A Helper Hand

By diderot

April 14, 2018

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It may be the most literally named town in American history--Helper, Utah. 

The description has nothing to do with the disposition of its residents—cordial as they might be.  Instead, Helper is a small town on the eastern edge of the Wasatch plateau, at the foot of a steep topographical incline.  A hundred years ago this proved vexing to a railroad aiming to move goods from Denver to Salt Lake City.  So the railroad decided to station ‘helper’ engines at the edge of town to help tug freight up to the summit.

Then, as blasting and excavation began for tracks, Helper’s second industry was born.  Coal was discovered.  Appropriately, the county surrounding Helper was named Carbon.

Like I said, it’s a very literal part of the world.

Helper is also sort of picturesque.  Passengers on the Amtrak Zephyr stop there every day and take pictures out their windows, even if they don’t know where they are.  The station depot has no WiFi. No ATM. No vending machines. No restrooms.  They stay on the train.

In relative terms, Helper once boomed.  It was once the town where Butch Cassidy and his gang partied on Saturday night.  Now it struggles.  Its median income is half what is average for the rest of America.  The place that once lived to help…could now use some itself.  Like healthcare.  And economic development.  And hope. 

Noted Princeton economist Paul Krugman probably has never visited Helper; but he knows its taxonomy:

“…for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.  Are there policy implications from this diagnosis? Maybe. There are arguably social costs involved in letting small cities implode. But it’s going to be an uphill struggle. In the modern economy… any particular small city exists only because of historical contingency that sooner or later loses its relevance…”

When someone promises they’ll “bring back the jobs” to a town like Helper, know that they are lying.  Some work never comes back. Towns are like species—they adapt or die.

To its credit, Helper has a hopeful main street and a fine history museum.  But look around back…or walk to the edge of town…where ghosts lurk. 

What once was…is rusting away…