The Last Western by Rone Tempest: New Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 6, 2020
Chapter 4: Boomtown
I was beginning to think of Rock Springs in a way I knew I would always think of it, a lowdown city full of crimes and whores and disappointments…
—Richard Ford, “Rock Springs” 1987
Two men walked into a bar.
Actually, it was not yet a drinking establishment. Ed Varley’s family owned a gas station, a 13-unit motel and a small trailer park at Point of Rocks, a desolate former stagecoach station, 25.6 miles east of Rock Springs. Most of the customers were oil ﬁeld workers, but there were also occasionally travelers who were lost, or who had failed to gas up in Rock Springs to the west or Rawlins, to the east. Varley, who is also a writer and local historian, had decided to add a small bar behind the service station to serve the passing roughneck or lost tourist and was inside working on the electricity hookups.
“Two guys came in and told me they were going to build a power plant seven miles from where I was putting in this small bar.”
The year was 1969. The building project was the enormous 2,110-megawatt Jim Bridger Power Plant that would become the second biggest coal-ﬁred power plant in the American west, behind the only slightly larger Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona. When it was ﬁnished, Bridger would produce enough electricity to supply the entire state of Wyoming three times over.
It would also employ more than 3,000 workers –pipeﬁtters, boilermakers, iron workers, electricians, miners, heavy equipment operators and general laborers—to build the power plant and the adjacent Bridger and Black Butte surface coal mines to fuel it.
“And so, before the bar was even done, it was already too small,” said Varley. He added a drive-in window for package beer and liquor sales and when that wasn’t enough, he added two more. “When those guys got oﬀ work, they were lined up a hundred feet or more at all times waiting to get to one of those windows to get their six packs and their half pints so they could drive to Rock Springs.”
What Varley did not know at the time nor did anybody else for that matter, was that the big construction project at Point of Rocks was the ﬁrst stage of a major boom that would push the population of Rock Springs almost overnight from 10,000 to nearly 26,000 people. Just as construction of the Jim Bridger plant got under way, several trona mines started up west of Green River, the Sweetwater County seat 20 miles west of Rock Springs. Wyoming has the world’s largest deposit of trona, a sodium carbonate compound that is used in manufacturing glass, textiles, paper and various chemicals. Because of shortages caused by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, oil and gas exploration in the Rock Springs Uplift and Green River Basin also took oﬀ.
This infusion of jobs and money was transforming because Rock Springs and surrounding Sweetwater County had been in a severe bust since the late 1950s after the Union Paciﬁc Railroad converted all its locomotives to diesel. That change meant that the abundant coal in the area, which had once been the mainstay of the railroad and the principal source of employment in Rock Springs, was no longer needed. The last coal-ﬁred, steam engine train made its ﬁnal run in Wyoming on July 23, 1959. Since that time, the coal town of Rock Springs had been in the deepest doldrums.
Now, suddenly, Rock Springs was in full-ﬂedged boom again. Money and jobs were everywhere. Workers scrambled to ﬁnd housing, sleeping in tents and campers, in desert gullies and on open ranchland.
Motel rooms were booked solid. Utah underground utility contractor John Tempest (the author’s second cousin) recalled parking his crew’s equipment and trucks on the open prairie in a protective circle like in the old wagon train days. “We just built a big ﬁre in the middle and we all slept around it with our feet toward the ﬁre,” Tempest recalled. They bathed in the nearby Ham’s Fork River, a modest tributary of the much bigger Green River.
Companies constructed makeshift trailer park “man camps” to house the mostly young male workers. The small ghost town of Superior, a former coal mining site up Horse Thief Canyon northeast of Rock Springs, found itself revived with new campers and residents. The Horse Thief Canyon Bar was open for business and brimming with customers.
Rock Springs, perhaps more than any other Wyoming city, is a hostage of the boom-and-bust cycle that is tied to oil, natural gas and coal prices. The standard political lament during the bust cycle is that the state needs to diversify its economy and wean itself from its dependency on carbon fuel extraction. The standard joke among Rock Springians is: “We do have a diversiﬁed economy. We have oil and we have gas.”
The town was also no stranger to boomtown chaos. The ﬁrst boom came to this area in the 1860s when the transcontinental Union Paciﬁc railroad was under construction across Wyoming. Instant vice and violence, prostitution and gambling, arrived on rails, spawning the term “Hell on Wheels.” Most of the end-of-the track towns also featured the mobile “Big Tent.”
Inside the cavernous tent, wrote Gregory Nickerson of the Wyoming Historical Society, “customers who spent enough money could get a drink, play a game of cards, dance with a girl, hire a prostitute and get treated for venereal disease all in one visit.”
Some of the small railroad towns had some of the highest murder rates ever recorded in this country. Laramie had a bar named Bucket of Blood. The tiny town of Benton, Wyoming, averaged a murder a day during its short existence at the railhead.
“Benton, of course, was exceptional, a short-lived and murderous singularity in the expanding universe of American frontier violence,” wrote historian David T. Courtwright in his 1996 book Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City. Its extraordinarily volatile nature was fueled by the inﬂux of what Courtwright called “young, transient, expendable, bachelor laborers whose self-image was one of toughness and whose unregulated vices attracted criminals, gamblers, prostitutes, and other armed opportunists eager to siphon oﬀ their wages.”
Now, nearly a century later, it was happening again in Rock Springs and for many of the same reasons. Prostitutes and their pimps descended on the town from Salt Lake and Denver.
High stakes gambling tables opened in the bars on notorious K Street, including several featuring the ﬁve-card booray poker favored by the many Cajun workers.
