294 South Main St. Helper, Utah
Helper, Utah lies along US-6/191 seven miles north of Price. It sits against the backdrop of the Book Cliffs and Balance Rock, from which town businesses draw their names. The name of the town itself came from the early rail yard and the "helper" engines that would assist trains on the Price Canyon grades. Like many towns in Carbon County, Helper was built up around coal mining. With so many people immigrating to the town, it was reported that 27 different languages were heard throughout Helper in the 1920's. Nowadays driving through Helper, the main street is a mixture of history and contemporary conversations. Between the "Big John" statue, the post office (built in 1937 by the WPA) and the Western Mining & Railroad Museum, Main Street boasts a handful of small businesses and art galleries.
The museum is housed in a historic hotel which in its heyday laid claim to a bar and restaurant as well. The layout of this three-story building is particularly significant to the collection housed inside. With so many rooms and floors, there is no proper way to navigate the museum. Instead of one chronological narrative that moves you from room to room, the museum unfolds like a choose-your-own-adventure. Depending on the floor or the room, the visitor gets a whole new vignette of the history and lives lived. There is something wonderful to this exploration, like every room unfolds itself to you as you find it. With that, the experience is embodied learning. The movements of the viewer/reader/visitor create very personal pathways through the space.
In one of the upstairs rooms, against the back wall, is a diagram of the Castle Gate Mine disaster. The diagram was made for the Utah History Fair by 11-year-old Gregg Prettyman. Drawn on a board is a scaled version of the Castle Gate Mine (5 miles north of Helper) where in 1924, Utah experienced one of its worst mining disasters. Due to improperly dampened coal dust, three explosions occurred in the mine killing all of the 171 men working. The disaster created a generational scar on the community leaving behind 415 widows and fatherless children. On Gregg's diagram, each of those 171 men killed have their location in the mine marked with a dot and number that correspond to their name. The youngest man killed in the explosion was Gregg's great-great uncle, 16-year-old Frank Evans. A special typewritten note signifies his location. The ability for people like Gregg to contribute to the collection is one of many threads that tie the museum collection together. The other is an inherent sense of community pride.
With Helper in the hub of Carbon County (named for the coal deposits in the area), the Western Mining Museum has become a vault of regional artifacts and histories. Over the last 70 years, countless Utah towns have disappeared with the boom and bust of mining companies. So many people immigrated to the region to make their livelihood in the mines. With each of those families came the desire to turn a group of houses into a respectable town. Organizations, institutions, societies, churches, businesses and entertainment were all a part of the effort. As the towns grew in function, so did the pride residents took in them. This created a sense of vested ownership that couldn't be replicated in a large city. Now, all that remains of some of these towns are building foundations, stories and the reminders that peek out from photographs and memorabilia. Room after room in the museum speaks for these towns and the communities they struggled to create.