Spring Canyon Coal Camps – The Prototype

Colter Wilson is a Helper native now living in Denver. He is also a podcaster, and this week released an episode reflecting on the coal camps of Spring Canyon. Within six miles six company towns once existed, with over a thousand people estimated to have been living in the canyon during the town’s peak years in the 19-teens and again in the 1940s.

Here is a link where you can hear it: https://prototyperadio.studio/2021/02/21/spring-canyon-coal-camps/

In the early and mid 2010s I spent much time in Spring Canyon, exploring the ruins and ridges phyiscally on off days during research visits to Price, where I spent several weeks reading the Sun Advocate, Helper Journal, and Emery County Progress on Microfilm at the College of Eastern Utah / USU – Eastern library. It was an honor to be interviewed and get to share some of what I’ve learned about this place for this episode.

“Back in 2014 my mother dropped off a old cedar chest just after my grandfather’s funeral. In it was a VHS tape called “Spring Canyon Coal Camps” It was my Grandpa Chuck and Frank Latuda doing a walkthrough of the history of Spring Canyon in 1990. Starting with this tape and a few phone calls I made a audio documentary inspired by the canyon’s history. We talk about the coal camps of Spring Canyon, Coal Mining, and Unions in Carbon County and Helper. Please have a listen and this is a “headphones on” kind of experience as we weave through music, the tape, and interviews. I would love to hear your thoughts as well.”


“Thanks to Colleen Wilson, Mike Dalpaiz, and Christian Wright for the interviews.”

I first visited Spring Canyon in 2010. That May I had ended my apartment’s lease in Denver, put most of my belongings in a storage unit, loaded up the subaru with most of my camping equipment and outdoor gear, and driven across the rockies to start my first season as a full time boatman in eastern Utah. After my last trip over labor day weekend, I had a completely open schedule, with no professional committments beyond a vague notion that working at a ski resort might be interesting. With over two months off between seasons, I drove around the state in a big circle, photographing abandoned mining camps, hiking, exploring, and discovering. I was hooked, and repeated the circut for the next two autumns.

This may have continuned indefinately, but greater opportunities came knocking in regard to writing than photography. In August 2013 I moved to Flagstaff where I became a graduate student in History, whenced I emerged two years later as part of a new public history emphasis’ first graduating class. The two years there were highly productive, and greatly assisted by the fact that I already knew upon arriving what stories I wanted to explore and what questions I wanted to answer.

What happened to the coal camps? Why did everything shut down in the fifties and sixties and what happened to all those people? And what happened to the unions and class struggles that had, during the thirties and forties, so dramatically been a part of coal camp life?

You can almost smell the history out there in the sage and blooming rabbit brush. You can taste it in the dust. Stumble across it along a cliff or in the shade of a juniper.

Museum of Moab Zoom Book Event

In September I did a speaking event, via Zoom, with the Museum of Moab about Carbon County USA as part of their Tuesdays with the Museum lecture series.

A video/audio recording of it is has been posted and is available here. It is about an hour long.

Other speakers in the series have presented on diverse topics of regional interest including Moab’s uranium boom, Native American identity, and lives of colorful locals such as pioneering guide Kent Frost and daredevil pilot Time Martin. There is a full list and links to these talks on the museum website.

Information on the event:

Canyon Country on Strike: Coal Miners, Labor Unions, and Women in the Workforce in Eastern Utah

A discussion with Christian Wright, author of Carbon County USA: Miners for Democracy in Utah and the West about the history and legacy of labor in Utah.

Join author and historian Christian Wright for a conversation about the history and legacy of labor in Utah. The author of Carbon County: Miners for Democracy in Utah and the West, Wright and Moab Museum contributor Christy Williams-Dunton will explore the topics of labor unions, mine workers, and women in the workforce—and the implications of labor revolution here in Utah today. In our local community and across the country, we continue to face significant changes in our economy. This discussion will provide context for our current moment, and illuminate the broad reaching effects of organized labor on both Utah’s history and our lives today.

Christian Wright, M.A.
August, 2020

“Labor history in 2019 is not an esoteric tribute to bygone worlds or an academic subculture speaking an obscure language and trading union memorabilia like pogs or baseball cards. Industrial democracy can be whatever we make it. If we are today so clearly confronted with the fact of its collapse, perhaps we might also begin to start rethinking its origins, its orthodoxy, and its future.”

