Ghost Town: Sego


The tall eroded red rock walls seem to go on into infinity, and before I followed the road around them into Sego Canyon, I stopped at a small gated cemetery where a few of the residents of Sego remain interred forever. I am drawn to one little wooden cross surrounded by a few red stones decorated with some very modern plastic flowers — the only unnatural color to be seen. Someone must have placed these flowers relatively recently, but the grave marker has no information about the soul who lies there. Still, the flowers are like a connection tying someone from the present to someone from the past in this dusty corner of the Book Cliffs. The last inhabitants abandoned Sego in the mid-1950s, so the grave could easily belong to the grandfather of someone still living.

Unlike most mining towns in this area, Sego was a coal town supplying fuel for railroads, homes and industry. It came into being after Henry Ballard, one of the founders of nearby Thompson Springs, discovered an exposed vein of anthracite coal here in 1908. Ballard quietly bought the land and began to hire local laborers to mine the coal. By 1911 he sold out to a Salt Lake City businessman named B.F. Bauer who created the American Fuel Company and began expanding mining operations, installing a modern coal tipple and the first coal washer west of the Mississippi River.

A wooden cross in the Sego cemetery has no inscriptions, but someone recently placed a few plastic flowers there, a concrete connection from present to past.

The American Fuel Company developed the coal camp into a real town and renamed it “Neslin” in honor of the mine’s new general manager, Richard Neslin. Soon a company store, boarding house, and other buildings went up, and Neslin became a fairly typical company town. It was, however, atypical in one respect — the mine owners allowed miners to build their own cabins wherever they chose, and shacks and dugouts soon dotted the canyon. Sego’s population during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s ranged somewhere between 200-500 people.

The facade of the company store is the most prominent feature of the town, and is still in quite good condition.

Bauer and Ballard teamed up to form the Ballard & Thompson Railroad company and started to construct a spur line to link what was then known as the Ballard coal camp to the town of Thompson Springs, where they would be able to transport the coal via the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. When the spur line was completed in 1912, Neslin was granted its own post office and coal began shipping that October. At the height of coal production, from 1920 to 1947, 800 tons of coal were being mined per day, with the D&RGW making as many as nine round-trips a month to the town.

The town’s most serious problem, almost from the beginning, was a diminishing water supply. The water table was dropping, the creeks and springs drying up. One summer the water slowed to such a trickle that the coal washer could not even operate. Paradoxically, the railroad was plagued by excessive water. In its five-mile run up the winding canyon, the rail line crossed the stream thirteen times and flash floods damaged the bridges and trestles so frequently that the small train that served the mine was off the track as much as one fourth of the time.

By 1915 profits were low to nonexistent, and paydays very irregular. The company tried to enforce a system where miners were paid in scrip redeemable only at the company store, and miners who dared to shop in Thompson, where prices were half those at Neslin, were threatened with the loss of their jobs. The miners went on strike in April 1915, after having not been paid for five months.

Frustrated by the mine’s unprofitability, Bauer forced a corporate reorganization in 1916, replacing Richard Neslin and renaming the corporation Chesterfield Coal Company. Bauer also changed the town’s name to Sego in 1918 — for the sego lily, Utah’s state flower, which grew abundantly in the canyon.

The new company continued to have financial difficulties and Sego’s miners were never paid regularly until they joined the United Mine Workers in 1933. By 1947 production costs exceeded income, and the company decided to close down. The miners that once had numbered 125 had been reduced to just 27. The men pooled their resources and with the backing of two banks bought out the Chesterfield Coal Company assets. The miners organized under the name Utah Grand Coal Company and their first year was very successful. Then fire destroyed the tipple in 1949, and another serious fire the next year burned more equipment. The final blow came when the railroad converted to diesel locomotives, virtually eliminating the demand for coal.

The Utah Grand sold its holdings in 1955 to a Texas company that intended to explore for oil and natural gas. Homes were moved to Thompson, Moab, and even Fruita, Colorado, and the schoolhouse was taken to Thompson. A flash flood in the 1950s wiped out the rest of the miners and Sego was gone.

Several of the old earth and stone dugout constructions can still be seen around the canyon, often half obscured by the brush, but in surprisingly good condition. And the tall stone facade of the company store remains prominent, poking up between the overgrowth like a beacon in the middle of the canyon. Next to it a rusted old car hulk sits permanently parked in front of the collapsed ruins of what was a wooden boarding house. The rest of the remains of the townsite are spread out along the length of the canyon, and the whole site is particularly beautiful in the golden light of the late afternoon sun.

Much of the historic area of Sego was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Ballard-Sego Coal Mine Historic District in 2017 and the area is managed by the BLM. The ghost town is accessible via the grade of the old Ballard & Thompson Railroad spur from the town of Thompson Springs, and en route there is a fabulous rock art site with a small parking area and signage. Note that the area contains a combination of public and private land, and some of the rock art is actually on private property, so be respectful of the boundaries while exploring.

Several of these old dugout structures are still standing, half hidden behind the brush.
The interior of the old company store glowing beautifully in the late afternoon light. Many of the structures here are quite photogenic.


All text and photos ©2021 JoMarie Fecci/ Please contact us for any usage permissions or for further information about the journey or locations included in this reportage.