The Corner Bar sits on the main intersection of Main Street in Circle, Mont. There are no windows on the bar, but these days there is also less and less of a view. Circle has lost about 75 percent of its population since the 1960s, and across the street from the Corner Bar, weeds grow through the floor of an abandoned hotel.
TransCanada’s Keystone XL is a pipeline that would dive under some 1,700 miles of wide-open prairie – like this stretch outside Circle, Mont., where Janet Wolf stands in an unplanted field she farms with her husband. Although the Wolfs’ three plots of land would be crossed by the line, the easements they signed haven’t made them rich. “It wasn’t like we got gobs of money,” says Janet. They signed because they believe tax revenue from the line could help revitalize local economies.
Main Street in Circle, is further from a Starbucks outlet than any other Main Street in America. It’s also endangered after a generation of decline—and locals hope the Keystone XL pipeline might help reverse the loss. After all, Circle is the county seat of McCone County, which stands to take in $18 million in tax revenue the first year the pipeline goes live.
In a hopeful sign, Circle-native Terry Pawlowski returned to town last year, opening the Round Town Tavern and Casino, where diners tuck into bar food and beer. The rest of Main Street remains depressed, with no lanes in the bowling alley, no movies at the theater, and no place to rent a room for the night, except for a motor inn on the outskirts of town.
The lights have to go out sometime,” says Bob Jensen, center, McCone County’s former sheriff, brushing off the pipeline’s contribution to global warming. Every afternoon he and a handful of friends—including Kent Larson, 81, at left—get together to gamble and grumble. They call themselves the Coffee Klatch, perhaps better known as The Liars Club. They support the pipeline. “We like the money," says Jensen, "but we're a little suspicious of who comes."
The Insurance Store, Inc. building is one of the few left on Main Street in downtown Baker, Mont., two hours southeast of Circle. At least a half-dozen small towns hang like charms along the route of the line, but few stand to benefit as much as Baker—the would-be on-ramp for oil from the Bakken formation that lies under Montana, North Dakota and Canada. Without the line, this building is likely to continue a story of decline: built as a bank in 1910, the upstairs was converted to include apartments in the 1960s, but it’s now used for storage.
The generations walk side-by-side along Route 2 where it cuts through Circle. Without the pipeline, locals worry they won’t be able to supply enough jobs to keep their young people here—and after a generation of loss already, they wonder how much longer they’ll be able to hold on. Three hours north, the pipeline passes Loring, Mont., a town of a dozen people, all of them related.
A young boy takes a break from roping straw bale "calves" to watch people toss bean bags during a summer block party on Main Street in Circle. The spring the Obama administration indefinitely delayed approving the pipeline, citing an ongoing court challenge in Nebraska. The town is optimistic. As the 79-year-old wife of a rancher put it between twirls along the center stripe: “We’ve been dancing a long time.”
Darcie O’Donnell watches her husband Derrick blast the dirt off his Chevy Silverado at a truck wash a mile outside of Baker. Derrick works on a rig in the oil fields of Montana and North Dakota, commuting along dirt roads. Like former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, Darcie feels confident that the pipeline will ultimately get built. “The Keystone pipeline should be coming within the next couple of years,” she says, fretting only about the influx of strangers. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “But it’s a catch-22.”
Les Carlson, center, talks with customers at his Sinclair gas station on route 20 into Circle. He bought the gas station about 18 months ago after driving an eighteen-wheeler in the Bakken for years. He's hoping the pipeline will get built, and that with the added traffic he can expand the station. But he won't count on it. "I'm old school," he says. "I'm not gonna spend it until it’s here."
Wayne Pawlowski, 85, watches over his rum and Coke inside the Corner Bar in Circle. The retired farmer and rancher lives with his wife Darlene nine miles outside town where he used to raise sheep, cattle, wheat, and barley. He and Darlene come into town about once a week to socialize. He remembers when Main Street still had a drug store. “They had one of those old-style soda fountains,” says Wayne, “I kind of miss that.”
Ray Bill racks the balls in the Corner Bar in Circle. Bill is a ranch hand from Dalhart, Texas, who came to Montana three months ago for a simple reason: “I’d never been to Montana.” He feels he picked the right town, or at least the right Main Street. “The first day I got here I didn’t know anybody. I walked into this bar right here. From the moment I walked in they took me in and treated me like I’d been here my whole life. It’s just like being home.”
Locals throw back $1.50 beers at The Beer Jug on Main Street in Glendive, Mont., an hour east of Circle. Some of the wealth of the nearby Bakken oil fields has spilled into the town, but with mixed results. Locals complain of strangers on the street, disruptive turnover at the school, higher prices and impersonal hotels on the edge of town. They figure the pipeline would only bring more of the same.
Guitarist Andy Wemmer of the Whiskey River Band makes his way down Main Street, where he’ll take the stage at Circle’s summer block party. “On nights like this,” says Justine Glidewell, a 20-year-old reflecting on her hometown, “it’s got a really good vibe.”
After another long day of blue sky, the sun sets on Main Street in Circle.