'SHADY SIDE OF HELPER'
New museum exhibit will feature the town's raucous - and suprisingly tolerant - history
Since taking over the duties of director at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper five years ago, Stephanie Fitzsimons has worked through a treasure trove of history, meticulously cataloging and documenting all she comes across. Those who have toured the building's four floors may have some idea of the sheer volume Fitzsimons must sift through as the museum's limited staff works to comply with grant requirements while simultaneously renovating and expanding the historical site.
But for some time, patrons have asked why the museum seems to ignore the "shady side" of Helper's colorful past. As an answer, the museum staff will put the history of bars, the brothels and the city's interconnected tunnels on display with the coming of the new year.
"The room used to be the entrance to the museum before we added the new building, so what we are putting in here is a display called the Shady Side of Helper," explained Fitzsimons. "The project is grant-driven and the money we got for this was put together for us by the Utah Humanities Council in conjunction with the Office of Museum Services. So what we are trying to do here is to present a little bit of the history that had not been presented before."
According to the director, the city's reputation for gambling and drinking can largely be attributed to the mines and railroads which the city grew up around, and the ethnic population which made up Helper's citizenship.
'A little bit of trouble'
"People came here to get themselves into a little bit of trouble," she said. "There were a number of brothels here but the people who lived in town reported not really minding them very much. In fact, the last of the brothels, next door at the Carbon Hotel, closed in about 1976. The woman who was the madam there, her name was 'Babe,' apparently she gave generously to the school system here in Helper. She gave to the baseball teams, to a lot of the kid's programs. She was very well respected and I have never heard a negative thing spoken about her in all of the research we have conducted."
"Babe was an African-American woman with bright red hair. She stood out in a crowd. Her story and the town's respect for her was just one of the surprising stories to come out of researching this display," she continued
Fitsimons was quick to point out that research on the project has not only been conducted by herself but in fact, through the grant, the museum was able to hire a student researcher who spent 40 hours cataloging oral histories from older residents within Helper. Altogether the staff's reseach time comes in closer to 500 hours.
Secret tunnels in the Helper underworld
While the town's history with gambling, drinking and prostitution come somewhat in line with the "Wild West" way of life, Helper's underground tunnels give the city something in common with biblical time histories.
"The tunnels are something that we are still trying to process, we are still trying to track some of those down," she explained. "There is a lot of hearsay, a lot of people say, 'oh yeah, there was a tunnel running over here.' But what we're trying to do is separate fact from what is family lore."
To separate the tunnels which have been located from those which are based on pure hearsay, Fitzsimons and the museum's staff plan to create a map which will pinpoint the secret paths and mark with color those which have been established and those which may or may not have ever existed.
Telling fact from fiction
"We plan to color code on this map, every single bar every single brothel, every single gambling joint that we have been able to track down here on Helper's Main Street," said Fitzsimons. "We are also going to explain the fact that information, such as the locations of these tunnels, were never written down. This information was passed orally if at all."
According to the director, a portion of the confirmed tunnels were located when current property owners began retrofitting their buildings and found an entrance. Although the director was not ready at the time of our interview to speculate about the number of tunnels, she was candid about the fact that Helper did have quite an underground system of travel during its heyday.
"They didn't link all of the buildings together," she explained. "We have gotten enough information that states that there were at least one or two tunnels underneath the Strand Theater and they linked up other portions of the building on either side of them. The other thing that apparently was there, according to different folks (like Walter Borla) was that if you went downstairs into basement where the town's sweet shop was, there was a secret door and apparently through the secret door if you a well respected, understood member of this society you could get through the door and into the secret bar."
Currently, the museum does have photographs of many of the doors which provide entrance to the town's tunnels. However, the slow, steady hand of time has collapsed many of the tunnels making it unsafe to enter most of the passages.
Funding provided by the grant has allowed the museum to take their time and research this project well and even though Fitzsimons had hoped to have the display open by now, she reported being happy with the way research had taken place concerning the room.
As part of a new course of action for the museum, Fitzsimons is making sure that every object which will go into the display has been researched.
"We are trying to associate the object with the person or the family who donated it," she explained. "We are trying to put everything into a context."
To accomplish this, museum personnel will provide information about how a whiskey still worked around a photo of individuals working a still in Helper. The museum will provide information through old newspaper clippings about how local law enforcement would perform raids on the still owners.
Again, the display which includes both general and personal items will be open to the general public at the first of the year. However, the museum itself is open to the general public Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This display along with the rest of the facility are important for those in Carbon County for many reasons. From the colorful to the mundane, the history of this community, as well as the people who founded it, are contained at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum.
"This display is about the people who were part of this whole drinking community. There were lots of people who came from the old country where drinking was an everyday part of life. You know, you had a glass of wine," she concluded. "So when they moved here and all of a sudden you are not allowed to because of prohibition, how does that impact your daily life?"