GILLETTE, Wyo. — Alinda (Kelley) Gallegos, 63, can’t forget that day 30 years ago when she watched her brown, three-level home in Rawhide Village being towed away because of methane gas seepage in the subdivision north of Gillette.
She remembers the scenes as if it were a movie: Tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t bear to watch as a semitrailer carried her family’s first home — one they’d designed from the foundation up starting 10 years earlier — to another family in southeast Wyoming (possibly Torrington) that had bought and moved it.
All the months of helplessness, fear and stress in 1987 came down to this final moment for Gallegos and hundreds of others in that subdivision across the highway from Prospector Village and Rawhide Elementary School.
There had been evidence of methane gas seeping from coal seams lying below Rawhide Village for generations.
But that was little solace for residents after many were forced to evacuate and leave their homes because of explosive and dangerous levels of methane, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen selenide gases — all more toxic than the other as they were discovered in that order.
Construction of the subdivision — a little more than 1,600 feet to a mile from Eagle Butte Mine — began in 1976. It came to life during a severe housing shortage in booming Gillette and by 1987 was home for about 600 people in a close-knit, rural community of their own.
Despite cracking and deteriorating streets, trouble with sewer utilities and other problems, many loved the neighborhood.
In February 1987, however, that began to change. A few residents had complained to Campbell County about the awful rotten-egg odor pervading their homes inside and out. Those homes were just a few feet away from the Kelleys, including Alinda, her husband and two kids.
Others saw and heard the streets around their homes bubbling. Some even lit the streets on fire with matches.
Now Gallegos wonders why anyone thought it would be OK to build a subdivision of single-family homes there.
Rawhide Village is where she started her family as a young mother. Gillette is where part of her heart remains, no matter where she is.
Her license plate says it all. It reads “Wyolady.”
Now she drives around Alva, Oklahoma, with her heart on her sleeve. Alva is the community where she grew up. But home? Well, that’s back in Wyoming.
SALT BOX LANE
Gallegos had grown to love the Cowboy State despite living in an 8-by-30-foot trailer in Wright that first year. Her first child, JB (James Brandon) Kelley, was born in December 1976 and the young family had moved to Wyoming while her husband landed a coal mining job.
On June 1, 1977, they bought the house at 202 Salt Box Lane in Rawhide Village. It was just a foundation at the time.
“We were among the first to move there,” Gallegos said. “We moved in two weeks before Thanksgiving and all the heat was on one breaker.”
It was about 2 p.m. on Feb. 24, 1987, when her husband was standing in front of the house as he prepared to leave for the overnight shift at the mine. David Holland, the then part-time emergency manager in Campbell County, told them they’d have to evacuate their home.
Campbell County paid for them — and other neighbors around Salt Box Lane — to live in a motel for a month as officials tried to determine the extent and cause of the potentially explosive problem.
“It was very stressful. I had two kids. I had to gather a few things and my husband had to go to work,” Gallegos recalled. “They told us it was the methane.”
Her family happened to live in methane central. Some of the highest readings in the subdivision were on Salt Box Lane and in her home.
“One time we had 39 percent methane in our bedroom,” she said.
The family lived in one of six homes, five on Salt Box Lane, with consistent methane recordings, according to a 1987 state report. Those houses included 188, 199, 200, 202 and 203 Salt Box Lane. The report said concentrations of 9 percent were found in the sump pump hole of her home. Anywhere from 5 to 15 percent is considered explosive.
Gallegos suffered from headaches. Her kids also had a little more strep throat than others their age. That disappeared when they left Rawhide.
Soon, they were forced to give up their Rawhide house so the bank would forgive the mortgage.
“It was just devastating. … I had put everything into that house,” Gallegos said. “It was like we were losing everything we had.”
She wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
A DISASTER AREA
Dave and Vicky Dorson and their two children living at 200 Salt Box Lane were the first family forced to evacuate, he recalls. He has a video he hasn’t watched in 25 years that shows methane bubbling in the standing water of the meandering creek bed behind their home.
“It was kind of like a jacuzzi,” said the 59-year-old as he strode through 3-foot tall prairie grass occupying his former home site to show where that occurred. Large trees stretched into the sky behind him, one of which was just a few feet tall when he lived there.
