127 East Whitmore St. East Carbon, Utah
East Carbon, Utah is about 8 miles east of US-191 along UT-123. Tucked up against the Book Cliffs, the town built its fortunes in the early 1940's through coal mining and coke ovens. Seventy years later, the population has dipped to around 1,200 with the streets and businesses looking sleepy-eyed and quiet. Driving east on UT-123 out of town, you'll be welcomed into Whitmore Canyon with signs for bighorn sheep crossing and the foundations for the long-gone town of Sunnydale. Back in East Carbon, two blocks off the highway, is the East Carbon City Museum in a single-story nondescript building. Standing in the lobby are a handful of display cases and a large painting of a Viking, which seems at odds with the canyons and coal mines.
The museum itself is laid out in a large room with a third of it dedicated to coal mining history. Artifacts are arranged in glass cases with mementos from coal mining unions that feel ripe with brotherly pride. When unions were initially started in the mining communities, it was about providing basic rights and protection for the workers. Whether it was shortening the workday or freeing up the monopoly that mining companies held over local businesses, striking and starting unions meant risking your family's livelihood and safety. One historical example of those dangers is the Ludlow Massacre. A federal pamphlet in the museum describes how in 1914 the Colorado National Guard killed around 20 people (the number is still unclear) including women and children in response to a miners' strike. As one East Carbon resident told the director while donating his mining photos "current generations should know what their grandparents and great-grandparents struggled against to make mining safer".
The rest of the museum is dedicated to the East Carbon High School, home of the Vikings, which was erected in 1959 and demolished in 2005. Shelves are lined with trophies. There are mannequins in sports uniforms and glass cases of mementos. At first it's hard to understand the significance of all that school pride until you learn that no new high school was built to replace the demolished one. For the last eleven years, students have been bussed 24 miles each way to Price. In a town that struggles to maintain its population, there isn't the opportunity for teens to attend school in town, let alone stick around for jobs.
Between those trophies and senior photos are paintings of Vikings, a lone breastplate and countless ephemeral objects that are loaded with memories. Every year the museum hosts class reunions and alumni bring artifacts to add to the collection. It is easy to dismiss high school in the clichés of cliques, budding first loves and school spirit, but seeing a community robbed of that physical institution puts a big red circle around the actual importance of a school. Generations passed through a building forming identities and relationships. How do you emotionally reconcile that building disappearing? Those two thirds of the museum feel like a place of reckoning; a public time capsule where the community can place all of their memories and visitors can experience a shared sense of their loss.