Helper is located approximately 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in
Carbon County. Known as the "Hub of Carbon County," and situated
seven miles north of Price, the county seat, Helper has always reflected
an ethnically diverse population, with southern and eastern European groups
rising to positions of prominence within the community.
The initial settlement of the Helper area commenced in the early 1880s with
the arrival of Teancum Pratt and his plural wives Annie and Sarah. However,
only after the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway in 1881-82
did Helper begin to develop as a population center. Pratt also mined coal,
supplying the residences throughout the fledgling town.
By 1887 the D&RGW had erected some twenty-seven frame residences, with
more built later in the year. This was done in anticipation of making Helper
a freight terminal upon the changing of the line from narrow to standard
gauge, which began in 1889. Here, "helper" locomotives would stand
in readiness to aid trains traveling up the steep grade to Soldier Summit,
thus the name Helper.
The track changeover was completed in 1891, prompting the Salt Lake Tribune
to announce that the "new town of Helper" was started in the spring
of that year. In 1892 the town became the division point for the railroad;
Helper was the union station of the eastern and western divisions, the terminals
being Ogden and Grand Junction, Colorado. With this distinction came a new
hotel, depot, and other buildings.
Helper's growth proceeded in a slow but deliberate fashion bearing little
resemblance to booming metal-mining towns. The first amenities offered the
few settlers and numerous railroad workers included three saloons, one grocery
store, and one clothing establishment. A school was built in 1891. By 1895
the D&RGW buildings and shops at Helper were lighted by electricity,
and two reservoirs for water had been constructed.
Ethnic diversity was destined to become a chief characteristic of Helper.
Industrial expansion, coal mining, and railroading required a great amount
of unskilled labor. In 1894 the railroad's passenger department established
an immigration bureau to advertise Utah Territory. This move coincided with
the influx of the numerous immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and
Chinese laborers were brought in at an early date to work the Carbon County
mines and railroads. By the late 1890s, Italians and Austrians (primarily
Slovenians, Croatians, and Serbians) began to arrive. In 1900 Helper's population
was listed at 385 people. Sixteen different nationality groups were represented.
"Merchant" and "laborer" comprised most of the occupations
for these early immigrants.
After the unsuccessful coal miners' strike of 1903-04, Italians, blacklisted
from the mines at nearby Castle Gate, ventured into Helper to establish
businesses and farms along the Price River. The influx of strikers into
Helper accelerated its growth, with the newly established farms offering
needed agricultural products.
The twentieth century was launched in Carbon County (which had been formed
in 1894 from Emery County) in a shroud of uncertainty, largely due to the
strike situation. Greek and Japanese immigrants were brought in to break
the strike, and thus new ethnic groups came onto the scene. Helper, along
with Price, was fast becoming the center of the Carbon County coalfields,
providing service functions to the outlying camps. A 1903-04 business directory
listed sixteen separate businesses in Helper; by 1912-13 the number had
grown to twenty-nine, with a population of about 850. Helper townsite was
regularly organized and incorporated in 1907 with a president of the town
board and members of the board serving the community.
By 1914-15 there were 71 businesses listed for Helper, with 84 in 1918-19,
and 157 for the years 1924-25. Many of Helper's business enterprises were
associated with specific ethnic groups, but this fact illustrated the business
opportunities then available in the town, enabling immigrants to "break
the ranks of labor." Italian and Chinese-owned businesses were joined
in the 1910s and 1920s by Slavic, Greek, and Japanese establishments. Specialty
shops, cafes, coffeehouses, saloons, theaters, general mercantiles, and
various service-oriented businesses formed Helper's commercial district.
Some ventures, such as the Mutual Mercantile Company, were joint operations
between different ethnic groups.
Ethnic identities, the existence of both inter- and intra-group rivalries,
new waves of immigration, and Helper's position as a neutral ground for
labor influenced the town's social landscape. Helper became known as the
area "hub" because it was nestled among various mining camps,
and it served as a city of refuge where strikers and union organizers as
well as national guardsmen could congregate during tense times. Customs
and lifestyles associated with various ethnic groups continued; however,
through interaction many eventually were changed and modified in the Helper
While the Great Depression hit the entire county, Helper's position as a
railroad center provided some stability. Helper's city hall had been built
in 1927, and a civic auditorium was constructed in 1936. The D&RGW developed
"bridge traffic," acquiring trade from other major roads that
wanted transcontinental connections.
Coal production increased during World War II and continued strong through
the 1960s. With this, the city of Helper also prospered. Upturns and downswings
plagued the industry in the 1970s, with new lows reached in the 1980s and
early 1990s. Helper continues to ride the tide of these fluctuations and,
as any town influenced by the mining industry, seeks to survive during bad
See: Philip F. Notarianni, "Helper--the Making of a Gentile Town in
Zion," in Philip F. Notarianni, ed., Carbon County: Eastern Utah's
Industrialized Island (1981).
Philip F. Notarianni