The Black Gold Rush – Bakken Formation Oil Boom

September 8, 2012 Travis Dewitz

I have been hearing so much about the big oil boom in the Bakken Formation, I decided I needed to go. The oil boom is affecting much of western North Dakota and Northeast Montana. Williston, North Dakota is in the heart of oil rush and also the largest city in the area. New oil drilling techniques and technologies is what has made to oil extraction possible and feasible in the recent years. Fracking is a big part of this new oil business in the Bakken oil fields and much of the special sand needed for fracking comes right from my home state of Wisconsin.

Some of the stories I heard that coaxed me to head west included mobs of RVs taking over the Williston Wal-Mart’s parking lot, $17 hour starting wages at local fast food restaurants, help needed signs everywhere, gas stations with entire walls of hot gas station food, thick mud on the floors holding doors open, studio apartment rent as high as $1200 a month with larger places well over $3000 a month and stores so busy that they no longer could keep the product on the shelves and just parked pallets in the aisle-way. The stories didn’t end there either. I heard even more on my trip west that included stories about store excepting credit only as any cash on hand could prompt being robbed as the crime was getting so bad in the area. The stories continued once I arrived in the Bakken range about temporary postal workers making $22 an hour, man camp murders, and near lawlessness.

A couple of stories stuck out. One was about the nightly fights that happen in front of the bars and dance clubs in downtown Williston. The fights start around 9pm and sometimes go on throughout the night. When police arrive, it appears not much happens and sometimes they don’t even intervene. Another includes many men that come of the train with no money and no idea what there next step is. They heard about the oil boom but missed the memo on lack of housing. They show up thinking the oil company bosses are waiting at the passenger station to give them a job. It is amazing with the amount of information available on the internet that they would at least line up some contact information before heading hundreds of miles into the unknown. The one story that amazed me the most was about how many homeless vagrants would head to the money rich Bakken region looking for free handouts, homeless shelters, and other ways to pull money out of the economy without contributing. I can’t imagine what they do when the cold North Dakota winter sets in.

I didn’t experience all of the stories I heard but I did experience a few of them and could easily see how a few others were very plausible. Much of the area I think was getting slightly caught up to the huge inflow of people. Wal-Mart did kick the campers out of their lot and their huge store was fully stocked and very busy. Vagrants did roam the streets of Williston while others were just passed out from the night before. Below I will share what I saw in my trip around the Bakken oil region.

My mornings usually started at 5:30 am in my trucks front seat at a busy truck stop. These truck stops are busy all night long hundreds of trucks coming and going throughout the day and night. You know you are in the Bakken region when no matter where you look, you see something made of steel related to natural gas or oil. The open North Dakota landscape in this area is full of pipes jutting out of the ground, tanks, oil drilling rigs, and oil pumpjacks. None of these structures look like they belong to the landscape but a few are painted to blend in. Most of these structures are unmanned with the oil well pumpjacks  just slowly rocking up and down in a soothing motion.  You will find these oil pumpjacks in wheat fields, just outside of towns, top of plateaus, or anywhere else oil is located below. The deeper you get into the region, the more and more oil drilling rigs you will see. The oil drilling rigs are much larger and taller than any other structures that you will see and are fully manned around the clock.

Check out the newest Bakken Oil post here.

Once you get deeper in the Bakken region you will start seeing RVs in places that look out-of-place like in people’s yards, in middle of towns, in fields, or thrown together camps. These camps can be easily identified by the large trucks and work vehicles parked out front. Eventually you will come across one of the many rail loading facilities. These oil loading facilities take oil either from tanker trucks or via pipeline which are then loaded onto railroad tank cars for shipment across the country. If you are seeing oil loading terminals and/or oil drilling rigs, I am sure you will also see a few man camps. Man camps are usually built by the oil companies for their employees and are pre fabbed living quarters put together into a small community usually with central amenities including food cafeteria, laundry, exercise room, and rec room.

