A company town is a town where all property and services are owned by the employer. For an employer who plies its trade in mining, such towns are inventions of necessity to provide a labor force given the remote locations of the mineral discoveries.
U.S. Gypsum (USG), one of the leading producers of sheet rock, had just such a need when a major deposit of gypsum was discovered 100 miles north of Reno in the middle of the Nevada desert. Employing several hundred workers, USG’s town of Empire reached a peak population of 750 in the early 1960s.
But by 2011, U.S. Gypsum – hit hard by the economy and a reduced demand for sheet rock – was forced to close its doors and the town.
Empire, Nevada was founded in 1923 when miners for the Pacific Portland Cement Company began to set up a tent city for mining operations to mine the claim Pacific Portland made in 1910. The town didn’t grow until 1948 when U.S. Gypsum purchased all mining claims to the area and the associated land rights.
To attract workers to remote Empire, USG offered apartment rentals from $125 per month and two-bedroom houses from $250 per month.
USG went to great lengths to draw their workforce; a church was built as well as a pool, a 9-hole golf course, and a light-duty airport. There was also a convenience store, gas station, movie theater, and several bars.
Gasoline was said to cost 10% less than the closest major cities, another “perk” for the remote residents.
On January 31st 2011, U.S. Gypsum announced it would be closing the doors of its Empire Nevada plant. Ninety five jobs and the livelihood of the entire town were wiped out that day, although USG did allow residents to stay in the homes rent-free until the school year finished in June. By July of 2011 the town’s post office was finally closed and the zip code “89405” was struck from the national register.
A handful of residents have stayed behind despite the lack of services or industry. The neighboring town of Gerlach, a sprawling hamlet of 200 people, absorbed most of the displaced workers although the lack of replacement opportunities means unemployment is high.
Those that stayed behind have many reasons for doing so. Some were multi-generational residents; Empire was all they had known, and all their parents had known. Others were accustomed to rent of only $250 per month and quickly discovered it was impossible to find housing at such rates elsewhere.
Although largely deserted, there isn’t much in the way of “ruins” in Empire. While the factory and apartments are still there, they were vacated only recently and were well taken care-of. The remote location has kept vandals and looters away, and the climate has contributed to delay the decay.
Some residents have stayed behind in properties not owned by USG, so if you do visit please be considerate of the locals and their private property!