Treasured Painting Evokes Memories of Growing Up in Utah’s Coal Country

It hangs in a place of honor right over my computer desk, and I admire it every time I pass it. It is a painting done in watercolor and ink, in lovely light browns, grays and black. It depicts three abandoned houses, standing in a row, backed up by the tracks of a railroad spur. I study it and marvel how the artist has been able to make the houses look so empty, so forlorn. Of course, there’s a back story.

I was visiting my brother, Paul, and his family in Price, Utah. Price, a high desert city in eastern Utah, is on Highway 50 and is the county seat of Carbon County. Paul’s youngest daughter had just finished High School and had taken a summer art class. Two of her paintings were hung in a local art show, and, of course, we had to go see them. They were lovely still lifes with beautiful flowers.

After we had admired Carol’s paintings we wandered through the rest of the exhibit. That’s when I spotted the treasure, and I wanted it. Unfortunately it was labeled “Not for sale.” Paul knew the artist, who happened to head the art department at the local community college. They had a short conversation, the upshot of which was that we were invited to visit him at his home next morning. This we did and he reluctantly agreed to sell it to me. I think I paid $150 for it. Paul fashioned a crate for it that I could manage on the flight home, and the treasure was mine!

Now the back-back story. Carbon County, Utah, true to its name, is peppered with coal mines. They vary from huge corporate affairs to tiny family operations. When I was in high school there were three brothers—big strapping teenagers—and every Monday morning they would arrive at school with black rings of coal dust around their eyes. Obviously they had worked in the family mine over the weekend.

The big mines were practically communities, with company-built housing for the miners, schools and the ill-famed company store. The mines of all sizes were almost all in canyons, frequently a narrow canyon. There would be a railroad spur track. Trains would back into the mine area, drop off empty coal cars, and pull out again, coming back and repeating the process when the cars were loaded. Then it would be on its way, in long coal trains making their way on the many switchbacks, up and over Soldier Summit to the markets and transportation centers on the western side of the mountain. One day in Modesto while waiting for a train to pass, I spotted a single coal hopper, loaded to the top. It was such a nostalgic moment—I almost wept.

The obvious flaw in this system was at the mine loading stage. It would be much more efficient if the trains didn’t have to make two trips to pick up the loaded cars. The solution: a continuous train that would not have to uncouple cars, but could load them while still part of the train. This would require a wide looping track where the train could pause at the tipple, load the car and move on to the next car. (Trains don’t make sharp left or right turns.) The trouble was the canyons were too narrow to accommodate the wide loop.

The next step: widen the canyon. That was a monumental project. It meant clearing the canyon floor, including the community that had grown up around the mine. That is the stage when my painting was done. The houses were empty and ready for destruction. Paul and I took a drive up the mountain to the mine the next day. We found the very spot where the artist must have sat while he sketched his project. By then the roofs of the three houses had been removed. The project was underway.

I don’t know the situation now. Since then there have been a couple more energy crises, and coal has been labeled an environmental disaster. So, even if it is high quality, low-sulfur coal, it’s still coal. I wonder, did the communities rebuild? Are the miners now commuters? Unfortunately, Paul, the font of all local information, died a couple of years ago and I have no one to ask.

But I still have my painting and it is a strong reminder of my brother and the environs of my growing up. Besides which, I love seeing it. It is my treasure.

Peggy Lewis, the mother of A News contributor Jon Lewis, has been a student at the Modesto Institute for Continued Learning since 1983. The institute is a program sponsored by the Modesto Junior College Division of Extended Education and is “designed for the mature adult student who seeks to experience learning for the joy of it.” She wrote this story as an assignment for MICL’s Writer’s Workshop and has graciously allowed A News Café.com to share it. Peggy celebrated her 95th birthday this year.

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8 Responses

  1. Randall R Smith Randall R Smith says:

    If you ride today’s Amtrak Zephyr to Denver, it passes through this area and much more. Alternatively, you can drive yourself and miss the adventure offered on the railroad. BTW, the restored Valley Station in Sacramento is worth a trip just to see it.

  2. cheyenne says:

    Growing up in Salt Lake City I knew many people from Price who had fled the coal mines for the big city. They had interesting stories to tell about working the mines and railroads. Today the coal mines of Utah are just like the mines in Colorado and Wyoming, some just holding on as the nation switches to natural gas. There is talk of nuclear plants being built which would benefit the uranium mines in the three states, but there is a lot of opposition to uranium mining especially in Colorado.
    I am a little envious of you having a picture that brings back memories of a simpler time.

  3. Beverly Stafford says:

    It’s no wonder Jon is such a good writer. He’s the apple who fell from your tree.

  4. Ginny says:

    Beautiful writing…..

  5. Louise Hanson says:

    Thank you for sharing this piece of history.

  6. Tim says:

    Very cool, thanks Peggy.

  7. Peggy, thank you for another delightful piece of writing. You are welcome here at A News any time, and not just because you’re the mother of one of our favorite writers.

  8. Joanne Gifford says:

    Wonderful story !!!

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