COLSTRIP – The sky’s the thing here, or one of the big things.
If you haven’t lost yourself in a Montana prairie sky lately, especially in June, especially after a rain shower, you may have forgotten what it does to you.
We went chasing rainbows, photographer Michael Gallacher and I, on the night we got to Colstrip.
Folks here who are used to such sky shows must have thought we were crazy or, more suspicious, mountain people.
There was the big, fat prism that planted its butt somewhere beyond the four coal-fired generating plants that define this town to everyone but itself.
There was the skinnier, more complete arc of primary colors that assembled far out past the reclaimed strip mines as the sunset gathered behind us for one last show-off. We scrambled up to a water tank on the west edge of town to try and get that one.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” a coal miner asked the next day in the training building of the Western Energy Co.’s Rosebud Mine.
“I was in my yard and saw you guys going up the hill. How many ticks did you find on you?”
By then we’d polished off a brat and a burger at a WECO safety feed. We were there at the start of a grand mine tour by invitation of Kent Salitros. He’s president and general manager and throws these luncheons to celebrate 100 consecutive reportable accident-free days.
They were actually at the 118-day mark, Salitros told the room full of miners.
Two “reportables” early in 2014 had thrown the mine behind the pace of an almost spotless 2013. But don’t give up, entreated Salitros, whose workers earned the National Mining Association’s Sentinels of Safety Award as the safest large surface coal mine in 2011. The Rosebud went that entire year without a lost-time accident.
“The incident rate is calculated on the number of man-hours worked, and it looks like this year we’ll have a higher number of man-hours than we had last year. If we keep it at two reportables, finish the year where we’re at, we will exceed last year’s accomplishment.”
“Oh, by the way,” Salitros added before he finished. “These two gentlemen (us, wincing) are from Missoula. Don’t throw anything. The Missoulian is in town to do a story on Colstrip. They’ve done a story on Anaconda so far and one on Boulder. They’re going down the alphabet, so they’re at C.
“Colstrip is a unique town and they wanted to see unique people. I said I had the most unique people of all out here. So if you want to talk to them while they’re here, feel free.”
Our mission included making no value judgments in this potential hot potato of a town, unfairly besieged as it feels it is these days (see related story).
Talk to people, was our plan. See what they’re thinking and saying.
Debby Haas was first to fill us in on the sunny side of Colstrip.
She spoke of its family atmosphere, its abundant wildlife and miles of trails, the lake on the edge of town, the remarkable number of parks offered by the CPRD – the first of many references we would hear to the Colstrip Parks and Recreation Department during our two-day stay.
“The thing that’s so hard for us here is sometimes I feel like we’re so misrepresented,” Haas said. “I think the really good things never get mentioned.”
Haas moved to Colstrip in 1980 and raised children who are now raising children of their own somewhere else. For the past 17 years, she has run the Lakeview Bed and Breakfast on Castle Rock Lake Drive. We’d tell you her breakfasts are to die for but, remember, no judgments.
As you might suspect, the Lakeview B&B is on the shore of Castle Rock Lake. That’s the tree-ringed, 168-acre reservoir filled with fish and turtles and water piped in 30 miles from the Yellowstone River.
It’s the source of Colstrip’s drinking water and feeds the coal-heated boiler that produces the steam that turns the shafts (at a rate of 3,600 rpm) of the two massive turbines that electrify large swaths of Montana and the Pacific Northwest.
We were lucky to find our rooms. Calls to Colstrip’s two motels had been discouraging. It’s overhaul season, we were told. You won’t find beds for rent even in Forsyth, 35 miles away on Interstate 94. The closest vacancies you’ll find are in Miles City or Billings.
“Overhaul” was another unfamiliar concept that popped up a lot during our stay.
“Welcome Overhaulers,” a signboard at the Mount Calvary Lutheran Church read.
For two months each spring, overhaul reigns in Colstrip. It’s timed, we were told, to coincide with high water that can slow production at the mines or with the shoulder season between high furnace and air-conditioner demands. Some 700 skilled workers came to town to perform upgrades to and repairs on PPL Montana-operated power plants.
It was a tough call, but after all these years Haas has sold the bed and breakfast. She’s moving to Moscow, Idaho, to be near her daughter’s family. But she’ll hang on until overhaul is complete.
“This is when I make most of my income,” she said.
Keith Wingard pulled into the B&B after a 12-hour shift at the power plant shortly after 7 a.m. on a Thursday.
On what he called “my virgin voyage to Colstrip,” he’d lucked out and found a room in town. Other overhaulers were camped near the gates of Colstrip 1-4 in fifth-wheelers and trailers, in one of the few remnants of the man camps of the boom days. Still others were transported daily on yellow school buses to and from Forsyth, even as far away as Billings.
