Steele City, Neb. — It had been a long afternoon of whiskey and beer and Margo D’Angelo, her husband, Greg Compton, and a couple of their dogs were in a field behind the Salty Dog Tavern, an old brick establishment, which Margo has owned for 27 years. They were launching three-and-a-half-foot-high paper lanterns, lighting an ignition packet that generated heat and lifted the lanterns into the sky where the wind carried them off into the distance.
A parked black Ford 150 with its door open played country music as another couple sat and sipped beers as well.
These were all the people to be seen in Steele City that day. The population of the town is 61 according to Web sites, though Margo figured it was down to 54 now. Sometimes people come from as far away as Lincoln to float down the nearby river, where Margo picks up small Indian arrowheads from time to time. Margo grew up here, but Greg, an ironworker originally from New Jersey, travels long distances for construction work.
According to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Web site, “Steele City, founded in 1873, was named for Dudley M. Steele, president of the St. Joseph & Denver City Railroad, which was built through Jefferson County the previous year.” Soon the town swelled to 400 people with its own newspaper, pottery plant, cheese factory and school.
We stopped in Steele City because it is a major pipeline junction for TransCanada’s Keystone network. The existing Keystone pipeline comes here and the company can either send the oil east to refineries in Illinois or it can send it south to Cushing, Okla., a big pipeline intersection and major storage and pricing hub. Before we left town, we drove about a mile from the bar to where the TransCanada pump station stands. The Keystone XL pipeline will also come to this unassuming spot near the southern border of Nebraska and feed into the existing line to Cushing. It was built – with a 36-inch diameter pipe instead of 30 inch — big enough to accommodate oil flowing through both pipelines old and new.
For all the talk about how many jobs the Keystone XL pipeline might create, Steele City and the earlier Keystone construction project offers a cautionary tale and a reality check.
“The pipeline was good for me,” said Margo, referring to the existing Keystone pipeline. The workers didn’t drink much and they had their own cooking unit, she said, but they often came to the saloon for lunch and left good tips. She was able to buy a new air conditioning unit by the time they were done.
“There were some rough characters,” she said. “We had to squish out some of them, but there were others who were the nicest people you’d met.” She said TransCanada donated funds to the fire department and that workers set up 20 spots for their trailers right next to the field where she and her husband had been launching lanterns. The spots were empty, but she said sometimes tourists will park there.
Then the workers left. The pump station is checked once or twice a week so TransCanada didn’t need to create a local job once the construction was done. Things returned to normal. And the population resumed its slow, steady decline.
“It’s a pretty simple life. No complications. No drama,” Margo said. But for young people, “there’s nothing to keep them here.”