From the first homestead rush and early railroad days through the oil booms of the 20th century, remote areas of eastern Montana and the Dakotas have experienced repeated cycles of boom and bust.
Newcomers to the MonDak region have always faced hardship. Droves of homesteaders flocked to the area in hopes of a new life, only to flee in the tens of thousands when droughts plagued crop production. Where entire towns were abandoned, only ghost towns remain, echoes of the communities they once were. Yet some homesteaders stayed and made a living among the buttes and patchwork farmland that make this place remarkable.
In decades to follow, oil booms ushered in waves of modernization, building pipelines, growing towns, paving roads, and bringing hospitals and schools. In 1952, the Billings Gazette wrote about the “liquid gold” that gave Sidney a much-needed commercial jolt. That jolt brought airline service, a library, a new fire station and police headquarters, and myriad infrastructural improvements to the once-small town.
Now, the Northern Plains are booming again, with more people, development, and cash flow. While it’s a familiar pattern, it’s happening on a grander scale than anything seen before. Advances in fossil fuel drilling and extraction technology have brought another wave of fortune seekers to the high plains and a 200,000 square mile oil field underneath the land fuels another rush for liquid gold. This development is fundamentally altering the Northern Plains.
Complex issues accompany such rapid expansion. Towns have grown in size at breakneck rates—building permits for single-family homes in Dickinson more than quadrupled in 2012. Crime rates are rising—the once small town of Watford City underwent a 565 percent increase in crime between 2005 and 2011. The cost of living is among the highest in the nation—Williston is the most expensive place to rent in the U.S. On the other hand, unemployment barely exists. Family businesses, once on the brink of closure, are grossing unheard-of profits.
This current boom may last for decades, but no one can predict what the future holds. The High Plains Heritage Project hopes to reach a better understanding of the Northern Plains’ current growth and the long-term effects by exploring the people and history. For better or worse, the area teems with untold stories.
We’re telling these stories through a series of intimate portraits and interviews. Involving members of communities old and new, from families who have farmed the land for generations to newcomers seeking their fortune, this multimedia documentary will chronicle both the economic history of the region and its present evolution, with an eye toward what lies ahead.