A machinist for 25 of his 46 years, Wingard lives outside of Pittsburgh, and travels around the country working on machines for Siemens Corp.
He was in Colstrip because, according to sources reliable or not, someone had accidentally dropped something into one of the big turbines. It’s the kind of thing that can throw a massive wrench into the power grid of the greater American West.
Wingard cheerfully reserved comment on the rumor. But he did allow, “My livelihood is based on other people’s stupidity.”
Schools go casual in the summer and Colstrip’s no exception.
High school secretary Jan Maddux wore a Rockin Rudy’s T-shirt from the hip Missoula shop.
“I haven’t been there for a long time, but I always loved that place,” she said.
Maddux and Leslie Hull, the school’s attendance and activities secretary, were going through grade cards when we walked in on them. Before we knew it, we were sorting out Grizzly-Bobcat alliances and listening to old swimming stories.
“There used to be a swimming hole on the other side of the plant when I first moved here,” Maddux recalled. “It could have been one of their ponds.”
It was, assured Hull, who grew up in Colstrip. It was called Pit 3.
The ladies didn’t mind taking a break and leading us down the hall of the modern school that coal built in 1983, through the 3,000-seat gym that boasts carpeted locker rooms, and on to the school’s indoor pool. It’s great for practice, Hull said, but for some reason that neither she nor Maddux have pinned down, it was built a foot too narrow for swim competitions.
Maddux grew up in Lewistown and lived in Missoula for a year in the late 1970s.
“We needed to go where the work was, and one of my ex’s friends was going down here, so we came down too,” she said. “I was just hanging out and applied at the school. The superintendent at that time never interviewed me. He called me down and we chit-chatted. Then he goes, you’ve got the job.”
Maddux stayed and saw her kids pass through the Colstrip school system. Hull’s twins, Zach and Brina, will be seniors next year, both gym rats and leaders on their respective basketball teams. Brina, with the help of her father Brian, is in the final stages of restoring a 1967 Camaro she plans on driving to school on the first day of her senior year.
The Hulls once hosted an exchange student from Prague, a city of more than a million people.
“She came here and she wasn’t bored once,” Leslie Hull said. “I always told my kids after that, ‘If you say you’re bored one time, there’s no excuse for it, because there’s always something to do.’ ”
“This is another thing,” Maddux said. “If someone has cancer or some other debilitating disease, this town pulls together like you won’t believe. Even if for some reason we don’t like each other, we can raise twenty- or thirty-thousand dollars or more in a matter of, like, six weeks. Everybody kicks in.”
“You should talk to Tucker,” Maddux said at one point. “He’s just a great kid.”
With a good story, it turned out.
Tucker Yates came rambling down the school hall to greet us the next morning from his mom’s tech lab, where Kim Yates had put him to work for the summer.
“Mostly moving things,” he sighed.
At 290 pounds, with a bushy head of hair that added several more inches to his 6-foot-1 frame, Yates seemed more than up to the job except for one nagging detail: He was still recovering from the repair of his left torn pectoral muscle sustained early last wrestling season.
With just two months remaining before he reports to football camp with the Montana State Bobcats, “I can’t even do real pushups,” he said. “I was doing knee pushups last night in the weight room, so that’s a start. My brother was making fun of me, like, ‘Wow, dude, you can’t even do girl pushups.’ ”
Maybe mom showed little sympathy because of what her middle son has done since the injury. Yates forfeited the match that night at the CMR Holiday Classic in Great Falls but went on to singlehandedly, literally, win his third consecutive Class B state heavyweight title in February before going under the knife.
While he rehabbed, Yates threw shot put and discus (right-handed) for the Colts track and field team. Less than a week before we dropped in, he was standing atop the award stand at the state meet in Butte with a third straight shot put title as well.
“It was cool, but I was kind of sad at the same time,” he said. “It’s the last time I’ll ever throw the shot put, probably.”
Colstrip, born in 1924 and revived by the Montana Power Co. and Western Energy Co. in the 1960s, is a town of people who came from someplace else. Some just came earlier, in the first round of construction in the 1970s.
“Maybe that’s why it’s so comfortable here,” mused Lu Shomate at the Schoolhouse History and Art Center.
A week after school dismissed for the summer, the 35th annual Juried Southeast Montana Traveling Art Show was just going up at the SHAC and the 2014 Summer Art Program kicked off the day before.
In May, Shomate and SHAC hosted what she’d confidently called the “first annual” Mother-Daughter Tea.
