Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Highways of Helper

Although it was never on a state highway, this historic subway crossing of the UP (ex-D&RGW) railroad tracks survives in central Helper. It was built in 1937.

After looking back at my last several posts, I realized all but one of them have covered something in the northern part of Utah. And to be fair, that's where a lot of Utah's state route mileage is and has been, but there's so much more to the state than that. So today, I figured I'd post about a different part of Utah. Specifically, I'll discuss the history of the roads and highways in and around Helper, Utah.

If you're not familiar with Utah geography or a railroad buff, you've probably never even heard of Helper. And most people who do know it exists think of it as no more than "that next town after Price on Highway 6 towards Salt Lake". So let's start with some background: Helper is a city of around 2,000 people in Carbon County, located at the mouth of Price Canyon. This is where the Price River exits the Book Cliffs and opens into the plains of Castle Country.

Location of Helper in central Utah.

Helper is and has always been a railroad town. It was founded all the way back in the 1880s, when the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad was first built. Its name derives from the "helper engines" that were attached to trains here to help early steam engines climb the steep grades of Price Canyon. It was also more or less the halfway point between Ogden and Grand Junction on the railroad's Ogden-to-Denver route, and became a key freight terminal as a result.

With the discovery of coal in the nearby mountains, Helper grew even more and developed into a regional mining center, gaining its reputation as "the Hub of Carbon County". Unlike many small Utah towns, it also featured quite a bit of ethnic diversity.

Many of the coal-mining towns in the area decayed into ghost towns, but Helper is still very much alive and well - as a mining town, railroad town, and pit stop along the modern Highway 6.

The nearby town of Spring Glen, just to the south of Helper, was actually founded a couple years before Helper and was the first settlement in Carbon County. Interestingly that was initially settled by Mormons, but its development was almost nothing like other Mormon towns in Utah - as time went on, it became much more diverse under influence from nearby Helper and the coal mines across the region.

Route History

Early Routes

The main highway through Helper was added to the state highway system in the first batch of roads designated as state routes in 1910. It was numbered SR-8 in the early 1920s, and was assigned the US 50 number when the US system was created in 1926. Of course, back then there was no expressway bypass of the Helper-Spring Glen area, so the main highway ran through town on Spring Glen Road and Main Street - today's SR 139 and part of SR 157.

No additional state routes beyond the original US highway were created in the Helper area until 1933, when the legislature added two spurs off US 50 near Spring Glen to serve nearby coal mines. They were numbered SR 139 and SR 157:
(139) From Consumers easterly to Highway 50.  
(157) From Kenilworth westerly to route 50. 
SR 139 was a long spur beginning at US 50 south of Spring Glen and heading west on Consumers Road, serving several coal mines along the way. The exact location of Consumers is a bit unclear, but it was located somewhere on what's now labeled Consumers Road or Beaver Road on maps, at or slightly above the junction with Bryner Canyon. Although there is still some mining activity that takes place in the Consumers area, no inhabited settlements remain.

SR 157 was a bit shorter than its counterpart - it ran from US 50 in Spring Glen northeast on Kenilworth Road to the mining town of...well, Kenilworth. Surprisingly, there are still a couple hundred people living there, but it's a sleepy little community compared to what it used to be.

Here's a map of both routes, along with the main Highway 50 through the region.

US (6)/50 is shown here in red, SR 139 in green, and SR 157 in blue.

In 1937, US 50 would gain the additional designation of US 6, when that highway was extended through most of the western United States.

A short route was created in downtown Helper in 1939 and numbered SR 205:
Route 205. Beginning at junction of Locust Street and Utah highway number 8 at Helper, Utah — thence west to First West Street — thence northerly to junction with route 8.
That amounted to a short loop off US 6/50 through Helper, running along 100 West and Locust Street. It seems like a silly route, but it was probably used as a truck bypass of the downtown core. Another possible alternative is that the US highways were split into a one-way pair in downtown Helper, and 205 was created as a designation for the southbound leg. If this was in fact the case, 205 most likely would not have been signed, and would have existed only as a paper legislative designation.

The 1953 Realignment

In the early 1950s, a four-lane bypass of Spring Glen and Helper was being built along the western side of the Price River. Based on completion dates of bridges along the bypass, it was probably complete by the end of 1952. The next year, the legislature made multiple changes to the area's state routes.

First of all, US 6/50 and their underlying legislative designation SR-8 were moved to the new bypass. A new SR 244 was created to serve as a Business US 6/50 through Helper: north of the city, it split from 6/50 at an intersection just north of the downtown district. The new route passed through downtown along the old 6/50 alignment on Main Street before reconnecting with 6/50 just south of the city center via a new bridge on Poplar Street.

In order to keep Kenilworth connected to the rest of the state highway system, SR 157 was extended north along the old US 6/50 alignment to Poplar Street, where it ended at the new SR 244. The remaining portions of the old alignment - south of Kenilworth Road and north of the first junction with the new bypass on the north side of Helper - were removed from the state highway system. SR 205 was completely decommissioned as well.

The following map shows the route landscape in Helper in 1953. Roadways that were removed from the state system that year are indicated by dotted lines:

Helper, 1953.