The roadways are also extremely busy with heavy truck traffic transporting oil, gas, heavy equipment, water, chemicals, and everything else needed to support all the industries. No matter where you look you will see trucks hauling something and if you don’t see a truck you will see a help wanted sign or a sign with the latest deals on it. The population increase started to become more and more apparent as I circled around from west-central North Dakota west into Montana and up and around back east towards Williston. 

Williston is where the biggest part of the oil boom was happening. The population increase was incredible to see with large hotels going up just as fast as the drilling rigs in the area. Every construction site was also fall of RVs to house all of the construction workers. Many of the oil companies have bought out all the rooms and some of the hotels with others advertising weekly rates of $700. Parts of Williston are pretty tough with the outer parts of the town completely brand new. From Williston east on highway 2 was all new construction. New roads, new pipelines, new pumps, and rigs. Everything was under construction in some form or another. There was also no shortage of prefab homes coming west down the highway.

As the sun begins to set, you start to notice a landscape full of small fires everywhere. These flames are from all of the oil pumpjacks and drilling rigs that need to burn off small pockets of natural gas that come up as they pump or drill for oil. Without pipelines to transport the natural gas they need to burn it off. All of these facilities have flare stacks just for this purpose. It wasn’t just Williston that was full of new construction as every small town east of was also.

An example of one of these small town is Tioga which still has its small town charm even though there are new hotels, a gas station, and oil refinery in town. Once your down on Main Street it was like the oil boom didn’t even exist.  Hopefully these small town will be able to hang onto this quality without succumbing to the crime that seems to come to many of the larger towns.

Check out the newest Bakken Oil post here.

Travis Dewitz Powerlines Portrait Thumb PhotographThrough the creative lens of Travis Dewitz; he demonstrates time and time again how much splendor can be extracted from the interplay of the industrial world around us. In the most unusual and unexpected places Dewitz showcases images that embody the forgotten beauty of railways, factory floors, the rolling smoke of steel mills, and the cities that are built around them. He brings a certain magic as he invokes the very souls of these once-glorious industrial areas; his captures overflow with inspirational energy. Click here to view his personal series.

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Also check out my artistic piece about a Oil Well Pumpjack Exploding to Life.

Travis Dewitz

My name is Travis Dewitz and I am from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My specialty is commercial photography with a love for expressive portraits. My work is Conceptual, Emotive, Editorial, Surreal and Eclectic. I am passionate about fashioning new worlds through photographs as I extend my visions beyond the realm of the camera. I have incredible vision, which you can see in all of my photos.

Comments (33)

  1. Mark Perry


    Been a prairie boy all my life, those are some mighty fine and incredible images, small town Tioga being the fave. Well done my freind, well done…

  2. LocalRailfanPhotography

    While browsing the recently added photos on I came across one of your shots which led me to this webpage. I had heard of such an oil boom in the past but never in detail. This series of photograph’s definitely showed an in-depth look at what exactly is happening out in North Dakota. Unique shots, would be interesting to see if anyone shoots the oil boom out in Alberta…

    • Yes it would be. Nothing tells a story of an area better than a larger selection of photographs. I enjoy viewing them and that is one reason why I have done a few myself of subjects I am interested in. Many more planned.

  3. Charidy Riedel Neff

    That being my hometown area, you did an awesome job! Love the pictures & the story! Thanks!

  4. Jeff Lusanne

    There are some very striking and informative images here, you have really constructed a story of what is going on in the region – one that is not being told in many other places. As a viewer, though, I kinda wish that the image captions were below the photo.

  5. modular cabins

    Really loved these photos. These not only projects good captures but also stories. All these photos are the real persons and the real situation. It tells a lot and will hold the memory for a lifetime.

  6. Great article and superb photos. Very well done! I shared a few of your pictures on our website, we gave you credit and linked back to your site of course. I hope you don’t mind.

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