Carbon County, USA

Christian Wright is a historian, interpreter, and explorer of the Intermountain West and Colorado Plateau. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, he has lived and worked primarily in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona since 2008. His diverse professional background includes many years in the music industry, regional restaurants and ski resorts, commercial river running, and public service as an NPS interpretive ranger and historian. He lives in Moab, Utah where he has been a volunteer DJ on KZMU since July 2015, and currently produces the weekly two-hour science fiction and electronic music-based program “Atlas 1984.” When not working as a boatman in Cataract, Grand, and Desolation canyons, his historical research explores regional mining, labor, environmental, and tourism history.

In 2006, Mr. Wright completed a B.A. in Political Science at George Washington University. In 2015, he completed an M.A. in United States’ history at Northern Arizona University, where he served as a teaching assistant and concentrated in public history, labor, environmental, and borderlands issues in the American Southwest. During this time, he collaborated with Vishnu Temple Press to assist in editing From Powell to Power: A Recounting of the First 100 River Runners through the Grand Canyon.His M.A. thesis, For This Union to Survive: The United Mine Workers of America and the Transformation of Utah’s Coal Industry, 1966-1985, used a regional case study to explore a pivotal decade in the transformation of power and control in American workplaces. Additional research expanded the scope of that project to produce his first book, Carbon County USA: Miners for Democracy in Utah and the West, which the University of Utah Press released in early 2020.

From 2014 to 2018, Wright worked as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Arches National Park. In 2019 and 2020 he assisted in the establishment of a new river company in Moab: Mild to Wild Rafting. Currently he is engaged in an administrative history project for the National Park Service, and is producing a documentary film about river guides. He is a gardener, plays the saxophone, and has two dogs.

As a public historian, Wright is well aware of the controversies surrounding energy development, land management, economic inequality, and tourism in eastern Utah. Whether as a researcher, writer, volunteer, or interpreter, he looks forward to a rewarding career facilitating dialogue, understanding, respect, and inspiration between diverse audiences interested in building better futures.

At 423 pages, Carbon County USA is a major contribution to Utah and American history. Critically re-evaluating the New Deal and postwar eras, it celebrates coal miners’ triumph over exploitative conditions while recognizing the ultimate limitations of the UMWA and CIO models that began to falter by the late 1960s. Its regional focus upon the Black Lung and Miners for Democracy movements breaks new ground in western history, and its sensitivity to miners’ racial, gender, and generational identities illustrates the roles of nonunion miners, antiunion employers, ethnic minorities, women, and the unemployed who transformed an industry and a region during the great intermountain energy boom of 1974 to 1982.

Carbon County, USA flier

Book Link: University of Utah Press
Blog: carboncountyusa.net
Radio Show: KZMU – Atlas 1984

Feminism and Canoes

There is a sticker that has been popping up in my facebook feed a lot lately. I can’t tell if it’s a monument to genius, or hubris. Sometimes, the line is so fine, a thing can actually exist in both worlds, simultaneously.

At first glance you may understand the sticker is designed to imply depth and respect to women. So presumably, someone who is trying to get women to notice how pro-women they are is going to buy this and put it somewhere it will get noticed. And the intent is audiences will respond posivitively: “Oh wow, that’s so awesome! You are deep and brave! You realize women must be allowed to be free and wild and make decisions and go places they want to go!”

And then, if you’ve ever paddled canoes before, you realize the woman pictured is in the front of the canoe.

The steering in a canoe is done in the back. The person in the front just 1) paddles to provide motion, 2) listens to and obeys commands of the person in the back, and 3) absorbs the splashes / rock collisions / etc… first that are caused by the poor judgement of the person in the back.

The woman, as pictured, is not “wild,” or “left” to do anything. She’s a pack animal, who is controlled and subject to exploitation. What we see is not her wild adventure that she is left to. What we see is her as an object of someone else’s adventure, there to be enjoyed within the trapped and confined state. The finishing touch is that this image does not just exist, it is commodified and sold.

