Grand County Ghost
by Jeff Richards
Fifty-six years ago, on
Nov. 1, 1947, an illustrious chapter
in Grand County’s history was closed when the once-bustling
Sego coal mine officially closed down. The town of Sego
was later sold at auction in Moab, and many of the buildings
were moved off the property. Today, Sego (a few miles
north of Thompson Springs) is but a ghost town, although
many remnants of original structures are still standing.
other area mining towns which built their fortunes on precious
metals like gold and silver, Sego was founded on coal. Its
beginnings started in the early 1900s, when an Englishman
named Harry Ballard, who lived in Thompson Springs, found
a large seam of anthracite coal in the hills near the Book
Cliffs. Recognizing the coal’s potential value, Ballard
started putting a small mining operation together, including
the building of a railroad spur to get the coal from the
hills to the railway at Thompson.
The five-mile rail line up what is now called Sego Canyon
proved difficult to lay, and more than a dozen bridges were
needed to pass over the wash that zigzags through the canyon.
Although flash floods frequently plagued the rail spur over
the years, the railroad (first incorporated as the Ballard&Thompson
Railroad in 1911) eventually managed to transport countless
tons of coal over a period of nearly four decades.
In early 1912, Ballard sold his small operation to the American
Fuel Company, a Salt Lake City company. Soon afterward,
the mining camp known as Ballard was renamed Neslen, after
AFC’s general manager, Richard F. Neslen. By 1913,
the B&T Railroad had become a subsidiary of the Denver
Rio Grande and Western Railroad, which also used much of
the coal to power its own steam engine locomotives.
Dec. 20, 1912 edition of Moab’s weekly newspaper,
the Grand Valley Times, described the camp of Neslen as
follows: “Extensive yards were made to provide for
the economical handling of large tonnages of coal …springs
far up the mountain canyons were tapped and pure, cool water
was brought by pipe line to the homes and industrial plants
of the little city, giving ample fire protection to the
workmen’s homes and cool, clear, pure water for their
Added the Times, “A large and commodious hotel, private
dwellings and a temporary store building were constructed.
A club house for employees and a mammoth stone store and
office building are nearing completion.” Today, in
2003, the walls of the stone company store remain solid
and intact, although little else of the building remains.
The two-story clubhouse across the street is badly deteriorating,
as are several other wooden buildings in the area. Many
of Sego’s remaining structures are on private property,
although a public dirt road passes through the area.
Working conditions in the early years of the Neslen mine
were rough, and the miners were paid irregularly, sometimes
going months without a payday. Often, they were paid in
“scrip,” redeemable only for merchandise at
the company store. Prices in nearby Thompson were reportedly
much lower, but workers were told they would be fired if
they went to Thompson to do their shopping. Besides, most
workers didn’t have a way to get to the town, other
than by walking.
Another problem that plagued the mine throughout its history
was the lack of plentiful water. Despite the springs and
wells, the water table of the area was often too low to
meet the substantial demands of the mine, which reportedly
boasted the first “coal washing” facility west
of the Mississippi.
According to the aforementioned 1912 newspaper account,
AFC’s company motto at the time was as follows: “Substantial
construction, and the best of equipment to be had, regardless
of cost,” with the result being, “The cleanest
and best prepared coal on the market today.”
However, in 1918, AFC’s interests in the mining operation
were bought out by another company, the Chesterfield Coal
Company. Soon after, the name of the town was changed to
Sego, after Utah’s state flower, the sego lily, which
had also been the name of a brand of condensed milk that
had lined the shelves of the company store. Reportedly,
the superintendent’s wife had seen the cans of milk
and had said “Sego” out loud while a group of
men were sitting in the store deciding what to rename the
town. The men immediately liked the name, and the new moniker
caught on quickly.
By 1920, Sego boasted a population of 200 people, with another
85 or so living in nearby Thompson. The 1920s and 1930s
were Sego’s heyday, and its population reached as
high as 500, making it one of the major cities of Grand
County. In May of 1928, it was the busiest coal camp anywhere
in Utah, with a reported output of 1,500 tons of coal per
day by a 150-man crew. In 1933, the miners of Sego finally
agreed to become unionized when they joined the United Mine
Workers Union. But during the ensuing Great Depression and
throughout World War II, it became much more difficult for
the coal mining industry to remain viable and profitable.
Coal dropped greatly in both price and demand, particularly
when the railroads switched to diesel fuel. That, along
with numerous other socioeconomic factors, led to the eventual
demise of the Sego mine. A few diehard miners tried to resurrect
the operation for a few years in the early 1950s, but their
efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
Today, several of the old buildings of Sego can be seen
from the dirt road that passes through the canyon, as can
a small private cemetery at the side of the road. There
are also a number of interesting Native American petroglyphs
in the area, including one Barrier Canyon style panel (as
old as 2000 B.C.) that is also covered with Fremont-era
petroglyphs (ca. A.D. 600-1250). Paleontologists reportedly
made a number of important fossil finds in the area during
the 1930s and 1940s, including some large dinosaur footprints
that were sent to the American Museum of Natural History
in New York. Sego therefore provides a snapshot of both
the prehistoric and the not-too-distant historic past.