The 1960s to 1980s

It's somewhat unclear if the east end of SR 139 was truncated slightly in 1953 such that it ended at the new alignment of US 6/50. Most evidence suggests it was, but 1969 highway resolutions state that 1.045 miles was added to SR 139 that year - a distance which more closely matches a previous eastern terminus at Spring Glen Road (old 6/50). At any rate, in 1969, SR 139 was extended north from wherever its terminus had been to SR 157 at Spring Glen, bringing much of original US 50 back onto the state route system. So for the first half of the 1970s, SR 139 consisted of a road that ran east from Consumers, crossed US 6/50, turned north on the original US 50, and terminated at SR 157 in Spring Glen.

Here's how the Spring Glen area looked on the 1972 USGS topo. The 1969 extension of SR 139 wasn't explicitly shown, but the general layout of the region is apparent: 

USGS Helper topographic map, 1972.

But that didn't last long. By 1975, whatever mining operations remaining at Consumers had decayed significantly, so the State Road Commission recommended that the road from US 6/50 to Consumers be deleted from the state system. This was done, and that 13-mile stretch of Consumers Road was given to Carbon County. SR 139 was now a short connector from US 6/50 east on Consumers Road and north on Spring Glen Road (the old 6/50 alignment) to Kenilworth Road (SR 157).

In 1978, the remaining portion of Consumers Road between US 6 and Spring Glen Road was given to Carbon County. In exchange, UDOT took over Spring Glen Rd from Consumers Rd south to US 6, and this became a realigned south end of SR 139. No changes have since been made to 139, which is now fully part of the original US 50 alignment through Spring Glen.

And of course, we can't neglect to mention a few changes to the US highway through the area that also occurred around this time. The underlying state route designation for US 6/50 switched from SR 8 to SR 27 in 1969 (it would later be removed altogether when independent legislative designations were abolished in the 1977 renumbering). In 1976, US 50 was moved to a new alignment farther south in central Utah that would become the modern I-70, and US 6 became the sole US highway serving Helper. But US 6 soon gained a new companion in the form of US 191, which was extended south through western Wyoming and eastern Utah and Arizona in 1982.

21st Century Changes

In 2008, the dangerous intersection where US 6/191 met SR 244 in northern Helper was upgraded to a diamond interchange. It was numbered Exit 232.

Finally, SR 244 was decommissioned in 2013. But this action on its own would have left SR 157 isolated from the rest of the Utah state route system. So once again, just like in 1953, SR 157 received an extension to maintain its connection with US 6. 157 now crosses the Price River on Poplar Street (former SR 244) and ends at US 6/191 at the same place where SR 244 formerly ended. The remainder of SR 244 - the part along Main Street - was given to the city of Helper.

Interestingly, this is still signed as Business US 6 from mainline 6/191, and there is at least one sign on the route itself marking it as Business 6/191. That makes this business route one of only two locally maintained business routes in the state of Utah (the other is BL-15 in Tremonton).

The modern state route network in Helper.

Route Photos

All photos taken March 2020.

SR 139

Initial reassurance shield for SR 139 after turning off of US 6.

This corridor closely follows the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, so there are a handful of cool railroad bridges on this section.

Because 139 is old US 6/50, there's also some cool old road-related stuff along it. This bridge was built in 1933.
Turn right ahead for Kenilworth. SR 139 ends here at SR 157, which heads east from here to Kenilworth and north to Helper. Unlike almost all other state highway junctions in Utah, this is completely unsigned from all three directions.

SR 157

We'll start up in Kenilworth at the east end of the route.

Whoever lives here apparently collects road signs.
This part of Kenilworth was fascinating - these homes all face the highway, but there's no parking allowed here. Parking is all along a minor road in the back.

As we head down Kenilworth Road, we get a great view of upper Castle Country with the snow-capped Wasatch Plateau rising in the background.

This is actually one of my favorite views on the entire Utah state highway system, believe it or not.

Like a handful of other roads in this area, this is an underrated route that was actually really fun to drive.

It doesn't last long, though - soon enough we're back in Spring Glen.

After passing under the railroad, Kenilworth Road will end at Spring Glen Road. SR 157 turns right, and SR 139 begins to the left. But there's no signage for any of that...not even reassurance shields after the turns! 

I couldn't find a date on this culvert, but it looks to be quite old and very likely dates back to when this was US 50

As we head north we get a great view of the Book Cliffs.

Entering Helper. This is a typical older UDOT sign and is one of the few clues that what we're on is in fact a state highway

After making a completely unsigned left turn onto Poplar Street, SR 157 crosses the Price River and reaches its modern terminus at US 6/191.

Business US 6

US 6 Business begins at exit 232 and heads south into Helper on Main Street, the old US 6 alignment. Naturally, no reassurance shield.

Apparently Helper is now a family town or something. Lame.

I didn't realize Piggly Wiggly was ever out west, but if this building is any indication...

Oh hey, signs! This is actually a bit inaccurate - SR 157 now also goes to the right here, and there should be either a TO or BUSINESS banner on top of the US shields. But signage is so hard to come by in this area that I'm absolutely not complaining. These signs might actually date back to the 1980s based on the older beehive, which would make them cool in their own right.

Business 6 makes that right turn for a brief concurrency with SR 157 before returning to US 6/191.

If you're heading east on Poplar, you get these signs at the junction with Main Street. This is the only reference to a Business 191 at all, and is also the only Business 6 sign on the route itself. Although there are multiple signed references to Business 6, they are all on the mainline.

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