I wonder who works in the sticker factory where this sticker is made. Is it a predominently male or female workforce? What does he or she think about the message of the sticker they are making?

Presumably people (including, presumably men) are so eager to demonstrate their trustworthiness that they will buy this thing to show off their depth and lack of sexism. And yet, in so doing they may be actually showing you that they are in fact both presumptuous and ignorant.

That is the first level of understanding. And you may conclude the maker of the sticker is a sexist moron.

The second level of understanding is that you recognize the sticker is a work of subversive genius art. The sticker provokes the thoughtful. It challenges them to stand up and point out these contradictions. It can be purchased by real, actual, serious feminists, to be prominently displayed around unfamiliar crowds, just to see how it goes over. Do slimey men in search of quickly gained trust put forth effort to comment upon the sticker, and explain how much they support its spirit? What does that reveal to us about their true nature? Is the actual condition of the woman in the picture the focus of the conversation as they develop it? Or is the woman in the picture merely an object, trapped, immobile, within the image of a gaze a man has invented for her? She is spoken for, and about. But never, is she allowed to speak herself.

Rather than just exclaiming a slogan, the genuis of the sticker is its function as an interpretive device. It allows you to judge how people react to it. Perhaps, it can even help facilitate a deeper conversation than an actually well and respectfully designed sticker could have.

Likewise, on the Colorado River, there is today at least one very real, and very wild, female river guide who loves to casually mention around new coworkers and guests her despleasure with being “man-explained” things. This bait, always, is taken by a man, who steps forth to correct her, “Oh, you mean, ‘mansplained,’ right?”

The indirect approach of the strategem, when successfully applied, always leaves a better result. This is for many reasons, but prominent among them is the fact that it creates a conversation, and not just an utterance.

The sticker can be purchased here.

This ephipany, I am certain, must at least be partially inspired by the incredible new film, Promising Young Woman, whose premier at last year’s Sundance I had the good fortune to attend.

Author Interview with New Books Network

In May I sat down with Ryan Driskell Tate to do an interview about Carbon County USA.

It is online and you can listen to it here:


“During the early 1970s, a movement of rank-and-file coal miners rose up in Appalachia to challenge mine bosses and stodgy union officials. They sought greater control over the workplace and a broadened vision of industrial power. Calling themselves the “Miners For Democracy,” these reformers gained short-lived control over the union’s top leadership and earned a legacy for militant unionism. But what about coal miners in the expanding coalfields of the American West? In his new book Carbon County, USA: Miners for Democracy in Utah and the West (University of Utah Press, 2020), Christian Wright recovers the story of western miners who joined the Miners For Democracy and challenged their anti-union employers in Utah’s historic mining communities. These struggles, he says, provide an object lesson for us all about the frontlines of labor and climate justice.

Ryan Driskell Tate is a Ph.D. candidate in United States history at Rutgers University. He is completing a book on fossil-fuels and energy development in the American West. Twitter: @rydriskelltate

Pallbearers at the funeral of District 5 International Executive Board member, Joseph A. “Jock” Yablonski

Here is a good article from smithsonian mag about the significance of the Yablonski murders, the state of corruption within the UMWA at the time, and the reform movement that grew out of it.

What Will Happen to Gillette?

“What will happen to Gillette — and other fossil fuel towns — as the coal industry recedes and clean-energy goals are realized? And what difference could the Biden administration or Congress make for a dying town built on coal?”

A thoughtful recent piece from CNN grapples with these questions directly. It also notes, as I have, that like other fossil-fuel boom towns that took off in the Seventies, “The US government willed much of this place into existence.”

Sun News Feature

I was asked by the Moab Sun-News to share a few thoughts on the relevance of labor history to our own local past. Here is the piece they published, which I am mirroring the text of.

One thing can re-balance and save America. That thing is a labor movement. But what does that mean?

It’s easier to lament problems than identify ways forward. It’s easier to suggest what we “should” do than to demonstrate what we can do. Especially when we are – let’s face it – a politically unrepresented working-class unaccustomed to confronting or exercising power.

Great changes happen, and silent populations storm history’s stages not because anyone suggests it. Rather, life propels action. Leaders and participants rise from slumber, cynicism and apathy because passivity amid escalating threats eventually becomes intolerable.

