Plaster City, CA (US Gypsum Plant) at night off old US Highway 80. (MP 130.0)
US Gypsum Alco road switcher on a siding at the plant.
Looking West on the mainline towards Plaster City,
Gypsum mining keeps Plaster City in the money
September 27th, 2009 7:18 pm PT
Tourist services at Plaster City are severely lacking. Where’s the mayor? In fact, there are no services in Plaster City. No gas stations, restaurants, parks, police, or pedestrians for that matter. Plaster City gives you no reason to stop, but plenty reasons to wonder about this strange industrial complex straddling Old US 80 in the far western edge of Imperial Valley.
If Plaster City looks like an outdoor factory, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. Owned by the U.S. Gypsum Company, the company mines raw gypsum (hydrous calcium sulphate) from the desert for use in everything from wallboard to crayons.
If passing through Plaster City is impressive, it should be. U.S. Gypsum is no slack operation. This is a Fortune 500 company trading on the New York Stock Exchange with shares going for $16.14. Operations extend to every continent and sales in 2008 reached $4.6 billion.
The company may have 12,600 employees, but a weekend pass through Plaster City finds the factory in shut down mode and not a soul in site. The bland white buildings, silver piping, chutes and stairways tower over the hot asphalt highway that leads in one direction – out of town.
Where do they get the gypsum? A three-foot wide narrow-gauge railway runs 25 miles to the north to a place called Fish Creek where ore containing the gypsum is extracted from the earth. It is estimated that the gypsum deposit covers an area of 2-square miles at an average depth of 125 feet.
Once mined, the ore is crushed into gravel and refined in a furnace and turned into a white powder we know as plaster of paris. About 3,000 tons of gypsum is hauled by the train to the factory daily. Back when the tracks were laid in 1924, the locomotives were steam. Today they are diesel.
Railroad tracks run adjacent to the Plaster City plant where the wallboard is manufactured in a building measuring three-quarters of a mile long. Inside, the wet plaster rides on a belt where it gets sandwiched between sheets of paper then heated through a kiln and finally cut to standard sizes. It is then shipped to major cities for distribution.
It’s at Plaster City where the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway (The Impossible Railroad) meets the Union Pacific. One flatcar can carry enough wallboard for the interior of 10 modern houses.
Plaster City is isolated from unwanted urban encroachment and miles of open desert separate it from the nearest town. The extensive Colorado Desert region surrounding the town is Bureau of Land Management property and open to off-road vehicle use at no charge.
Old US 80 was the main thoroughfare through the Imperial County until being superceded by Interstate 8 in the early 1970’s. The old highway once crossed the country, but has been reduced to mostly frontage roads in the west.
In Imperial Country, Old US 80 went from a wood plank road to a paved highway. Each improvement was built over the next, except in areas like the one between Plaster City and the town of Ocotillo. On the southern side of the highway, looking more like a sidewalk at 10 feet in width, is an early version of US 80 built for an era long past.