Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


The disenchanted highway...

Posted 3/02/21 (Tue)

Back when the oil boom was building in the northwest, there was a lot of traffic on N.D. Highway 23 between Watford City and Makoti. It started in 2009 and got worse before it got dangerous.

More specifically, N.D. 23 between New Town and Makoti was awful. It’s about a 30-mile stretch and there were days in which there was bumper-to-bumper traffic from New Town, all the way to Parshall, about 16 miles, before it started fanning out.

By 2010, the highway had become increasingly dangerous and fatalities were happening. At one point, three, Three-Affiliated tribal members were killed in a fiery accident west of New Town that triggered the tribe to seek professional assistance.

Nothing happened because oil goes round the clock and part of the problem was, the truckers were getting paid per load, not per hour, so they tried squeezing in as many loads as they could in a day. That, in and of itself, created a lot of risky situations on this disenchanted highway.

I’ve lived in North Dakota my entire life, except for a year at a South Dakota newspaper and a year away in the military. I had never seen anything quite like it, not like Doha, Qatar, not like Denver, not like Winnipeg, not even like the California freeway that takes you into Los Angeles.

Having to drive N.D. 23 to get home on weekends; there is no doubt it was a risk and things got really creepy at times.

Here are some examples of what I witnessed the three years I worked in New Town from August 2008 to June 2011.

• That bumper-to-bumper traffic mentioned earlier was going along toward Parshall one afternoon at 70 miles per hour when all of a sudden, somebody a fourth of a mile ahead, decided to do a 180 right there on the highway, at the crest of a hill no doubt, and head back to New Town. It caused a chain reaction that stopped traffic for almost two hours.

• I was on my way to work one Monday morning driving toward New Town. I came over a hill and there was an oil tanker jackknifed across the road so traffic couldn’t go either direction. That took about an hour to clear the lanes and get traffic moving again.

• One day I got dispatched to a fire on the Mountrail/McKenzie County line west of New Town. As I’m headed to the fire, there’s a car engulfed in flames with the asphalt around it burning. That time it was two people who died, either in the accident or the fire.

• I was following the same routine on another Monday morning, headed to work and all of a sudden, I see a car engine in the middle of the road with nobody else around since it was early in the morning. Strangest thing you’d ever want to see; a motor just sitting there on N.D. 23. It was weird!

• As motorists were coming over a hill near Van Hook, they saw the tribal wildlife superintendent directing traffic on to a gravel road detour.

My thinking was this must have some magnitude if they have to bring out the tribal wildlife guy to direct traffic. We found out after a three-mile detour got us back on N.D. 23.

Just as I got to the intersection, I saw a helicopter from Trinity Health in Minot land right on the highway and there were bodies all over the ditch with two vehicles in either ditch.

Former House Minority Leader Kenton Onstad, who is from Parshall, saw the same thing, and we talked about it later. We found out that two people were killed on impact and three others were badly injured and airlifted to Minot.

• There were numerous other accidents  as well as debris and oil slicks on the highway, too numerous to mention. However, in the three years I worked in New Town, 11 people were killed on that 30-mile stretch from New Town to Makoti including four teenagers who were T-boned and killed at the Van Hook corner east of New Town where N.D. 23 meets N.D. Highway 8.

The traffic is much better now and although it gets pretty congested between Watford City and New Town, it doesn’t come close to what it was in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The traffic problems got so bad the Highway Patrol stopped taking calls from concerned motorists. Oil traffic, farm traffic, first responder traffic, regular motorists; it was a mess and most of these problems were during daylight hours.

Thank goodness it’s all tapered off to a reasonable level of traffic flow where people don’t have to fear the worst.

After the three people died in the car that caught fire, tribal Chairman Marcus Wells said, “This has to be stopped right now.”