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Parachute (1886, 5,095 feet) took its name from the creek that joins the Colorado River here. The creek's forks supposedly resemble the cords of a parachute. Renamed Grand Valley between 1904 and 1980, it is the birthplace of the oil shale industry and a classic twentieth-century boom-and-bust town. Pioneer Michael Callahan used local shale to build his fireplace. He invited everyone in for a housewarming, during which his chimney caught fire. The house burned down, but Callahan and his guests had discovered “the rock that burns.” The Piceance Basin area north of Parachute contains the world's largest oil shale reserves, enough to provide fuel for the United States for decades—if environmentally and financially sound methods could be found to squeeze the oil, a few ounces per ton, out of the shale.

Inflated and deflated by oil shale booms and busts over the years, Parachute grew once again after Exxon announced in 1980 its $5 billion Colony Oil Shale Project in partnership with TOSCO, another oil company. Exxon's 1982 abandonment of its project and UNOCAL's (formerly Union Oil of California) 1991 abandonment of a $650 million Parachute Creek Shale Oil Program let this town down without a parachute. As the hardest-hit victim of the oil shale bust, Parachute now strives to capture I-70 tourists with a spiffy new visitors' center (1991).

One silver lining of the 1980s oil recession is the town of Battlement Mesa, across the Colorado River from Parachute. Planned for 25,000 oil shale workers and named for the rocky parapets rimming the horizon, it is now marketed as a retirement center, capitalizing on the first-rate infrastructure installed by Exxon during the flush times. Battlement Mesa has new sewage, library, public safety, and recreation facilities, as well as the Bea Underwood Elementary School (1982, Caudill, Gustafson and Associates).

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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