Parachute, Colorado By Jim Urquhart
“I don’t know how you can weather this if you can’t roll.”
Much of the history of the American West is based on stories of booms and the almost inevitable bust that follows. The land is dotted with decaying remnants of towns that once seemed to be drenched in fortune but then strangled by the drought of bust.
Then there is Parachute, Colorado, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains east of Grand Junction. Founded in the 1900s, Parachute was the site of one of the most devastating and quickest busts ever seen.
On May 2, 1982, Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Shale Oil Project, since remembered as in town as “Black Sunday.” Exxon had been ramping up to begin retrieving shale oil from the mesa north of town, but when market conditions in oil began to fall, they pulled out. Overnight, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and as many as 15,000 people soon left the region – maybe more.
But the town of Parachute was still left and even endured the loss as the construction of Interstate 70 bulldozed its way through soon after. Exploration of the area’s resources had begun well before “Black Sunday.” Newspapers from the ’60s include front-page stories about other companies looking to exploit the reserves of shale oil.
And natural gas has long played a role. In 1969, a 40-kiloton nuclear device was exploded underground as part of Project Rulison, to free natural gas from the rock south of town. The frack proved successful in releasing the gas, but it was found to be radioactive.
Since “Black Sunday”, about 1,000 residents now call the town of Parachute proper home. Natural gas brought yet another boom to the area beginning in the ’90s, but it, too, was not insulated from market conditions. When prices fell in 2008, the town saw yet another decline, yet not as harsh as the termination of the Colony Shale Oil Project. Today, natural gas is a major economic driver for the town, with companies like Encana and WPX Energy pumping the thousands of wells in the area or actively hydraulic fracking new wells to release the gas below.
The town is led by Mayor Roy McClung, who makes his living in the oil industry. His family has been here for several generations and has seen the feast and famine firsthand. Along with previous members of the town council, they have stashed away about two years of budget to continue offering services in the event that another crash befalls them.
Part of his initiative is to look for ways to bring more economic diversity to the area. At one point, the town explored bringing gambling in to spur growth. Sales tax being the primary source of the town’s funds, economic studies are in the works to bring more investment into the community. He would like to bring in services like a grocery store , since current residents have to trek to either Rifle or Grand Junction for a full load of groceries. “I have dreams … just have to figure out how to pay for them.”
And much like the mayor, there are people like Diana Lawrence who graduated high school in the town and invests in it when she can. She, along with a business partner, runs Mama’s Restaurant on the town’s 1st Street. The building, that was once a bank and later a bar, now serves hot meals to the locals and provides catered meals to the crews on drilling rigs. She also believes that the diverse professions of those in town has allowed it to weather economic storms. “We learned from it, and we grew from it.”
The town people have a long history of independence. Judy Beasley came in 1967 with her now late husband Joseph “David” Beasley. Being a school teacher, she was hired on the spot. Later, she and her husband both served as mayor and ran a gift shop for 30 years.
Her home is now within earshot of an active natural gas -drilling rig, and along a wall inside are all the awards the two gathered in their service to the town. She noted it was painful to watch friends move from the area as the markets fluctuated. She likens it to watching family members move away. However, she is optimistic for the town’s future and believes economic diversity will be its key to longevity. “I don’t know how you can weather this if you can’t roll,” she said with a smile.