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Monday, November 4, 2013

The Spoils of Hopes and Dreams: A Lazy Daze Outing to Ghost Towns and Pictographs

I looked it up; population 39 in the 2010 census. I only counted two, though. Most would agree that Thompson Springs, Utah, has seen better days, and a few wouldn't stop no matter how bad they had to pee. A once thriving supply town with stores, cafes, and a railroad depot, now lies in the grip of terminal disease—disintegration, dilapidation, decay, decline—pick your adjective. Maybe it's my "trailer trash" roots, my affinity for rusted and busted over brand new...my respect for hard times pioneers who toiled at the turn of the previous century; we have it easy now, living our Lazy Daze, techno-wizard lifestyles during modern times. Places like Thompson get to me, and likely explains why I entertained unspoken wonderings, "What would it be like to live there today? Who chooses to live there now? and Why in God's Name am I drawn to a place so in opposition to Lovely Ouray and comfort? Am I daft? Do I harbor some subconscious yearning to be single again?" 

While Thompson Springs doesn't yet meet the specific criteria for being a "Ghost Town", it's certainly within a few "kicked buckets" of becoming one. As I drove into town the only people I spied were a couple of senior citizens...conversing under a cabana adjacent to the community mailbox station while waiting on a rural postman and the highlight of their day. 

I parked in a gap between an infestation of tumbleweeds and shattered beer bottle glass. A faded neon sign read, "Thompson Motel;" a reminiscent snapshot from my 1950's childhood, all those overnights spent at similar institutions sprinkled along Route 66. Today, the Thompson Motel is a ruin. 

Candid Camera in hand, I set out to explore Thompson's empty streets and tumbledown buildings like some undergrad anthropology student at an Anasazi site. I wanted to sift through the mid 20th Century...artifacts of a former supply town for ill fated mining and ranching endeavors. One can learn a lot about a culture by what's left behind. One thing for sure, when it comes to "Ghost Towns" Thompson Springs feels like the real deal, unlike modern day "Tombstones" with their Main Street lineup of curio shops and boardwalks full of ice cream lickers.

My second impression of Thompson Springs was that it would make an ideal noir or western movie set. Not even Hollywood could reproduce a scene like this...what with hundreds of tumbleweeds in place, waiting for a director to cue the fan and yell, "Ready on the set...Action!" 

This cafe across from the train depot was probably one of the last businesses to die. Amazingly, Amtrak made stops at Thompson Springs until the mid 1990's. I can't imagine anyone getting on or off here; it must have be a photo op stop, "Here's a genuine Ghost Town in the making, folks..."

If you enlarge the above photo it reads, "the silver bell is comming back...a thompson cooprative currently in restoration."
Poor spelling aside, I don't think so...
The old clapboard train depot
Like most western towns of old, railroad tracks split Thompson Springs down the middle...commercial on one side, residential on the other. Paint on the Depot's wood siding peels away, much like the people that once called this place "home." Only a narrow sidewalk—tumbleweeds growing from cracks—separates the depot from the rails. It was easy to imagine a scene out of the 1880's, black smoke roiling from an oncoming Denver and Rio Grande steam engine; boys dressed in suspendered kickers, playing tag and showing off for the girls; mothers attired in velvet dresses neck to toe, admonishing children to "Get away from the tracks!"

Surveying the nearby Book Cliffs and surrounding high desert landscape left me with an eerie feeling of just how inhospitable this place is. There's no flowing water, and it's being kind to say that vegetation is anything but sparse. But the discovery of coal in Sego Canyon in 1880 (or the discovery of anything of value anywhere) put(s) "blinders" on men who dream and scheme of wealth and a better life. It is the way of the west, Boom, Bust...Boom, Bust; timing is everything.

The "Desert Moon Hotel" is for sale, in case anyone wants to open a Bed and Breakfast...

