Surprises Off the Highway in Helper, UT

You never know what you’ll encounter when you turn off the highway.

IMG_0498IMG_0539I bet I’ve driven down Utah State Highway 191 at least fifty times in the last fifteen years. It’s the road that connects the Salt Lake Basin to Moab, which explains at least half of those trips. It’s also the route between the put-in and the take-out for the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River, a section of whitewater that I guided for a number of years. I’ve always been “on my way somewhere” (and when are we not?) when driving this road, so maybe that’s why I never stopped in the town of Helper.  It has a Historic Register sign, though, and usually those pull me in like tractor beams.  I guess I just didn’t want to get off the high-speed track.

This weekend, however, I wisely decided that I had left too late for an evening ride in Moab, and too early to just drive straight to my motel, leaving me a few hours to find out what Helper is about.

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Helper was – and is – a coal and railroad town. It was named for the additional “helper” engines the town’s depot provided to push trains up and over Soldier Summit, about ten miles west of town. 1881 was the year when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad came to town, and at about the same time, the local cliffs were found to be rich in coal, the very material that kept those early trains running.

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This economic match-made-in heaven led to the birth of six coal mines and their respective mining camp towns right outside of Helper.  Remnants of six towns – Peerless, Storrs, Standardville, Latuda, Rains, and Mutual – lie up Spring Creek Canyon. Collectively they housed over 1000 people in 1924 and boasted a hospital, tennis courts, an elementary school with 200 children and an aerial tramway for transporting coal down from the IMG_0445mountain. I won’t recap my ghost town post from last week here, but suffice it to say that the contrast between the desolation of this canyon and the stories of the thriving populations it once housed was striking – and foreboding. Meanwhile, downtown Helper’s population sustained a thriving Main Street full of mining shacks, hotels, restaurants, stores, and, of course, brothels. Many of these buildings, built between 1895 and 1920, are still standing, earning them their historic registry placards.

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While all of this history is interesting, none of it was particularly surprising to me.  What was surprising is this: in 1900, there were 385 people in Helper. They were from sixteen different countries.  In 1920, when the population was peaking at 2800, twenty-seven different languages were being spoken in this community.

TIMG_0623wenty-seven! That’s a language for every hundred residents, in rural, rugged, middle-of-nowhere Central Utah! Helper’s immigrants arrived in  waves – first the Chinese, then Italians, Slovenians, Croatians, and Serbians – to avail themselves of the job opportunities in the mines and with the railroad. After the inevitable labor disputes, Greek and Japanese workers were brought in to break strikes, adding to the mix. It’s hard to say how well – or poorly – these groups of people got along one hundred years ago, but judging from the last names I saw displayed around town, many of their descendants are still in the area. And, after eating lunch in Helper’s turn-of-the-century furniture store-turned-restaurant, I can attest to the presence of the most recent immigrant influx, Mexicans, who comprised about half of the staff.

The other big surprise in Helper? Art galleries. SIX of them.

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Once again, not what I’d expect from a coal and railroad town anywhere, least of all in rural Utah. Multiple historic brick buildings have been refurbished to house collections of oil paintings, ceramics, and metal work. A few of these galleries are right next to burned and abandoned bars, which have only their rusted signs left to mark their glory days. IMG_0505IMG_0629Two other galleries flank the latte shop, which is across the street from the public mosaic piece made by Helper’s children. Still another had a homeless man dozing on its front stoop. Just down the street was a dilapidated metal building undergoing restoration marked with a sign that reads “coming soon – the Helper Hotel.” It’s right next to the trainyard and a stone’s throw from the galleries, coffee shop, and restaurant. Already a promising-looking establishment, its intrigue factor is only increased by its view of the abandoned brothel across the way.

 

I’d say that’s a fairly diverse Main Street for a coal mining town in rural Utah.

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So I’ve been wondering, are these two forms of diversity linked? Did the melting pot atmosphere of 1915 Helper somehow foster a 2015 Helper that can incorporate both a coal transportation depot and several pricey art galleries into its Main Street? Does open-mindedness towards one type of cultural variety transfer to another? If you accept a polyglot community, do you automatically embrace a assortment of shops in your downtown and the inevitable mixed bag of patrons they will attract?

IMG_0472I can’t help but consider my own open-mindedness, or lack thereof, in this case. Historic Register sign notwithstanding, I suspect I never stopped in Helper because I had made certain assumptions about it. A rural Utah mining town? There can’t possibly be anything of interest to me there.

I had to get off the highway to find out that I was mistaken.

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