Helper: A Railroad Town


Photo from the Sun Advocate archives.

By Walt Borla

The first settler in what is now Helper was a Mormon polygamist Teancum Pratt who came into the area in 1870 with his two wives. He established a homestead here in 1880, living in a dugout on what is now the east side of town. Pratt is believed to be buried in that part of town. He tried farming with the Price River water nearby and reportedly prospected for coal. The town became known as Pratt’s Siding at first.

Later, the name Welby was used but the name of Helper came about from the need for helper locomotives to help push the heavy coal trains and freight trains up to the summit west of town. Helper is the only town in the country named after a locomotive. The helper locomotives were detached from the train at Soldier Summit and returned to Helper to await another train to help.

During that period of time, there was an urgent need for a rail connection between Salt Lake City and Denver. The Denver and Rio Grande railroad, commonly known as the Rio Grande, had plans to bring the railroad in from Grand Junction, Colo. over a route south of Helper, through southern Emery County, to connect with the Union Pacific (UP) in Central Utah. The present Interstate Highway 70 parallels that proposed route.

These plans were changed when the discovery of recoverable coal seams were found in Carbon County. This prompted the Rio Grande to change their plans, bringing the railroad through Carbon County and Helper, over the summit to the northwest of Helper and connection with the UP at Provo. This facilitated the transportation of the coal on their line and, at the same time, lay claim to some of the mining. The coming of the railroad, as they purchased a right of way from Pratt, made Helper the focal point of the rail activity in this area. Helper became a division point for the Rio Grande for the shipping of coal.

Originally, the railroad officials picked Solider Summit to be the division point in this area, noting it was halfway between Grand Junction and Ogden. After a trial basis where houses were built and rail activity took place, it was decided that Soldier Summit, with its harsh winters, was no place for such an operation and the move was made to Helper. The houses were transported to Helper and located on the east side of town. The foundations of the houses located in solider Summit are still visible to  this day.

In Helper, the railroad built a round house of 12 stalls for the repairs needed on the steam locomotives, a car repair shop and extensive switching yards for the assembly of the coal trains. The railroad established lines to the various mines and the loaded coal cars were brought to the Helper rail yards for assembling outgoing trains. Early on, the railroad developed two small reservoirs in north Helper in an area commonly referred to as Marti, to ensure an ample supply of water available for the steam locomotives. Water was diverted from the Price River to the larger of the reservoirs, which drained down to the smaller one for settlement purposes to eliminate the debris from the water before it was sent onto the water tanks. The larger reservoir still exists and is now known as Gigliotti Pond.

Coal miners and railroad workers were recruited from Europe, particularly in the southern Mediterranean countries of Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and France. In just the rail operations at the Helper rail center, over 500 employees were employed in a 24-hour operation, seven days per week. The influx of these immigrants changed the complexion of something different of what could be found in the remainder of Mormon-dominated Utah. It was said over 20 different languages could be heard on the streets of Helper.

Helper became what was known as the hub of the county as coal camps were settled in the nearby canyons: Peerless, Spring Canyon, Standardville, Latuda, Rains, Mutual, Kenilworth, Castle Gate, Consumers, Sweets while Rollap, later known as Royal, became the home and workplace for over 1,500 people. Helper was the center where many of these people came to do their shopping, entertainment and recreation. Two movie houses operated continually and there were no less than 20 taverns in the area among the businesses dotting main street. Helper came to be known as the hub of Carbon County.

With the advent of World War Two, Helper was busier than ever. The mines were operation full steam and the railroad had trains running through regularly. These steam locomotives required coal and water for the boilers to be taken on as each stopped in Helper for these essentials. The operating crews were exchanged, either for the trip to Grand Junction or Salt Lake City. The rooming houses and cafes operated 24/7.

Helper always had a fascination for passenger trains. Many elders and kids had the pleasure of visiting the depot to watch the coming and going of passenger trains. At one time, there were three passenger trains stopping in Helper, each east and west. The mail for the post office was brought in on the trains and taken out as well. Helper had two US Presidents make stops in Helper as passengers on a train. The first, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was asleep in his Pullman Sleeper in the middle of the night in the late 1930’s when he awoke as the train stopped in Helper. It is said he questioned, “Where are we?”

During September of 1948, Harry S. Truman’s Whistle Stop Campaign train came to Helper from Grand Junction. It was a banner day in the history of Helper. All the business houses in town closed for the afternoon. The schools all closed and the students transported to the Helper depot. Hundreds of people were at the Helper depot awaiting Truman, who was campaigning to retain the presidency. A cheer went up when the president train arrived and the president came out on the platform of his car to speak. Immediately, a group of local coal miners ascending the car and placed a miner’s helmet on the president’s head. As the train pulled away, the smiling president remained on the platform waving to the crowds, mine helmet still on.

President Truman made one more rail visit to Helper in the autumn of 1952 when he was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. He spoke briefly from the train before it departed for Grand Junction, introducing his wife and daughter. The late Laurence W. Payne, a local photographer, took several pictures of Truman’s first visit and they can be viewed this day at the Helper City Hall or at the museum.

Word War ll brought many service men trains through Helper, particularly the summer of 1945. The war in Europe was ended and combat troops from there were being rushed to the Pacific area for a possible invasion of Japan. As these trains stopped in Helper, it was not unusual to see many of the soldiers rush to the bars on Main Street for a quick glass of beer. The dropping of the atomic bombs saved the lives of many of these servicemen. Helper is still favored with passenger rail service with the Amtrak train stopping in Helper for daily service east and west.

In the mid-50s, a dramatic change came about in the railroad activity of Helper: the appearance of the diesel locomotives spelled the end of the steam-fired locomotives and the end of much railroad activity in Helper. There was no need for the roundhouse any more; it was dismantled. Rail crews began making the trips from Salt Lake to Grand Junction or from sending trains to the mines to load with coal, but rather, the mines began trucking the coal to a centralized loading facilities of the railroad. For example, the Wild Cat load outs on Consumers Road and the load out facility south of Price. The daily work day mine runs became a thing of the past. This, along with the worked out coal mines in the immediate area, brought about a dramatic change in the rail activity in Helper.

During recent years, a positive change took place in Helper. Noted artists’ began taking up residence in the community and Helper took on the title of an art center. Art galleries grace Main Street as the work of these artists is put on display. A community-wide celebration known as the Helper Arts, Music and Film Festival fills the town with people celebrating the event each August. By Governor’s decree, Helper is Utah’s Christmas Town. A number of Christmas-related events take place in early December, culminated by a gigantic electric light parade put on two successive nights.

Helper is also noted for its excellent baseball fields with the only field in Eastern Utah equipped for night play. Games featuring the Helper Merchants, American Legion teams, Carbon High and CEU teams have played there throughout the seasons. There are also two ideal little league fields in the community for the young baseball players. Helper also boasts one of the finest swimming pools in the area, drawing swimmers from throughout the county during the summer.

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