Soiled doves are visible from hotel room windows in Helper, Utah, but now they are just mannequins. This gritty coal mining and railroad boomtown has embraced its diverse ethnic past. A new artistic renaissance is livening up the downtown core with restored gas stations, art galleries and Amtrak diesel engines rumbling behind Main Street.
I know what it is like to work in a railroad town. When I finished my doctorate in American history and American culture, I couldn’t find a teaching job, so I worked as a railroad historian in Lima, Ohio, which was a rust-belt town that not only built steam engines, it had seven railroads running through the municipality. My office was a restored B&O caboose set on rails near the town square. My boss had a sense of humor, so my phone number was 22-TRAIN.
My grandfather had been a railroad detective on the Great Northern Railroad. Smoke, cinders and diesel fuel are in my blood. Yet when I turned into Helper early on a quiet morning, I was not prepared for what I saw: New sidewalks. Nice trees and shrubs. Small, close-together, working-class bungalow houses, some in need of repair, and a multi-block set of two- and three-story brick-and-stone industrial buildings untouched in 80 years.
Driving slowly down Main Street, I tried to understand why time had stopped in Helper. As I got to the end of the downtown core, I was stunned to see a completely restored 1920s Conoco gas station with 1930s gas pumps under the canopy, an original 1937 International 1½-ton tow truck, and inside the garage’s main bay, the best surprise of all.
I looked through the dusty windows and gasped. I saw a vision of post-World War II American optimism, power and design. Before me in all its unrestored glory sat a 1949 Buick convertible, top up, tires inflated. I wanted the keys.
Where was I? What was the story of this town? I walked back down the street, past another vintage 1964 four-door Chevrolet, and began to understand Helper’s ties to Colorado and the world.
In the race to connect the American West, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built tracks across the high plateau west of Grand Junction and up through Price Canyon northwest to Salt Lake City. The town site had been settled in 1881 by Teancum Pratt and his Mormon plural wives. He sought to escape “hunters, trappers, bachelors and rareheads,” but he sold out to the D&RG in the fall of 1887. The railroad promptly built 27 frame houses for the immigrant flood soon to begin and in 1891 switched to standard gauge track.
When the steam engines hit those steep grades they needed help, literally helper engines to push the trains uphill. Helper was born and thrived as a railroad town with adjacent coal mines in Carbon County. Miners arrived from all over the world to build a rural town of 5,000 people. To work on the railroad or in the coal mines, immigrants came from Greece, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, China, Italy, Japan and the Middle East to pursue their American dreams.
By the early 1900s, Helper boasted Jewish and Italian mercantile stores, Greek coffeehouses, Italian bakeries, Japanese restaurants and fish markets, and by 1920, a polyglot population that spoke 27 languages. Helper thrived. The Helper Real Estate & Investment Co., with Assyrian, Italian and Jewish investors, built the Helper Hotel between 1913 and 1914. After 1942, the D&RG used the hotel for its train crews.
Built in the early 1900s, the Carbon Hotel was used as a “bar, café and sporting house ... due to the large number of single male immigrants in the mines. The bordello on the upper floor was very popular, though somewhat illegal,” explains an interpretive sign. George Gigoumakis, Steve Zoulakis and John Melon owned a grocery story at 80 S. Main St. Near the Helper Library, a black, 18-foot-tall “Big John” fiberglass coal miner statue “is a proud symbol of pride for the mining industry.”
Steve Grickas and Tony Stamatkis ran the Greek Zappion Coffee Shop. Ladies of the night frequented the California Hotel Lendaris and rented upstairs rooms in other buildings. The Point After Bar was the “craziest, wildest bar in Helper with standing room only on weekends,” Gary DeVincent told me. He should know, he bought it.
A Connecticut native, just out of the U.S. Marine Corps, DeVincent and his buddies were “zigzagging across the West on our motorcycles and I wound up staying in Utah. Every Sunday, I liked to go for a ride and get lost. I went from Salt Lake to Helper, and I was amazed. I could see the remnants of an old town. It was truly a boarded-up ghost town. I thought it was abandoned and really cool.”
He bought the gas station that made me pause, and as local folks started telling him stories, he learned that the wealthy station owner’s son cut a wide swath through town with a fabulous Buick convertible. Older women remembered being teenagers, going to the drive-in and necking in the 1949 Buick’s back seat.
He found the car’s owner, and DeVincent was ecstatic, “Do you want to sell it?” he asked. “I promise you if I buy this car, I’ll put it back in the station where it belongs in the exact bay where it was parked every night.” DeVincent did as promised, and then started buying more buildings.
He’s got his historic motorcycle collection on the main floor of the old Elpe Hotel, which once had a silent movie theater and brothels upstairs. Those bedrooms are now exclusive Airbnbs. He has also purchased the Kiva Club bar, which was once a Mafia stronghold.
Helper has a fine museum with a room dedicated to United Mine Workers of America and displays about the Winter Quarters Mine explosion, which killed 250 miners and left 268 fatherless children and 107 windows. Nearby, Butch Cassidy robbed the Pleasant Valley Coal Co. office in Castle Gate and rode off with $7,000 in gold. At the museum, I dropped in a quarter to watch an HO-model train go around and around a vintage model train set depicting the area.
It’s hard to embrace an industrial past. Gold and silver mining towns in the Colorado Rockies have done well with tourism, but rarely have coal mining and railroad towns made that transition, yet Helper now has an arts festival and the Outlaw Car Show & Cruise. Galleries can be found in converted grocery stores. New coffee shops have opened.
“Fifteen artists live and work here full time,” Chicagoan Roy Jesperson told me. He and his wife renovated a grocery into an art gallery and spacious residence. They also founded the Helper Project, which is a nonprofit restoring old neon signs and redoing bungalows. Artists donated railroad-themed paintings that brought in $150,000 the first night of the sale.
“Every building on Main Street has been bought and is being restored. There is a lot of activity in town. Residents are working to improve things,” Jesperson says as we walk past his black Porsche parked on the street. He keeps his vintage Austin-Healy sports car garaged. His floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows face the railroad tracks.
Helper is transitioning away from coal. Locals would like the Amtrak trains to stop longer. Tourism is picking up. Helper had a solid industrial past, and now, it has a future. I’ll return to walk Main Street and look for the changes, but I also want to see that 1949 Buick again with its long steel hood and swept-back fenders. Just like the town with its vacant buildings, the stories that car could tell ...
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.