A pronghorn doe enjoys the quiet of Jeffrey City on a Saturday afternoon. She is taking her time grazing in the space between abandoned worker housing built for long-gone uranium miners.
One nearby building bears the faded sign “Bachelor Apt. #1.” Young men may have used this same spot to escape the confines of company housing and laze in the sun between shifts at the uranium mines. You could get any drug you wanted in Jeffrey City back then, and there wasn’t much to do, one former mine worker told a historian.
In 1979, at the height of life for uranium mines in the surrounding hills, there were 4,500 people here, according to western historian John Egan. The company Western Nuclear spent $1.5 million on worker housing, Egan wrote. Other businesses blossomed off the mine workers, but uranium was the town’s raison d’etre, and its Achilles heel.
Jeffrey City died a quick and somewhat violent death starting in the 1980s, Egan writes. As the uranium industry tanked, layoffs were accompanied by vandalism to the school, sabotage of electrical lines to the mines and bullets fired through car windows. Politicians blamed the federal government, regulation, and what they called unfounded worries about nuclear power.
A Presidential election created brief hope:
“Ronald Reagan’s victory over President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election was heralded by the Jeffrey City News as a return to nuclear power,” Egan wrote. “But political rhetoric could not overturn the realities of the market.” The mines did not recover, and as layoffs continued, radioactivity was discovered in some of the worker housing.
During the rest of the 80s, the townsfolk largely packed up and left, Egan wrote. There were 58 residents counted in the 2010 census — excluding pronghorn.