Gas Chance in Helper, Utah
Over spring break, Matt, Isaac and I made a quick trip down to Moab for a little hiking and 4-wheeling. Moab is always a favorite, as it is for many people. However, photos from Moab are not what you are going to see here. We have driven past Helper, Utah countless times and other than a few "I feel sorry for the people who have to live here" type comments, we have never bothered so much as to look back at Helper let alone pull off the freeway, whether it's on our way to bigger and better places or on the way home.
Late Wednesday afternoon, heading home, Matt decided to bypass the usual pit stop in Wellington. I figured he would pull off in Price but missed the exit. Isaac and I were pretty wrapped up in a movie when Matt mentioned he was turning off in Helper. I barely heard him when he said he had "always wanted to drive through the town". Turning off the exit and heading up the hill, I looked around and made the usual ignorant comment about Helper "being a place that kids grow up in and can't wait to get out of". My attention went back to the movie. As he pulled into a local Phillips 66 on Main street, I noticed an old Piggly Wiggly sign on an even older brick building. I turned in my seat and scanned the street, up and down, paused the movie, grabbed my camera and jumped out of the truck. I only had a few minutes but I was transported back in time. Little did I know that the next hour would be the most interesting sixty minutes of Spring Break! Thankfully, the boys were on board.
Helper in Sepia tones just feels right, don't you think? Above is the Piggly Wiggly sign that made me lurch from the truck in excitement. Piggly Wiggly was the first true "self service" grocery store, founded in 1916, in Tennessee. I am sure that residents were glad to have this store open up on their main street and sad to see it go. Today, this building sits empty and boarded up along with many others. Helper, is in fact, still considered somewhat of a ghost town. Today, less than 2,200 residents reside in the area but at one point, this was a bustling, thriving community. Many residents hope to see it once again become a place that people want to visit and even stay. We were privileged to meet a man, Gary DeVincent, who is literally, bringing Helper back to life and I will get to him in a few, but first, back to Helper.
It is important to understand the history of a place before judgements are made. We all do this. We look at a town, which is seemingly in disrepair and those living there as fallen souls, tired and worked over. The reality of Helper is that this is a poorer community (financially). There are about 800 individuals who are employed here and the highest paying jobs are still associated with mining, quarrying and gas extraction. In 2016, there were only 34 people employed in these jobs. Recently, because of enhanced regulations on mercury emissions, the Carbon Power Plant was closed. It had been in operation since 1954. Although, life here is not what many of us would call ideal, this is still someone's home. Someone's heart is here, in this town at the edge of the mountains. It can be difficult to see past the decades of decay to notice the smiles of those who work hard, those trying to preserve their histories, make livings and those hoping that someday, someone, will see the hope and beauty of their town. In Helper, beauty and intrigue is all around and it seems, like the new buds blossoming in the warmth of the early April sun, that Helper is blossoming as well. I couldn't be more taken with the warm smiles and the priceless history that I encountered on my very short visit.
Most would assume that Helper is like many old, Utah towns, homesteaded by Mormon settlers, built up by mining and then, lost as the mining industries declined in the 1960's and 70's. This is mostly true but there is so much more. Teancum Pratt and his plural wives settled in the area in the 1880's and helped organize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but by the 1930's, barely 20% of the population were members. In fact, at one point, Helper was home to 20,000 miners, 33 bars and 19 brothels! Helper, Utah was not known for its religious organization but for its many saloons and whore houses. Yes, that is right. Whore houses.
Helper, named for the "helper" locomotives which would stand in readiness to aid trains traveling up the steep grade to Soldier Summit, was an easy stop for many miners, cowboys and travelers to not only get some work, food and drink but get a little extra lovin' on the side. Helper provided entertainment for the likes of Butch Cassidy, Dick Maxwell, Elzy Lay, and Harry Longabaugh, who was perhaps better known as the Sundance Kid. They landed in Helper, just before their largest heist, $8,800, stolen from the Pleasant Valley Coal Company payroll. Cassidy was said to have returned several times for "entertainment".
The old La Salle Hotel, stands vacant but not derelict. Registered with the National Registrar of Historic Places, this building stands waiting for someone to come back and renew it to its former glory. While the upstairs was the actual hotel or "brothel" as it was better known, the downstairs played host to several businesses including, the "Red Rooster"; the Hub food store; the Wonder Bar and possibly a Safeway store prior to 1927.