He worked in the oilfield at the time and had lived in the subdivision for three or four years. He had seen the bubbling in the streets. He saw a neighbor light his driveway on fire too, but he didn’t realize it was methane gas that could explode.
“We were in town that day,” Dorson said. “We were riding around with a Realtor all day that day and had stopped for dinner at Golden Corral. A friend of mine said sheriff’s deputies were looking for me.”
Soon, the family was escorted to their home, managed to grab some clothing, items they needed and the baby bed. Then they went to spend the night in a hotel. They never lived in their home again.
“It was horrible for a couple of months,” Dorson said. “We wanted them to declare it a disaster area.”
President Ronald Reagan had denied the first request for a disaster declaration from Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan in June. On Sept. 4, 1987, after an appeal, drilling tests and more, Reagan approved a partial declaration which included paying for rent up to a year. But that came well after much of the drama, Sept. 4, 1987. Rawhide Village is the first disaster declaration — and only one to this day — involving methane gas seepage in homes out of the 3,928 approved disasters since 1953.
The family eventually moved into an apartment in Gillette and Dorson was told they could default on their home loan and it wouldn’t affect their credit. That turned out not to be true, he said. But he also couldn’t risk his children.
“I wasn’t going to put my family through that,” he said.
So they left. Later, behind the apartment they ended up renting next to Interstate 90, he got a call from his wife. Their old home, a tri-level of about 1,800 to 2,000 square feet, sat on a truck parked behind their rental just off I-90. They stood and viewed it from their deck before it headed to Sheridan.
There’s some irony in that.
“For a couple of years, it was kind of tough,” Dorson said.
There were many twists and turns that kept Rawhide residents in limbo for most of 1987. The situation sparked protests, anger, national television and newspaper coverage, and lawsuits. The National Enquirer even wrote about Rawhide Village with the headline “Helltown USA.” For those who were in the crossfire, it’s still hard to forget about Rawhide Village.
Perhaps that’s why there’s an active Facebook page for Rawhide Village survivors 30 years later.
A FUN NEIGHBORHOOD
Gallegos remembers the water fights the families and neighbors engaged in. They also often had dinners with other families, parties and cookouts.
“We had a lot of fun,” she said.
Many of the families were of similar ages and many made their living from the coal mines.
“Rawhide was the perfect subdivision to grow up in,” Jo Petterson, who lived at 189 Salt Box Lane, wrote in a Facebook post. “Having to move was devastating.”
Justin Biesheuvel, now an auctioneer in Gillette, lived at Rawhide Village with his family at 196 Geronimo Circle. He recalls being in junior high at the time they were forced out.
“It was like a small, little community out there. It was a neighborhood where everybody knew everybody,” he said. “It was a close-knit neighborhood. Your neighbors were your best friends. We didn’t want to leave.”
Still, he suffered from frequent nosebleeds and migraine headaches as a kid.
“I have never had a migraine since we left,” Biesheuvel added.
After being forced to leave Rawhide, his family lived in a hotel room together for a month, eating dinner at the Soup Kitchen with other Rawhide refugees each night. Then his family rented a small home at the corner of Fourth Street and 4J Road.
“I remember them talking,” he said of his parents. “I can’t imagine everybody going through that. Looking back on it now, my parents didn’t come out very good. It wasn’t like we were well off.”
Kelly Guffey, now 47, would sometimes journey to the top of a hill near his home. It overlooked nearby Eagle Butte Mine and he could see his father, Willard Guffey, as he worked. The Guffeys, four in all, lived at 198 Salt Box Lane for six years.
Willard worked overtime and his wife worked as well, so they could afford the house payments.
“It was a pretty big investment,” Willard said. They all loved Rawhide Village. “It was wonderful,” he said. “It was quiet. We liked our neighbors. There were a lot of young kids around back then. … I still would love to live out here.”
“It was a pretty tight community,” Kelly said, reminiscing as he pointed out the location of their home 30 years ago. “We had our own community.”
When Rawhide was evacuated, they all “kind of went to the winds” and separated, he added. It’s never been the same.
“It’s crazy to look out here and know what happened,” he said. “It’s really sad now that you look and you think of all the people and the houses that were out here then and now it’s gone.”
