This Carbon County hub was one of Utah’s most ethnically diverse towns in the early twentieth century.
Helper—situated between Castle Gate and Price in Castle Valley—is the product of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s search for coal in the late nineteenth century. Low-grade coal fueled the railroads, but until the 1880s no one had discovered a coal seam of sufficient quality in Utah to produce good “coke” for industrial smelting. This meant that metal mines in other parts of the state could not process low-grade copper and silver at a profitable rate. The D&RGW extended through Castle Valley in the early 1880s in its search for coal, and an engineer for the railroad discovered high quality coal in Castle Gate. The town’s name comes from the railroads; “helper” locomotives waited along that stretch of railway to tow trains up the steep grade.
The demand for Castle Valley’s coal meant that there was an increased demand for workers. Italians, Slovenians, Croatians, and Serbians immigrated to the area to work in the mines, adding to the mix of cultures where Chinese people had previously worked on the railroad. In 1894, Carbon County split from Emery County. By then, it had an industry and ethnic mix distinct from the Mormon homesteaders to the south. By 1900 there were sixteen different nationalities represented in Helper in a population of only 385 people. This would increase in 1903 and 1904, as a strike at Castle Gate prompted the mine’s owners to bring in Greek and Japanese workers as strikebreakers.
With its location at the center of several nearby coal mining camps and farms, Helper became a hub for commerce for the many different ethnic groups in the county. Immigrants in Helper worked as merchants and business owners. European and Asian immigrants operated saloons and coffee houses and otherwise provided services for nearby workers. As a steadily growing town—in contrast to the boom towns usually associated with mining in the West—community life for its diverse enclaves became a part of Helper’s story. By the 1910s, there was a Catholic church in Helper and a Greek Orthodox church in nearby Price. There were Italian, Croatian, and Slovenian lodges in the county, and a YMCA in Helper served as a general public meeting place. The influx of immigrants during this pivotal time in Utah’s history has left a lasting imprint on the culture of Helper as well as the state overall.