I, for one, am tired of seeing people I know suffer.

By the mid-1800s, democratic revolutions’ failure to address capitalism’s persisting inequities inspired many in industrializing societies to seek solutions through combined action. Radicals like Helen Keller, Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood as well as moderates like Francis Perkins, Sam Gompers and John L. Lewis understood working peoples’ movements. Building organizations and industrial and political power was about more than just ameliorating a few specific injustices.

Yes, labor movements won us the weekend, eight-hour workday, overtime pay, healthcare, pensions, free public schools, child labor’s abolition, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and much more. But perhaps even more important – and more enduring – than the economic victories have been their associated social transformations.

By the mid-1930s, men and women who were formerly mocked and excluded for their accents, nationalities or race testified before Congress, introduced bills in state legislatures and broadened economic decision-making to include workers’ concerns. Ethnic groups long divided by prejudice worked together for common goals. Where once the KKK ran local government, communities found new leadership. By mid-century, a profound de-polarization of wealth produced the middle class of yore we hear so much about today. Yet, it must be remembered, our power’s organization came first.

“Labor history” is the history of most of us. Working people fought for centuries before they had recognized rights.

This happened here in Utah, too.

In 1897, Samuel King’s employees building Scenic Byway U-128, locally known as River Road, struck because it was Christmas and they hadn’t been paid or fed. In 1915, the builders of Dewey Bridge spoke with the Industrial Workers of the World and their managers about whether they’d rather observe the 8-hour day or work faster to get the bridge done before colder weather set in. In 1918, sheep shearers at Thompson Springs and Cisco struck for and won higher wages. In 1922, union railroad employees shut down Grand County’s largest employer over compensation.

Anything can be negotiated, if you really want it to be.

In 1917, Sego’s nonunion miners first struck against unsafe conditions. After a 1921 fatality, one hundred workers were fired after demanding their superintendent’s resignation. A decade later, their replacements organized again. From 1933 until the camp closed in the 1950s, United Mine Workers of America Local 6597 improved safety, wages, seniority, pensions and health care. Regionally, nonunion potash and uranium miners’ high wages imitate union standards to this day.

If you’ve never heard about these local struggles before, you might ask yourself exactly what kind of a worker and what kind of a citizen the educational system intended for you to be.

Human beings’ penchant for solidarity is a fact. It can be ignored in official histories. It can be attacked with propaganda promoting hate and fear over compassion and community, but it cannot be prevented or erased. We are empathetic, social, and loving creatures. We stand up for each other.

America is a ghost of its former self. Voters of both parties resent declining living and working conditions, antiquated political institutions, gerontocratic politicians, and “the 1%.” Labor movements have suffered also. Shackled within bureaucracies, courts and the most restrictive, hostile and lethargic negotiating frameworks of any western democracy: “Joining a union” sounds impossible. And yet, opinion polls show 48% of American workers would vote to join a union if they could.

What will the labor movement of the future look like? Will it revive, under changed conditions, within long-dormant organizations? Or will shop-floor struggles generate new organizations, strategies and leaders?

COVID-19 upended the world. Labor shortages decrease employers’ willingness to fire their workers, and a health and safety crisis raises serious questions about work processes and compensation. It seems unlikely that we will silently endure current levels of mismanagement, exploitation and plague indefinitely without eventually discovering our voice.

We can (with iPhones!) document what’s wrong in our workplaces and shame decision-makers who allow injustice to persist. We can learn our history and unlock our imaginations. We can develop leadership, organization and communication skills. We can try. Sure, we might fail. Society’s failing already. What have we got to lose?

Christian Wright is a historian, boatman, filmmaker, KZMU DJ, and a former park ranger who has lived in Moab since 2010. His first book, “Carbon County USA,” chronicles the rise, reform, and decline of the United Mine Workers union in Utah.

Carbon County, USA

I wrote a book about mining coal and the United Mine Workers in Utah and the West. It came out this year with U of U Press, and studies changes in the industry and the union from 1933 to 1985.

Carbon County, USA studies unions in western coal and asks the question, “What the hell ever happened to the labor movement?” If you are interested in social justice, in tilting the scales of power back towards ordinary people, then this book is for you. It does not have all the answers, but it does provide an independent, critical angle that I believe can help us understand the great successes – and frustrations – of our predecessors.

