and work at the café full time.
In the four months that she has been the owner, Hiatt has seen increased traffic from people she calls Jeffrey City “alumni,” including two of her former teachers from the once-busy school.
The café’s standbys are people like John Corbett and his grandsons Jack and Thomas, relaxing at a table while they waited for hamburgers one June morning. John and his wife ranch nearby, and the boys are working in the area for the summer.
They dropped by to eat because everybody who could cook at the ranch was gone for the day. John said that he “cowboyed with Isabel’s dad,” and his opinion is that it’s hard to have a small business in Jeffrey City.
“A lot depends on who steps off the highway and stops here,” he said, stretching out his dust-covered cowboy boots.
Corbett enjoys the quiet of the area, although thinking back on the boom time of the ‘70s, he remembers that, “It was nice to have two or three restaurants, bars, a hardware store and two grocery stores. They were handy.”
‘A cheaper place to live’
Peter Weiss relocated to Jeffrey City from Casper on June 26, seeking a cheaper place to live. On his first day in town, he was clearing some decades-old decayed food out of a refrigerator he had reclaimed from a nearby abandoned apartment.
He left Casper behind when he realized that he could rent a weathered townhouse for $350 a month, half what he was paying in Casper for a trailer. So he closed his mechanic business and moved to Jeffrey City with three cars, three motorcycles and one truck.
“It’s peaceful,” he said. “People look out for each other.”
One person who isn’t convinced that the town will see a change is the owner of the once busy Top Hat Motel, John Hanzlik. He’s even sold the motel’s iconic sign, though he hasn’t totally given up hope that business could return to town.
“They’ve been talking about more mining (nearby) for years,” he said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”