He, like his father did until he retired, now works at Eagle Butte Mine. His son, 21, does too. That’s three generations of coal miners and two generations who shared Rawhide Village.
WAITING AND WAITING
The evacuations of Rawhide accompanied the search for answers about possible explosive levels of methane, the presence of hydrogen sulfide (a toxic gas) and hydrogen selenide (even more lethal), and what caused them to seep into the subdivision. It resulted in drilling and monitoring for months.
The county commissioners evacuated nine homes on Feb. 24, 1987. Then 22 more March 6, 1987. Some families were allowed to return March 26.
On May 29, 1987, county officials hand-delivered letters to every resident in Rawhide ordering an evacuation of the entire subdivision by July 31.
Willard, now 71, recalls coming home from work that night. His wife met him in the driveway, crying. That letter was in her hand.
“I was at my house one night at 6 and I was told I had to get out of the house by 10,” Willard recalled. They spent the next week in a hotel and later rented an apartment with three bedrooms. They were allowed to come back and get their clothes and possessions. Their home was just three or four houses west of where that “rotten egg smell” started it all.
“I knew nothing about it,” Willard said. “I was home from work one day and Al Doyle said ‘look at this’ and walked into the middle of the street with a lighter and poof, it lit up.”
Then came the endless parade of meetings, vague answers and little help. Willard was a veteran and the Veterans Administration wouldn’t say what it would do to help homeowners with VA loans. Willard got so upset at one meeting he told a VA official from Denver to either do something or get off the pot.
“I lost all that equity. I never got anything out of it,” Willard said. “I had two sons. We had no choice. … We were among the first who had to leave. It was a stressful situation for our family. We were put out of our home. … The whole thing is, you don’t know where you’re going to go.”
In a meeting broadcast on national TV, county officials said they felt compelled to act after there were two cases of confirmed hydrogen sulfide gas poisoning and indications the methane gas plumes were extending into the northern portion of the subdivision.
The entire subdivision — with just 12 families remaining as they waited to close on houses — was again evacuated July 6, 1987, when a large volume of hydrogen sulfide gas was discovered during drilling.
While the county suspended its evacuation order July 3, it left intact a resolution that the entire subdivision was uninhabitable. On July 7, one homeowner was arrested by sheriff’s deputies as he tried to bypass a roadblock to retrieve his tools and children’s clothing from his home.
In the meantime, the drilling and monitoring continued. On July 28, the county rescinded its evacuation order. Only eight residents remained at that point.
Limbo stretched on, though.
Holland said he’d consulted with a variety of government agencies and nobody knew quite what to do. “Nobody’s really dealt with something like this,” he said.
“I am hearing too much ‘I don’t knows’ from the experts,” a resident said at one of those public meetings. “Rawhide is doomed.”
It truly was.
BATTLE CRY LANE
Steve Skinner moved his family out of Rawhide soon after fire officials warned residents not to set the streets on fire. He had moved to Gillette in 1970 and returned in 1979 after serving in the military.
He and his wife, Solley, lived at 200 Battle Cry Lane with their young son and daughter, across from the park at Rawhide. They loved their small home of 1,470 square feet. But he said he couldn’t put his young children at risk, so he quickly made the choice to get out.
“I ended up going bankrupt over it,” Skinner said recently “Bankruptcy was the only way I got out of that house. We got way upside down over it.”
Like many, the family lived pay day to pay day just to make ends meet. Filing for bankruptcy just added to that.
“It was pretty financially stressful for us,” he said.
He still will drive by his former home, just to marvel at the foundation and how tiny it truly was.
“I actually liked it. We had good neighbors and we were across from the park,” Skinner said, adding he could car pool to his mining job.
Their house was demolished since it couldn’t be moved.
Others in the subdivision decided not to leave, some because they had so much invested there. Rawhide remains their home to this day.
“We never, ever checked the gas readings,” Skinner said. “As soon as they began lighting the streets on fire, we left.”
Gallegos has been back to Gillette since. Her last memory at Rawhide Village is seeing, but not wanting to watch, her coveted home traveling in the opposite direction. That was too much.
“I got in the car and left. I didn’t ever look back,” she said.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com