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Friday, November 2, 2018

Visiting Historic Helper, Carbon County Utah

When you walk down the main drag of an old western town, you can't help but feel like you've been transported back in time.  The little "city" of Helper, next door to Price where I had been playing and staying for this trip, was just that type of town.   Walking down this quiet Main Street on a Monday afternoon, I had my eyes peeled for a tumbleweed or two blowing across the road to really set the scene.  You take in the quiet, you relax a little, time sloooooows down.  

Maybe you came for the history, or perhaps you came for the art.  Maybe you are one of those Moab Layover types who "always wondered what was in Helper".  This city once known for its railroad and mining industry, has created its own unique and updated identity.  To me, Helper, Utah is a mix of Banff's iconic Main Street mountain view (desert edition) mixed with some Park City sidewalk style, a blend of old mining and railroad history, and then throw in a whole lot of Route 66 style.  Read on to see exactly what I am talking about. 

Signage in Helper, Utah

Restored Main Street Garage 

Restored gas station at the end of Main Street

Helper is a blue collar city that has gone through a pretty dramatic revitalization project.  With the help of local artists setting up shop in the city, Helper rebranded itself as an art community all while still honoring its railroad and mining past.  At the end of the day you can see that a lot of people invested time, money, and energy to make this community unique and help attract the ever growing Historic Tourism industry.  

The National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States defines heritage tourism as "traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past".  Visiting Helper is exactly that. 

You can still take the train (Amtrak) into Helper which is oh-so-fitting for its longstanding history as a rail town.  As you walk through the streets, you get this Route 66 vibe that suits the town and rising art community so well.  There are old-timey murals painted on brick walls advertising 5 cent Cocoa Cola.  Two gas stations bookend Main Street that have been beautifully restored to the 1940s era.  The same gentleman who renovated the gas stations is even using one of these old brick buildings to showcase his vintage motorcycle collection.  If there is one thing I learned while popping in and out of shops and galleries, it is that the people of Helper are certainly passionate people. 

Personal vintage motorcycle collection that will eventually be a museum

Renovated gas station

Lovely little park next to the museum 

The pace here in Helper is much different than bustling Salt Lake City or outdoor Mecca Moab.  It is that slow down kind of vibe that that makes you want to sink into a booth at the nearby pub or wander through an art gallery, content to enjoy the relaxing pace of life in Helper.  As you walk down the street, directly in front of you, you can see desert mesas, the desert version of Banff's Main Street if you will.  On each side of the street you will see quaint shops "Park City styled" sidewalks, and art gallery after art gallery after art gallery.   Helper turned into artist's paradise as many established artist came to visit, fell in love, and you know how the story goes, they never left.  

"Banff" style main street - desert edition

Park City styled sidewalks 

Helper today is a thriving idyllic art community but Helper of the late 1800's was an entirely different scene.  Helper was first founded in 1881 and grew rapidly thanks to the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (1881-1882).  Helper started as a rail town and was designated the division point between the eastern and western D&RGW terminals in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Ogden, Utah.  

Legend has it that in April of 1897, Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay robbed the Pleasant Valley Coal Company in nearby Castle Gate and they stayed in Helper the day before.  Rumor has it that Butch Cassidy later came back to Helper for occasional visits. With the railroad and coal mines came immigrant workers and the culture they bought earning Helper the term the "Ellis Island of Utah".  

According to Utah Stories, Helper, Utah was once home to 20,000 miners, 33 bars and 19 whore houses, giving it a risque past as a brothel town.  I was told that Tino Guiterrez owns the local "bar and night club" known as the Regis Club on Main Street in Helper.  Tino grew up in the area and is known for his stories and for serving as the unofficial historian.  According to Tino, when officers cracked down on brothels in other cities, Helper held onto theirs a little longer thanks to the protection from local businessman.  As this article reads "The coal miners provided a steady stream of customers for the brothels and the brothels brought a steady stream of “hunting trips” from Salt Lake City....Helper didn’t die when the coal mines closed; it died when the last brothel closed in 1976.”

The Helper is also home to the Matt Warner chapter of the Clampers (or E Clampus Vitus). What are the Clampers?  Glad you asked..... it is the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV) a fraternal organization dedicated to the study and preservation of the heritage of the American West (and sort of a drinking club, let's be honest).  Their meeting place looks awfully official with a painted black door, red lettering, and signage hanging above the door.

