The town of Helper seems to magically appear amid the deserts and canyons of eastern Utah, as if a pocket of bygone America had been preserved while the world outside marched on. Main Street is lined with buildings raised before computers or atomic bombs. Side streets are filled with old cabins from the town’s railroad and mining heyday.
On a brick wall alongside a downtown beauty salon, a vintage Coca-Cola ad is repainted bright red and yellow as if it were just put up, the words “It’s the real thing” printed across the top. They’re fitting words for Helper. If it looks at first like a model train town where time has stopped, don’t be fooled. Helper moves on, trying to hold on to the best of the past while maintaining bright hopes for the future.
“I think there are good things in the future for Helper,” says Joe Bonacci, the town’s mayor, born and raised in the area. The same things that keep long-timers such as Bonacci around also have attracted newcomers, many of them artists and urban refugees inspired by Helper’s beautiful surroundings and homey lifestyle.
“There’s no other place in the state that you can have both the mountains and desert at the same time,” says Debbie Petersen, a Helper librarian who left behind city life five years ago for Helper’s slower pace. “It’s nice to know your neighbors and know that they know you. There’s not many of those places left anywhere.”
Helper gets its name from the “helper” steam engine once stationed at the edge of town. Before diesel engines, the helper locomotive aided coal trains in making the steep push up the Wasatch Front to 7,477-foot Soldier Summit. Then, they’d detach, head back to the station and await the next train. But the town earns its name as much for community spirit as for the old steam engines. “You always help your neighbors, because you know them,” Petersen says.
Originally settled in 1881, the area was bought by the Rio Grande Western Railroad for a train route. As the railroad grew, so did the town. In 1907, Helper was incorporated, settled by a mix of European and Hispanic immigrants who came to work the railroads and mine the hills. Today, their descendants still make Helper a vibrant mix of cultures.
With the advent of diesel engines, helper engines are little needed anymore, but the railroad still plays a key role in Helper’s life. The railway station still welcomes coal cars and passenger trains, and throbbing engines echo like kettledrums off the steep canyon walls that surround the town.
Although mining has disappeared from Helper, it continues to be an important part of its heritage, symbolized by a towering statue of a miner standing guard outside the 65-year-old Civic Auditorium. At the Western Mining and Railroad Museum, a sandstone memorial remembers those who died in nearby mines. “These miners, fathers, husbands, and sons paid a high price so that their families could have a future and home in this great country,” it states. Many residents still work in the nearby coal mines, driving 40 miles or more to work underground.
As mining and railroads declined, Helper did too, and residents watched once-vibrant stores close down. Now, the town is rebounding. “We’re kind of in a renaissance,” Bonacci says. Empty Main Street storefronts have filled with art galleries and antique markets. Newcomers have set up shop next door to businesses passed down for generations. Along the Price River, the town has created a scenic walkway. Planners are sketching a revamped Main Street to highlight its history; its downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A new theater is under construction, too.
Credit Helper’s newfound life to its old-fashioned qualities. “We’re good people here, and we help each other,” Bonacci says. “It’s a neat community. I don’t think we’ll ever change that name, Helper.”