“We had two fourth-generation Colstrip families there,” Shomate said. “One of the moms came from Billings and one from Butte, but their families were all part of that. And I can’t tell you how many three-generation families there are that all worked here.”
Shomate was a Butte girl and a young mother when she came to Colstrip in 1974 to work in human resources for Montana Power. Now retired, she’s found a second career here in the original school, built in 1924.
Her middle son was in grade school, she said, when he came to a startling realization one Christmas during a 240-mile round-trip shopping excursion to Billings.
“Mom, you’re not going to believe what I saw today,” the boy said on the ride home. “I saw a lady who was older than you are.”
Shomate might have been 30 at the time.
“There were no old people in Colstrip,” Shomate said. “We all grew old together. So when I’d go to Billings and see people my age I’d be like, I guess I am kind of old.
“But here, we were all together so you looked the same to me as you did when we came in our 20s.”
Rick Harbin took over as executive director of the Colstrip Park and Recreation District in 1980. His office in CPRD’s 32,000-square-foot community center is decorated with wooden ducks and the likes of a mounted fox and bobcat.
The downside of growing old together, Harbin said, is that everybody’s reaching retirement age together.
“Some of them have already sold their homes and have trailers, and there’s a lot of them that are all going to retire at the same time,” said Harbin. “That’s a problem. They all came about the same time, so in the next
10 years, I bet about a third of the work force will change over.”
Shomate loves Colstrip.
“I love the western part of the state, but the eastern part is just magnificent,” she said.
It took some time to reach that conclusion.
“For the first seven years I prayed to the good Lord, why did you put me here?” Shomate admitted. “I had small children, and I was kind of a single person left here and it was really hard. But once the kids got to school and they started getting out, it got a lot better.”
So many others share the same take. They say you forget about the absence of “basic necessities” – movie theaters, shopping malls, fast-food joints, department stores.
“Our kids had to go 120 miles to see their first stoplights,” Shomate said, only slightly exaggerating.
“We used to have a Radio Shack, a pizza place, a Taco Bell,” said Haas. “In the boom days we had seven to eight thousand people living in this town, so we had lots of things, more restaurants and clothing stores.”
Shomate said her family turned shopping trips to Billings into a regular form of entertainment. They used the two-hour drives there and back as a time for bonding.
Living in Colstrip is like eating pizza, she said.
“We love pizza. But when it’s pizza, pizza, pizza you get tired of pizza. So you want to go eat broccoli. You want to go do something totally different. That’s just a part of the culture here, I think. It’s not good, bad or indifferent.”
As head of the Rosebud Mine, Salitros has a lot of experience – and patience – in showing the uninitiated around the place.
Gallacher and I can add our names to a list that includes the New York Times, CBS-TV’s
60 Minutes (“I got to touch Lesley Stahl,” Salitros said), Congressman Denny Rehberg and Brian Schweitzer, multiple times during and since his governorship.
In his first term, Schweitzer made national news in his promotion of coal gasification to ease America’s dependence on foreign oil. By the third or fourth visit, Salitros knew exactly what Schweitzer was looking for when he came to town with media or potential investors in tow.
“He wanted to watch a big haul truck being loaded. He wanted to go stand in front of a cow. And then he wanted to go across the highway to the power plants and say this is coal technology,” Salitros said.
Gallacher and I were directed up the side stairs, through the deafening house, and into the cab of one of the mine’s four dragline excavators that from a distance seem to dip and dive their heads above the prairie floor like gigantic praying mantises. Brian Cole, the aptly named operator, was at the joystick. Cole was 100 feet down and had another 80 feet of rock and earth to remove to reach the 23-foot-deep seam of coal.
“He’ll dig to where he sees the black starting to pan, and clean that all off,” explained Salitros, observing from behind in the relative quiet of the air-conditioned cab.
Cole dropped the 60-cubic-yard bucket, roughly the equivalent in carrying capacity of a dozen dump trucks, and dragged it through the earth – “thus the name ‘dragline,’ ” Salitros noted.
The loaded bucket swung far to the left, to a dumpsite nearly a football field length away. It didn’t take much to release the load.
“As he lets it out, the normal weight of the bucket will cause it to tip and dump,” Salitros said.
This was one of three 8050 Marion draglines in the Rosebud arsenal. A fourth, the 8200 Marion, is even larger, sporting an 80-cubic-yard bucket.
Back in the house, Salitros pointed to the set of motor generators that transform
12,500 volts of alternating current electric charge into direct current.
It costs Western Energy upwards of half a million dollars a month to pay its power bills, Salitros said. All in the name of lighting the West.