Now who is Matt Warner? A very bad guy that became a very good guy.  Matt Warner went from bandit to judge.  He rode with Butch Cassidy and did some time in prison.  After being released in 1900 with a full pardon, he became the best deputy sheriff and justice of the peace.  A stone monument in front of the Carbon County Courthouse, placed there by the Clampers showcases his name.

A railroad town mixed with several cultures, a side of sex, a secret club, and a splash of western drama.  What's not to love?

Painted murals on restored brick buildings 

The story of how this western town received it's name is pretty darn cute.  Helper is located at the mouth of Price Canyon and trains traveling westward from Price to Salt Lake City required additional "helper" engines in to make the steep climb up Price Canyon to the town of Soldier Summit.   Helper was named after these helper engines that assisted trains making the steep climb to Soldier Summit.  

Big John Statue at the Helper City Library 

This little city is the perfect place for a relaxing getaway.  It is art lover and history buff paradise and you could easily spend the weekend wandering in and out of galleries, relaxing at the coffee shop, or visiting the local museum and restored buildings.  Pair it with a day or two in Price to mountain bike and ATV and you have the perfect blend of relaxation and outdoor recreation.  
  • Walk Historic Main Street - In my eyes, this is the main attraction here and there is plenty to do and see on one street.  There are several art galleries, many murals on the walls of historic brick buildings, cute coffee shops, a quaint book store, restaurants, cute stores, and two antique renovated gas stations.  Happiness Within is the perfect place to grab a coffee and relax.   Balance Rock Eatery offers some great food that will make you feel like you just sat down for a home cooked meal in your grandmother's kitchen.  Check out the amazing local artists who now call Helper home.  The galleries feature everything from Utah's famous landscapes and night photography to amazing oils and portraits of some of Helper's well loved residents.  Stop in to check out Gary DeVincent restored gas stations at the start and end of Helper's Main Street.   
  • Pose with Big John - You can't miss the chance to pose with the world's largest coal miner statue... you know I love a good touristy photo op and this is exactly that (with some history mixed in). The 18' fiberglass miner statue that greets you as you enter the town.  Big John commemorates the mining history of Helper.  He was created in 1964 and received his name from the 1961 best country song of the year "Big Bad John", obviously a song about mining.  And so, an iconic Helper hero and a fiberglass star was born.  
  • Check out Balance Rock - Look to the north of Main Street to see this very literally "balanced rock" perched among the mountains. Historically, you could hike to the rock but trail renovations are needed to make the rock accessible again.
  • Learn more about the history of Helper at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum - The museum tells the story of people who worked in the underground mines between 1880 and 1950.  Learn about the immigrants from over 27 different countries who called Helper home and helped influence the culture here.  After the museum, stop by the little outdoor area adjacent to it and see the Helper Train Mosaic.  NOTE: Museum is closed Sunday and Mondays in the winter and Sundays in the summer.  
  • Visit Gigliotti Pond - bring a picnic or do some fishing in the desert ! A chance to relax outside in Helper's desert landscape.

Park adjacent to the museum

Seasonal Events 
Outlaw Car Show and Cruise (June)
Helper Arts and Music Festival (August)
Christmas Town Festival (December)

Helper Main Street
Local art featuring the local history in Happiness Within

Balance Rock Eatery/Pub

Train Mosaic

Local Art Gallery

Local Art Gallery

Map of Helper/Main Street

Our fabulous Tour Guide - Tina Henrie 
I loved Helper and only wish I had more time to wander into every art gallery that calls Helper home.  One thing I will say is that Helper suffers a little bit from what I all "Utah Syndrome" aka a lot of the town is shut down on a Sunday.   It's hard to promote tourism in a town that shuts it's doors on a Sunday.  

Despite the frustrations of a lot of the shops or galleries being closed when I visited, I loved the feel, the culture, and the relaxing vibe you get when you walk down Main Street on a Monday afternoon.  It is one of those place I keep telling people about, keep begging people to stop and see as it is so much more than a Moab Layover.  History and charm, an old western town, a thriving art community, overall a really great place to relax.  

A HUGE thanks to Tina Henrie, the amazing hard working tourism specialist of Carbon County, for organizing this amazing trip and being the perfect tour guide for Castle Country.  It is people like this, and connections like this one that make visiting a place like Castle Country so special.  

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