DeVincent told us that Hollywood once came and shot photographs in front of every single building on Helper's main street for future film productions. While John Wayne, himself, spent some time here, there has never been much filmed in this town. It is, however, the ideal backdrop for a western scene and hopefully, at some point, a producer, comes through this town and sees its potential. Another source of potential income or interest is that many of these old buildings have basements with old tunnels (likely used during the "prohibition" era) and other curious features. I know, I was lucky enough to go down into one.
It is said that many of these buildings are haunted. The Carbon Hotel which dates back to the early 1900's and which was used as a hotel and brothel, is indeed inflicted by strange noises, strange movements and an apparition of a woman. Luckily, the future of the Carbon is hopeful. At the entrance is a sign that reads "Clamper Members Only" so I didn't dare go inside. Not even knowing what a "Clamper" was, I figured that sign was meant for people like me. Later, I found out that two of the members own the hotel and are committed to renovating it as well as preserving the mining and railroad history in Helper. They have given permission, over the years, for some to conduct paranormal activity at the Carbon. Of course, I had to check out www.upighosthunters.com for concrete evidence and it's pretty entertaining and worth a check. Although, I didn't have time, I hear you can stop in for a visit to the Western Mining and Railroad Museum, where you may encounter some paranormal activity on the third floor along with the usual mining memorabilia.
At either end of Main Street there is an old gas station, non-working (for the public), but completely renovated and in pristine condition. There are gas pumps and other items that are authentic to their original era. They are absolutely beautiful. I stopped and grabbed a picture of the Conoco station at the east end of the street, wishing that I could pop inside for a fountain soda and a fill at .20 cents per gallon.
As we headed back towards the freeway down 100 W. (which runs behind Main Street), I had to ask one more time, if I could jump out of the car for just a few more photos. There was a pristine garage with some seriously beautiful bikes being worked on and so I ran around to the front to say hello and ask permission to snap some photos. Pretty soon, the boys had come inside and we were given an amazing tour and history of an old, yes you know it, brothel and boarding house as well as an incredible garage, by the immensely talented and humble Gary DeVincent. While some may assume that the crash of the mining industry led to the exodus of life in Helper, DeVincent and others charge that it is the shutting down of the bars, gambling rooms and whore houses that really left Helper at a loss. Just another seedy side of Utah history that I guess some want to forget but others love to talk about and hear about. It's pretty wickedly entertaining, in my opinion. Whatever, the reason, its people like DeVincent, who you can only wish to run into who will renew your hope in humanity, your love of bygone eras and fuel your desire to see places like Helper, Utah become something even better than before. His passion and work was worth the gas stop at a run down Phillips 66 in Helper, Utah.
Gary DeVincent lives in American Fork, Utah but commutes, every day to Helper, Utah where he has been working tirelessly over the last several years, along with his brother and others, to purchase, renovate and renew buildings. He is hoping to create revenue and jobs but ultimately is just enjoying what he is doing and living out his hobbies in a way that most people are unable. Several people stopped to chat with him, wave at him and call out from cars passing by so, you know that he has been pretty welcomed here by the community. He showed us his "garage" which is, in all honesty, a legitimate museum worth anyone's time. His love for motorcycles, specifically, is unparalleled and if you have any interest, at all, in beautiful examples of Harleys or Indians, you should pull off Highway 6. No reservations!
Gary has converted a 16 room hotel into 3 renovated apartments. Each one with a bedroom, kitchen and living space. They can be rented nightly, weekly or extended stay. He is easy to find online, so send him a shout if you are interested in a stop over. He almost admitted that his building is haunted but, I say, whether it is or isn't, staying there would be a special treat. All of us were pretty excited to get to see his work and his love for Helper and what he is accomplishing up and down Main Street. In fact, as you probably guessed, the two vintage gas stations are his and they scream at you to stop, take a photograph and stay awhile. I was told the art festival in August, is worth the short drive from Salt Lake City alone. If you are heading to Moab (or wherever), pull off and form your own, new, opinions of Helper, Utah. Grab a bite to eat at Balance Rock Eatery & Pub and for sure, stop in and say hello to Gary at the Last Chance Garage. You can't miss it. It is the most beautiful garage you will ever drive past. I hope that these pictures, below, do it some justice and encourage you to take a chance on a place that most might say has "no chance".