The first in a periodic series on small towns in Utah.
Helper » At first glance, this iconic Carbon County mining and railroad town seems almost ghostly.
Helper was once home to 29 nationalities, 27 bars and five brothels, the last which closed in 1978. Now, "For Sale" signs decorate many multi-story Main Street brick buildings, their neon lights a fading memory of past glories.
When a Works Project Administration American Guide Series book on Utah was published in 1941, it described the town this way:
"Helper overflows on both sides of Price Canyon. Houses cling precariously to the steep walls, barely keeping their feet out of the street and Price River. The narrow street is crowded with American, Italian, Greek, Austrian, Japanese and Chinese miners who depend on the 28 mines in the area for a livelihood. Railroad men mingle with the crowd and there is a sort of armed neutrality between them and the miners."
Today, many of those mines are closed. The railroad that gave Helper its name because steam engines once needed "helper trains" to reach Soldier Summit at 7,440 feet, a climb of 1,631 feet, employs far fewer people.
Yet this town of 2,000 is reinventing itself. Some still work in the mines, at power plants or for the railroad, a new influx of artists and young families fleeing the smog and expense of city life are helping revive one of Utah's most unusual downtowns.
Take, for example, three new residents, Helper Mayor Dean Armstrong, artist and restaurant co-owner Marilou Kundmueller, and Mining and Railroad Museum director Stephanie Fitzsimons.
Armstrong spent most of his life working for a large corporation as an engineer. He lived in Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City before moving to Helper where he bought one of the town's two grocery stores.
"I was tired of travel and loved coming down here," said Armstrong, who married his wife, a Helper native, at St. Anthony's Catholic Church on the town's main drag where bells play "Ave Maria."
His R & A market, located on the south end of Main Street, features a traditional white butcher cooler, one of only six left in Utah. He makes custom sausages, bakes breads and sells fancy deli meats, cheeses and olives that appeal to Helper's still diverse population.
A closer look at downtown shows two banks, a recently opened bar, a bakery, Kundmueller's wonderful Balance Rock Eatery and Pub restaurant, a gas station, three art galleries, an antique store, an Amtrak station, an eight-lane bowling alley, Jalynn Snider's barber shop, a post office, a museum, city hall, a statue of Big John the miner, two small motels, a new theater, the museum and nearby river walk.
Kundmueller is married to David Dornan, a prominent Utah artist who has helped bring in artists such as Doug Braithwaite, Paul Davis and Ben Stein to Helper. This once blue-collar union town now features more art galleries than bars. Its August Arts Festival ranks among Utah's best.
"The cost of living is lower here, but we can still sell to New York, Santa Fe, California or Park City," said Kundmueller. "This is a nice place to live for someone who wants to be a full-time artist."
Fitzsimons, a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley, moved to Helper with her husband and two young children to bring new life to the town's quirky Western Mining and Railroad Museum housed in a multi-story hotel built in 1913 that once served as the YMCA. The museum will be the only Utah venue to host the Abraham Lincoln Library's "Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America" exhibit which will run June 18 through July 16.
Walter Borla, who has spent most of his 80 years in the Carbon County town, mixes well with the newcomers.
Borla, a retired postmaster, can tell a visitor about how the Gulgiota urban fishing pond once served as a place where steam engines got their water. Or how the post office where he worked features one of only three WPA-era murals in Utah. He proudly tells about seeing President Harry Truman stop in town to deliver speeches from the back of a train in 1948 and 1952.
The long-time Helper citizen really gets animated, though, when talking about baseball. The town's little league diamond is named for him. The press box at Gardner Field, a diamond built in the 1920s and one of the first in Utah with lights, is called Walt's Condo because he spent so much time there keeping score and announcing.
Borla remembers when the field, named after former railroad man and councilman Ernest Gardner who lived next to it for 52 years, was home of a Utah semi-pro industrial league in which the Helper Merchants played teams such as the American Fork Steelers, the Magna Smelters and the Brigham City Beaches. Once, the Kansas City Monarchs, the great Negro League team, played there.
Few Utah cities possess Helper's scenic beauty. The tan Book Cliffs and balanced rock guard the north side of a town that retains many of its original multi-story brick buildings.
Numerous small homes in Helper feature front porches with chairs, couches or benches. This is a community where people enjoy walking and socializing, taking advantage of the cool summer breezes coming out of Price Canyon, on streets named after Presidents Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Carter.
"We moved here from Southern California and have the best neighbors ever. They don't care what your religious or educational background is. Folks help each other. People walk. They communicate. Folks are friendly."
Stephanie Fitzsimons, director, Helper Railroad and Mining Museum
"The location is dramatic. You come down the canyon, there is a huge cliff and the town sits right next to it. My father-in-law calls it Mayberry. It is the quintessential small town. That is some of its appeal. But it is kind of urban in a way. Everything is close together. You live in a city, in the middle of nowhere. It's a beautiful contrast."
Ben Steele, Helper artist who moved from Salt Lake
"It was a community that was very diverse. There was no predominant religion. When I was young, you could walk up and down Main street and run into 20 some people of different nationalities all immersed together. We played baseball and did everything together. It was more or less a melting point for Utah."
Walter Borla, retired postmaster who has lived in Helper for 80 years
"I wouldn't trade growing up here for anything with the ethnic culture and upbringing with my friends and family. It is the unity that people of Helper have. There is a closeness."
Kirk Mascaro, city councilman
"We are a community on the rise. We are the gateway to Castle Country, postcard pretty, small and quiet...There is a new sense of 'we can do stuff.' There are more young families. Housing is affordable. It is a good place to move."
Dean Armstrong, mayor