In the two decades since an Army ammunition depot closed and stripped this town of more than 500 jobs, Edgemont has tried to find another healthy payroll, even courting a string of potentially hazardous industries.
A uranium mining and milling operation succeeded for a while, then closed. Town leaders also wooed companies that proposed a low-level nuclear waste dump, a sewage ash processing plant, a munitions testing site and, most recently, a landfill for municipal waste from Northeastern cities.For various reasons, including opposition from environmental groups, all the proposals failed. A farmer raised pigs on the base for a time but recently pulled out because of falling pork prices.
"We need more jobs, and we're still looking," Mayor Pete Ziemet said. "The only thing we have going for us, which I guess is both bad and good, is the notoriety Edgemont has had."
Other civic leaders fear they may never find the industry needed to fill the empty houses and stores in this town sitting on the southern edge of the Black Hills, where pine-covered mountains give way to rough grasslands covered with sagebrush and yucca plants.
"Everything just seemed to go haywire. . . . Just little by little, everything went wrong," said former Mayor Matt Brown. "I've been here all my life, and so help me God, I can't put my finger on anything that will salvage the town. Maybe we can be lucky."
A Defense Department survey of 100 communities that lost military bases from 1961 to 1977 reported that some towns prospered by converting the bases to other uses. But Edgemont is one of the places that has never recovered after the military left town.
The Black Hills Army Depot, which stored ammunition in concrete bunkers at a place called Igloo eight miles south of Edgemont, was opened in the 1940s and closed in 1967. Brown said Edgemont not only lost 500-odd civilian jobs but also many long-time Edgemont residents who were transferred to civilian jobs at other military bases.
Four local businessmen bought the 15,000-acre base to prepare it for other uses, but it still lies empty. Rows of concrete igloos sit like loaves of bread on the prairie. Near the base entrance, houses and administrative buildings are falling apart.
Edgemont's population grew to 1,772 by 1960, but fell to less than 1,200 within a few years of the base's closing.
The town's economy and population recovered in the 1970s, with the uranium mill and a Burlington Northern Railroad crew-shift station both busy. Ziemet estimates Edgemont now has only 1,130 people, a drop of about 20 percent since 1980.
The mayor said 70 houses out of several hundred in town are empty, and 27 should be razed because they're falling apart. People trying to sell homes will be lucky to get 50 cents on the dollar, he said.
The railroad is still a bright spot in the local economy. Burlington Northern switches crews at Edgemont and provides a good national connection, Ziemet said.
The uranium operation closed due to lack of demand, and the 110 people now cleaning up uranium tailings will be out of work when the cleanup is completed next year, he said.