Up and Atom

Four years after the U.S. House first voted to cancel the superconducting supercollider, Waxahachie is bouncing back.

June 1996By Comments

WHILE YOU MIGHT STILL FIND a few tattered bumperstickers claiming otherwise, Waxahachie is no longer “Collider Country.” This past winter, the sad saga of the superconducting supercollider—a high-tech contraption designed to plumb the mysteries of matter and energy and explore the very origins of the universe—closed another chapter when someone from the highway department finally took down the sign north of town that pointed the way to the 500,000-square-foot warehouse that was once collider headquarters. But even though the U.S. House first voted to cut off funding for the collider four years ago this month, it has taken the project a long time to die, and its death throes have been more costly in human and economic terms than anyone expected. A recent finger-wagging message on the marquee of Waxahachie’s Northside Church of Christ seemed to sum up the situation: “No man can fight God and win.”

With a 54-mile underground oval tunnel and technology designed to smash protons into primal smithereens, the collider was to have been one of the largest public works projects in American history and the grandest scientific effort since the space program was launched. And it promised to send Waxahachie, a serene, well-preserved town blessed with Victorian houses and a wholesome ambience, hurtling into the future. Instead, the collider was halted with little more than 15 miles of underground tunnel dug out beneath the topsoil of Ellis County, and it became a useless ruin. The unfinished project cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 billion and the State of Texas nearly half a billion. So far, the state has recouped less than half of its losses. But as for Waxahachie and the tiny towns that fell within the collider’s path, the ultimate cost is still to be determined. If most people in the area seem to have reached a stage of fatalistic acceptance of what happened—“Now everybody knows where Waxahachie, Texas, is,” one local collider booster told me—there’s no doubt that the project left broken dreams and dislocated lives in its wake. “We’ve got a big hole in the ground and roads that don’t lead anywhere,” said another longtime resident. “It still pains your heart to think of what might have been.”

When I visited Waxahachie this past February to assess the damage, one of my first stops was the chamber of commerce, where N. B. “Buck” Jordan, once the collider’s biggest supporter, still presides. “Sure, losing the collider hurt—it was the chance of a lifetime,” said Jordan, who is a member of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission (TNRLC), which is overseeing the disposal of the state’s share of collider property. I first met Jordan in 1988, just after corks were popped to celebrate the project’s approval, and he impressed me as one of the most upbeat people I’d ever met. Back then the collider was seen as a welcome boost to an economy reeling from busts in real estate, oil, banking, and agriculture. Texans who didn’t know a quark from a quirk embraced the collider as their own, even dubbing it the Armadillotron, as if it were some sort of mascot. Nowadays, though, Jordan’s voice turns wistful when the collider comes up. “I ought to save all this stuff to start a museum,” he told me—and indeed, his office is full of souvenirs, including a framed copy of the headline from the Waxahachie Daily Light announcing the collider’s arrival: It’s Here. He has a cross section of the superconducting magnet whose aperture proved too narrow—a miscalculation that threatened to cost the project another $1 billion and finally helped sink it. He also has chunks of Austin chalk, the diggable layer of soft rock under Ellis County that lured the collider’s builders. “I still tell people who call that we’ve got lots of that Austin chalk,” Jordan said.

It’s not that there’s been a fire sale on Waxahachie real estate; nor has there been an exodus of people or businesses other than those connected with the collider. “We didn’t get too carried away and overbuild,” Jordan insisted. The town did lose a few new companies that had moved in, including a cryogenics company (the collider’s magnets depended on supercooling technology), but a number of new companies have recently arrived, and several existing ones, including glass-products maker Ball-Foster and Owens-Corning Fiberglas, have undertaken expansions. “In the last three or four years, we’ve added forty-three million dollars to our tax rolls and about a thousand jobs,” he said. “We recognized that we had to build a life after the collider.”

Jordan’s responsibility these days is to help the state unload leftover collider equipment and the enormous warehouse that served as the project’s headquarters. “We still have tons of stuff to get rid of,” he said. “Most of it is specialized, and it’s not going to fit in just anybody’s garage.” Take the collider’s state-of-the-art linear accelerator, or linac, a sophisticated piece of equipment used to generate proton beams. As part of the split of collider assets between Texas and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the state received the linac, which the General Services Commission then advertised for sale on the Internet and in science journals around the world. Although it was once valued at $22 million, the highest bid for the linac was for less than $3 million.

The state may do a little better on the nearly 16,000 acres of land associated with the collider that it owns, although by some accounts it will be lucky to recoup 35 cents on the dollar. And it may be years before all the land issues are resolved. To make way for the project six years ago, the state had to oust from their homes a number of people whose families had farmed the same parcels for generations. Folks who had survived drought, tornadoes, and a dying way of life—the kind of hardy country people that inspired Waxahachie native Robert Benton’s nostalgic film Places in the Heart—wound up losing their land to a futuristic project they never understood. “I guess we were sacrificed for the greater good,” one elderly resident said. Not all of them left willingly, of course. Eighty-seven-year-old Monnie Bratcher, the last holdout to leave the tiny town of Boz, which was almost wiped out by the collider, has cursed the representatives of the TNRLC since the day they showed up on her front porch (but she “never used the Lord’s name in vain,” she told me). “They just put me out for the buzzards,” she complained, although she admitted she was well paid for her farm. Many of the old houses from Boz were moved to a lot along FM 66 and offered for sale, as though the area’s rural heritage were being displayed in a bedraggled flea market. “They just swallowed Boz and took it,” Bratcher said. “You want to talk about a lonely, desolate place, now that’s Boz. It’s just like when the Indians first got there.”