A city-county crime task force estimated that from 25 to 100 prostitutes worked nightly on K Street, usually after midnight in and around the A&D, Jake’s, O.K. and Astro bars. After closing, the action moved to the after-hours Townsend Club. The Townsend was owned and operated by Earl Dotsey, a popular African American community ﬁgure who also sponsored a Little League baseball team. Open from 1 am to 8 am, it featured gambling in the back room and a separate building called the “Greenhouse” where prostitutes could take their tricks.
It was a wild and unpredictably dangerous time. John Tempest remembers a campﬁre conversation with his men turning to guns. “We were sitting around, and you know you’re not in a motel so you could talk to each other. Turns out every guy had a gun; every guy had a pistol in his boot.”
The crew frequented a bar that had a metal detector at the front door. “It was the ﬁrst time I’d ever seen a metal detector,” said Tempest. “They didn’t even have them at airports yet. You had to check your weapons. Instead of a coat closet they had a gun closet. All the shelves were just full of everybody’s pistols or knives or brass knuckles and crap. As you left you got your pistol back. This was in the United States! It wasn’t in the 1850s, it was in the 1970s.”
Leonard Smith was an electrician living in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1973 when he saw on the union hall bulletin board that they needed 600 electricians in Wyoming. “Well, I had just had a fresh divorce and I was looking for somewhere else to go,” Smith recalled to an interviewer with the Wyoming State Archives Oral History Collection. “I didn’t even know where Wyoming was. I looked at a map and saw that it was up above Colorado.”
So, like so many other unattached workers, skilled and otherwise, Smith loaded his tools into his battered Chevy 1960 pickup and headed north. “The tie rod ends were so worn out that I had to wrap them with an inner tube to keep the grease in them. The driver’s side window wouldn’t roll up. I had a bungee cord to keep the door closed. I had $10 left in my pocket when I arrived in Rock Springs on the last day of September 1973.”
Just as his union business agent had promised him back in Shreveport, Smith quickly landed a job with the construction contractor for the Jim Bridger plant. The company placed him in an 8 foot-by-10-foot room in one of its man camps. There was a military-style chow hall. Paper bag lunches were packed for men every morning when the company busses arrived to take them to the construction site.
“I knew it was a boom town,” said Smith, who ended up marrying and retiring in Rock Springs, “but I had no idea what a boom was. But yeah, it was a crazy, crazy place. I learned that on the ﬁrst payday night when the prostitutes were walking up and down the halls of the man camp oﬀering their wares. ‘Hey, do you want to party?’ And you could choose your color, black or white.”
In Smith’s man camp there were also two competing pimps. Both of them had jobs as janitors at the construction site that they used as cover so they could live and operate in the man camp. Smith got to know them from poker games when they were bragging about their respective strings of women. But things turned violent after one pimp accused the other of poaching his women.
“One guy has a .38 pistol and he emptied that pistol and never hit that other guy, but I was lying on my bed reading a book and one bullet came in right over my head— because it was nothing but paneling, wood paneling about yea-thick on each side. By the time the second bullet came through, I was lying ﬂat on the ﬂoor and getting under my bunk. And they got into it, and they was banging and ﬁghting and all in there. And then all of a sudden, I heard this god-awful scream and I said, ‘I’m getting out of here’ and I opened my door and about the time I hit the hall this guy fell out of the door on his back holding his guts in. The other guy had done opened up his belly with a knife. I went outside in my shorts. It was 20 degrees below zero, but I never felt the cold. That’s how scared I was.”
The overnight boom in Rock Springs came like a violent storm, with little warning and with almost no preparation by local authorities.
“Hundreds of construction workers were swarming in looking for places to live,” recalled Leonard Smith’s wife Barbara, “And this greatly aﬀected the ordinary people in this town. It was their town, but it wasn’t their town anymore because it was just blown apart.”
The boom also set in motion a series of events that would eventually–in a complicated way that involved national television, state politics and the threat of a runaway grand jury—connect to the parking lot shooting of under-cover Rock Springs police oﬃcer Michael Rosa by his supervisor, Rock Springs Director of Public Safety, Ed Cantrell.
About The Last Western by Rone Tempest:
Of all the possible explanations for why lawman Ed Cantrell shot and killed his deputy Michael Rosa in the parking lot of the Silver Dollar saloon, the least likely was the one that prevailed at trial—that a deranged Rosa went for his gun and Cantrell outdrew him in self-defense. In his powerful and compelling reconstruction of the infamous 1978 killing in boomtown Rock Springs, Wyoming, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rone Tempest tracks the parallel lives of Ed Cantrell, an Indiana schoolboy who fashioned himself into a 19th-century Western gunfighter on the right side of the law, and Michael Rosa, a Puerto Rico-born and West Harlem-raised decorated U.S. Marine who worked under Cantrell as an undercover narc.
For a time, Tempest writes, the two were an efficient team: Cantrell, the steely-eyed Wild West throwback and Rosa, the street-savvy New Yorker with an impressive flair. It was as though Wyatt Earp and Shaft had teamed up to fight crime in the Mountain West. But then came a falling-out. Rosa was subpoenaed to testify before a state grand jury in Cheyenne on the matter of corruption in Rock Springs, including within its own police department. Tensions and paranoia built to breaking point at a midnight meeting in a saloon parking lot where Cantrell, with two other cops beside him, drew his Model 10 .357 and shot Rosa between the eyes, killing him instantly as he sat in the backseat of an unmarked police car. Unearthing previously unseen investigators’ notes, military records, personnel files, census records, college transcripts and even airplane manifests, Tempest skillfully demonstrates the true aim and cost of the raucous murder trial that followed the killing. “A grave miscarriage of justice,” said former Wyoming U.S. Attorney Christopher “Kip” Crofts.