How Helper went from a boom-bust mining town to a hidden Utah gem
The transformation of Helper from a boom-and-bust mining town to a burgeoning artists' colony is one of the best-kept, and worst-kept, secrets in Utah tourism.
- The Carbon County city has gotten a lot of press for its meticulously restored Main Street, the fantastic brewery and galleries and its packed calendar of festivals.
- But don't miss Helper's true appeal: a working-class heritage that's both modern and genuine. This isn't an Old West tourism town that cosplays "rustic" alongside luxury amenities and obscene wealth. Helper is the real deal.
Catch up quick: After the decline of coal mining in the 1980s and '90s, Helper pinned its future to art and tourism.
- About a decade ago, artists began finding cheap studio space in the dilapidated, century-old buildings on Main Street.
- Empty storefronts filled back in, and city officials secured millions in grants for redevelopment and infrastructure in recent years.
State of play: Main Street is now lined with galleries, cafes and vacation rentals in the town's former brothels.
- Rainbow flags hang in the glow of vintage neon signs as Helper's rural queer community gains visibility, with a robust Pride celebration led by the town's LGBTQ mayor and business owners.
- Christopher Warnock, son of Adobe cofounder John Warnock, launched a tech startup here this year.
The intrigue: Helper is still very much a blue-collar town.
- Unlike Jackson Hole and Park City, where high-end restaurants and ski condos belie the Wild West facade — this is a place where you can still have a beer with a coal miner.
- Rail and coal companies hired mostly immigrants, representing more than 32 nationalities and an array of faiths.
- The labor movement also shaped the politics and culture of the industrial region; until the late '90s, Carbon County was overwhelmingly Democratic, in stark contrast with the rest of the state.
Details: The town still has that Rust Belt vibe — especially in a couple of great social clubs that feel like neighborhood bars back east.
- The Clampers, a men's fraternal and service group founded in the 1800s as a parody of the Masons and Odd Fellows, has a local chapter with a private clubhouse where members and families nurse $2 Coors and shoot the bull.
- The Regis Club next door is the lone survivor of Main Street's old row of saloons — and one of the best dive bars in the state. Order a G&T in a plastic cup, and check out the decades' worth of commemorative plaques from the local pool league.
The bottom line: Come for Helper's quaintness, creature comforts and natural beauty. Stay for the chance to see the real industrial Old West in a town that still doesn't feel like the rest of Utah.
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