About Utah: Drop out of the fast lane to get glimpse of history

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 11:25 p.m. MDT

Coal miners lived in dugouts like this when Sego, Grand County, thrived.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

SEGO CANYON, Grand County — Throttle back from the 75 mph cruising speed on I-70, veer off on the exit that says "Thompson Springs," turn right at the Shell station, keep going three miles until the pavement ends and you'll run smack into it:

The past.

Wanna get a long way away and do it in a hurry?

This is the place. Sego Canyon.

Few places in Utah, or anywhere, provide for a better, and more convenient, side-trip back through time.

Everywhere you look as the canyon winds its way up the Book Cliffs is evidence that there was life before now, and plenty of it.

At the edge of the pavement, almost literally, ancient rock art lines the road. There are four distinct styles of petroglyphs and pictographs on the sandstone walls, representing vastly different periods of time.

The oldest is the Barrier Canyon style, artwork attributed to the Archaic people who lived anywhere from 6000 to 100 BC.

Next oldest is the Fremont style, attributed to the Fremont Indians who lived around here from 600 to 1250 AD.

After that there's the much more recent Ute style, dating from 1300 to 1880 AD.

And finally, there's the very recent graffiti style, covering the period ever since the arrival of the white man until the present.

The sandstone is silent testament to the evolution, and the continual overlapping, of eras and cultures.

On one of the rock walls, you can see the white etchings of the Utes right next to the red etchings of the Archaics.

And on another of the walls, you can see the white etchings of someone named Glenn Hyatt right next to the red etchings of the Archaics.

People!

Beyond the petroglyphs, more past awaits.

Another two miles along a winding dirt road lies the town of Sego. Or what's left of it.

From 1910 until 1955, as many as 223 people lived and worked in Sego. Now there's just the usual ghost town residue: some tumbled-down lumber that used to be the boarding house, a row of Cottonwood trees obviously not planted by Mother Nature; and the four sturdy stone walls of what was once the company store of the local coal mine.

The American Fuel Co. was the legal name of the coal mine in Sego Canyon that was first discovered by a man named Henry Ballard in 1908.

When Ballard hired men to relocate from Thompson Springs to mine his coal, the town that sprang up was incorporated in 1910 as Ballard. Later, when Ballard sold out to American Fuel, it was known as Neslen, after the mine's general manager. Then, when American Fuel Co. became Chesterfield Coal Co., the town's name was changed to Sego, after Utah's state flower, the sego lily, which was predominant in the canyon.

Naming a coal town after a flower did not brighten its future, however. Sego's history is riddled with problems — miners not getting paid, miners going on strike, and, finally, the railroad's switch from steam to diesel engines, seriously curtailing the local demand for coal.

In the early 1950s, the great exodus began, and not just the people, but also the buildings. If you know what you're looking for, you can see homes today in Thompson Springs and Moab and other Grand County communities that once upon a time carried a Sego address.

In Sego, only a few dugouts, the graveyard, and the company-store skeleton remain. And zero humans.

It gives you something to think about as you leave Sego and drive past the petroglyphs and back to the 75 mile-an-hour interstate. Ours might be the current rush hour, but it's not the only one that's ever been.

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