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Moab Historic Happenings November 2003

Grand County Ghost Towns
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.

Unlike 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.

The 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 domestic use.”

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.

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