The unions that we’ve had have accomplished great things. But they have also been struggling, and in most instances declining, for about forty years. While once over 90% of coal miners were members of a union, today nonunion mining dominates the industry. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was not only the country’s pioneering industrial labor union – it also provided the organizational model for the CIO unions it helped to jumpstart. As an “indicator species” of power in American workplaces, the UMWA story tells us much about where we’ve been as a country. It can also tell us much about where we might be able to take things if we wanted.

There are places called “Carbon County” in many states that have all had similar histories based on coal, and have had similar trajectories as that industry has boomed and busted over the years. Beyond that I think it’s possible to imagine that that all of us are living in place you could call “Carbon County, USA.” We’ve all got these heroic past traditions of ordinary people coming together to change the world and improve their lives and communities, through things like unions, the UMWA, the CIO, the civil rights and feminist movements. Yet today, conversations about labor movements often seem more like romantic nostalgia than any kind of tangible, realistic search for practical solutions. What happened to those worlds, and why did they change?

Some people might not be comfortable with the idea of coal mining for environmental reasons. I’d like to challenge them to think about our collective “Carbon County” past as something we can be proud of, and something we ought to get to know. Coal people jump started the labor movement in this country, and for a long time were thought of as heroes by anyone considering themselves at all “liberal” in the political sense. I’d like to remind people of that, and challenge folks to connect with others of different backgrounds and learn to respect and listen to them.

Those of the New Deal labor movement, and their kids who tried to revive it in the seventies and eighties when it was falling apart, have always been my heroes. I wrote this book so people of my generation could learn about the times when people stood up for themselves on the job and put an end to being taken advantage of. I also wrote a lot about people who tried that and failed, because their experiences are every bit as important. You got to know what it means to get in there and fight and loose before you can talk at all soberly about ways you might be able to stand up for yourself.

I want people to get ideas from this book and get inspired by it. But I also understand that the UMWA and many other unions were pretty brittle and conflicted by the late 60s. I’m very sympathetic to everyone who fell through the cracks in union models, and I’ve tried to treat all parties on all sides of the conflicts in this book with respect.

In its pages, Carbon County USA starts out with trying to understand the heyday of the New Deal era UMWA, praising its strengths while critically evaluating limitations that would grow into greater problems with time. Union bureaucratization, corruption, and complex benefit-fund management’s implications are then situated within the context of coal’s decline in the fifites and sixties. The second section picks up again with a detailed, comparative examination of increasingly contentious organizing drives at newer, nonunion prioperties as they opened up in Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming in the late sixties and early seventies. It then examines western experiences with the Black Lung rebellion and the Miners for Democracy reform movement. The third and final section examines the implications of identity for labor activists whose careers and organizational affiliations transcended “New Left” and “Old Left” worlds. Specifically, it asks how local Chicano activists, the Lady Miners of Utah, and a younger generation of miners who came of age during the great (and ungreat) strikes of the seventies-eighties energy boom can all give us insight into what mining and unions came to mean for different groups of people.

Perhaps, the only thing that can save this country is if we get a labor movement going again. Perhaps, that’s not just the only possible force that could reduce economic inequality and money’s political influence — but it’s also the only force that could decentralize and broaden power in ways that expand and stabilize democracy. The new labor movement will probably not look exactly like the old one . . . but we do need to know what the past was and what it struggled with if we are going to improve upon its record.

If you would like to help this project succed, one of the most helpful things you can do is to leave a review on its Amazon page. Reviews help sales, and they also help me gauge what kind of an impact this book has had, what its shortcomings might be, and how to improve as a writer and an author. Conducting a detailed, community level study of a major labor organization’s evolution over a fifty year period of time has been a work of substantial effort. I’m very interested to find out what about this story I’ve managed to get right, and where else I could be looking to fill in gaps I might have missed.

If you haven’t got a copy yet, you can order one direct from the University of Utah Press, or support a small business by ordering through your favorite local bookstore. Moab’s Back of Beyond Books has been very supportive of this project and would be happy to get a copy moving your way.