Legends of Helper- Part 3: Mine Strike and Martial Law
Updated: Jun 12, 2019
Strikes were common in the old coal days. One of the more infamous strikes for the Helper area occurred in 1922.
As the price for coal depreciated, wages for the miners also decreased. After a large pay cut in April of 1922, a nation-wide strike began. Most of the miners in Carbon County joined in. Due to the miners living on mine property, miners and their families were evicted from their homes during the strike. Sometimes, the evictions turned violent as miners were hustled off mine-owned properties. There are even reports that the evictions were so hurried that many didn’t have time to pack up their things.
Miners reluctantly relocated themselves to an area near the current Castle Gate Subdivision and Jacob’s bridge. They called the tent city, New Helper. Tensions were high between the miners (most of whom were Greek) and the mine guards.
The Greek immigrants were blamed for the strike, and tensions
between the Greeks and others in the community ran high. Increasing tensions led to a deputy shooting and killing a young Greek miner. The deputy claimed that he had shot the young man in self-defense, but it was clear that the miner had been shot in the back...evidence that it was perhaps not done in self-defense after all. The deputy was arrested, but died before he could be convicted of murder.
The miners soon learned that the mining offices were going to be bringing in a group of non-striking miners from Colorado to work in the mines. Feeling threatened for any chance of returning to work, the miners set up an ambush near Tunnel #1 (near the Castle Gate Subdivision). As the train exited the tunnel, shots were fired. When the dust cleared, one mine guard was killed. Three other men were injured. Infuriated, a mob of men (mine sympathizers) with blackened faces chased out any remaining Greek immigrants from their homes. They captured a total of 9 Greek men. Abused and beaten, the Greek men were shamefully marched down Spring Canyon Road towards Helper.
The next day, and in response to the attack, martial law was declared in Helper. Around 165 men from the Utah National Guard were brought in to enforce the new law, including the ban on firearms. Guards went door to door to confiscate guns and weapons from the townspeople. Nearly 300 miners were rounded up and searched for weapons. Twenty men were arrested and held in custody for their part in the ambush.
Snipers were set up on the hills above Helper. They were armed with machine guns and ordered to shoot anyone perceived to be rebelling or sympathizing with the minors. Ethnic minorities were a favorite target. A strict 10 PM curfew was established. All lights in homes and tents had to be out. During the day, the guards were reputed to being strict and unkind. One example of their tyranny is the story of 8-year-old Charlie Saccamanno. The boy was walking down the street with his dog when a guard drove up next to him and shot his dog dead. The poor child was devastated.
There are legends of bootleggers (basically “alcohol dealers” of the old days) that sympathized with the Greek miners. Rumor has it that come night time, they would sneak into the tent cities and supply the miners and their families with food…though I am still looking for proof to validate those tales.
Suffice it to say, it was a stressful time for those living in Helper and the surrounding areas.
On September 15, 1922, Utah Governor Charles R. Mabey—the same man who had declared Martial Law just a few months earlier—signed a document ending Martial Law in Helper. At the end of the ordeal, citizens were told that they could apply to have their weapons returned to them. However, those who had “foreign” sounding names were also required to send in proof of residency in order to have their weapons returned. Many of the requests went unheeded.
The influence of Greek culture can still be seen and felt in Helper. A walk through the two markets located in Helper indicate the enduring Greek spirit: fresh feta cheese, assortments of olives and hard meats are abundant. As the Greeks in 1922 overcame the hard-seeded prejudices against them, they paved a path for their progenitors. Their sacrifices have not been forgotten.