The state has already leased nearly 6,000 acres of land for agricultural use, and the first sale of land controlled by the TNRLC will take place next month, with more than seventy parcels totaling more than 700 acres to be offered up by closed bid through the General Land Office. In an ironic twist, Bratcher and others may be able to buy their land back at less than they were paid for it. Most of the houses and farm outbuildings are gone, however, and they will have to bid like everyone else.

Other than the land deals, everyone is curious about the giant wind tunnel that NASA wants to build in the area sometime in the future, although no funds have yet been appropriated for the project. Jordan hastened to explain that the wind tunnel would be above ground and would have nothing to do with the excavated collider tunnel. People have been curious, too, about the status of the collider tunnel. There have been plenty of jokes about what it might be used for—there was even a serious proposal by a local entrepreneur to transform some of it into a mushroom factory. But the tunnel is history. The shafts leading to it have been capped with concrete, and the sump pumps that kept the tunnel from filling with water were turned off last year, like life-support systems to an expired hospital patient. The tunnel has been gradually filling with water, and eventually the ten miles of tunnel that were not reinforced will collapse.

Then there is the collider headquarters, which the DOE has agreed to vacate so that the state can sell it. “They’ve got to get out before we can do any marketing,” Jordan said, noting that a high-tech company and a trucking firm have made inquiries. Inside the beige metal building, which is bordered by a ramshackle farm on the edge of Waxahachie’s industrial zone, a skeleton crew of 100 or so, the last of a work force that once numbered around 2,500, has been working frantically to clear everything out by September. Last fall, the collider operation formally ceased to be a laboratory, and the remaining workers were designated a “termination team” and put under the command of former Army general George Robertson. (“We declared victory and changed the name,” he said wryly.) Robertson, who did similar work after the Vietnam War and the Mount St. Helens eruption, preferred to use the military euphemism “drawdown” for his cleanup work. Whatever it’s called, he said his team could have had it completed by now, except for all the lingering disputes between Texas and the feds over the division of property. State officials, for example, couldn’t decide whether to keep the separate magnet lab known as N115—for which such uses as a cancer treatment facility had been proposed, using a modified version of the linac to carry out proton-radiation therapy—or take a cash payment of $65 million. They finally chose the cash.

As I toured the gigantic headquarters, I felt as though I had entered a disaster area. The front sections, which had once held mazes of work cubicles, were now eerily empty. The back was still littered with tools and stacks of furniture, though, and I had to dodge forklifts that were zipping around at lightning speed. Most of the equipment had already been crated and labeled with the names of universities or DOE laboratories around the country. When I came to the main storage area, filled with shelf upon shelf of equipment, I was reminded of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the crated ark joins a seemingly endless storehouse of government surplus. Among the collider leftovers were six thousand computers, and the state bought five hundred of them for 25 cents on the dollar. A load of office supplies went to a local school. Two planeloads of furniture reportedly went to the U.S. refugee center in Guantánamo Bay for use by Haitian refugees. Roy Schwitters, the former director of the lab and now a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that one of his students had managed to locate his old desk and send it to him.

For Robertson, however, the displacement of people was even more of an issue than the disposal of property. The collider had brought together a remarkable group of physicists, perhaps as adventurous and dedicated a group of scientists as the U.S. has seen since the early days of NASA, and Robertson helped organize an outplacement center to help them find jobs, which are scarce for physicists these days. A few of the physicists were able to use their mathematical knowledge and computer-simulation skills in new jobs on Wall Street. Others had to learn new skills. George Yost, like many of his colleagues who grew fond of the area and wanted to stay, retrained and is now working as a computer-programming consultant. “At least we got some good citizens out of this,” one Waxahachie resident told me.

As I was getting ready to leave the collider headquarters, I noticed a small sign on a bulletin board that gladdened my heart: the Busy Bee in Maypearl, a tiny town located along the southwest curve of the collider ring, was open for business again. When I first visited the Busy Bee just after the collider was announced, I imagined the quaint cafe as a kind of canary-in-a-coal-mine measure of the collider’s effect on local culture. In the heyday of the collider, the Busy Bee prospered: Ann Heath, its proprietor, presided like a mother hen over a motley crew of regulars that could have come straight from the set of Mayberry R.F.D. She also adopted the collider employees who came to lunch and took it upon herself to learn all about the tiny particles, or “quarts,” as she called them, that the collider was going to explore. She started a chamber of commerce in Maypearl in anticipation of the town’s growth. She even arranged for Monnie Bratcher to take a trip into the collider tunnel, hoping that seeing it with her own eyes would ease her bitterness.

I headed over to the Busy Bee around lunchtime, and when I got there it was packed. Heath told me she had had to close when business took a dip after the collider shut down, but she was able to reopen two years later. While she still tries to keep abreast of news about the collider, she said, “it’s almost as though nothing ever happened.” She shook her head at the “wishy-washiness” of the government. “The people around here finally accepted the collider,” she said, “and then it was gone.”

Later that afternoon, I paid a visit to the vanished community of Boz with retired Waxahachie teacher Dow Anna McGregor. “These futuristic people didn’t respect history enough,” she said as we surveyed the area. “They needed to step back and see where they came from before they tried to figure out where they were going.” No one had to tell Dow Anna about respecting history. She had managed to rescue her family farmhouse, a state landmark built in 1855, by moving it to safe ground away from the collider. Along with the old house, she had also salvaged a lilac bush planted at the farm, she thinks, in 1850. She replanted it near the new location of the house, and it began to sprout. Dow Anna knew that it would bloom again, as true a symbol of resilience and renewal around these parts as you could hope to find.

Carol Flake is a freelance writer living in Austin.

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