Coal mining operations were fraught with problems from the beginning, not the least of which was the shortage of water. But men with golden dreams are as stubborn as the ass that burdened their weight. One man's failure and bankruptcy is another man's opportunity. New "blood" (read: bleeders) stood at the ready to try and try again. In 1950 the supply of eternal optimists finally ran out; the "handwriting on the wall" was as plain as the pictographs and petroglyphs in Sego Canyon. All "towels" were thrown in, and the railroad spur to abundant coal reserves and the little mining town of Sego ceased to operate. 

The road from Thompson Springs to Sego Canyon is actually paved...until you get to the canyon 

Ill fated hopes and dreams often die long, slow deaths. The west, with all its beauty and opportunity, did, and still does, to some extent, exact a high price from those who want to call it "home." The fate of Thompson Springs was as sealed as the coal seam in Sego Canyon, smushed between layers of time. Destiny shrugged. Sego's birth certificate and epitaph are written in black. That Native Americans existed and thrived in those same Book Cliff canyons as far back as 7000 BC (as evidenced by dated rock art) kinda spits in the face of the our so called "Civilization." Perhaps the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, Man on the Moon technology, and (gulp) our cell phone regression into what will one day be known as the New Dark Ages, proves once and for all that more and newer is not always better. Like their Athabaskan predecessors (Eskimos), aboriginal Indians were the first "Greenies." They died when they were supposed to, demanded less from the land—a little food, a little water—using only a few blank canyon wall canvases to etch and sketch their simple way of life.

Sadly, over the years much of the Indian Rock Art has been defaced with graffiti

Half Moon over Sego Canyon...

What are they saying???

The number of people images suggests a large population made these canyons home

Evidence of the old Railroad Spur to Sego Coal Mine

A contrasting scene, the old corral with a new motorhome boondocked in the background

A house rots next to the railroad tracks into Sego Canyon. Its Mormon signature was that it was added on to several times, and had a basement

We noted several earthen storehouses

A train trestle holds up to Time...

The American Fuel Company Store in Sego...or what's left of it

 Sego Cemetery

Images from Thompson Springs

For those who would like to read more about the history of Thompson and Sego, Click Here


  1. Love Thompson Springs went exploring there a couple yrs ago....but didn't explore the cemetery, is that past the Ute Res gate? My sis stayed at the Desert Rose when it was still in business and ate at the Grill...good greasy spoon! Enjoyed your photos very much!!!!

    1. Sondra,
      No the cemetery is right near where you turn to go up sego canyon...but it's on top of a little knoll and hard to spot.

  2. Looks like an interesting boondocking spot.

  3. Looks like an interesting place to explore. Maybe in a few thousand years the graffiti will be considered rock art, too.
    We drove up to Flying Monkey Mesa today and just read your post about the history of it. Thanks for being so persistent.

    1. I think you are right about the graffiti...someday it will be "protected" as historical treasures...it's all relative, eh?
      Flying Monkey Mesa is intriguing...anyone wanting to know more can do a search on my blog using those words (you didn't think I was going to give you a link, did you? One must work a little for their BCB nuggets).

  4. Enjoyed this post very much. Thanks for sharing this unique location.

  5. What a great explore which provided awesome photo opps. I hope that motorhome didn't have to drive in on the same path you walked.

  6. You've done yourself proud with this entry by bringing us all to this 'land that time forgot'. This New Englander who will never see the southwest in person loves following your pictures and prose. This was the best-thank you.

    1. Well thank you, Barbara :)) and thanks for taking the time to leave such a "motivational" comment...the author appreciates it, I can assure you :)

  7. a stock pen is a corral not a coral

    1. Maybe it's a coral corral?? Lol

    2. Well it's not the first misspelling on the BCB...and it sure won't be the last.
      I refuse to sit around "proofing" when I can be out in the "field" gather fodder for your next post.

  8. What hits me reading your very interesting post: Wouldn't it be fun to make a go again of this place? It sure has value for modern day tourism, where people look for the old, authentic times of the Wild West? This town seems to me to be a great place to start. If I had a couple of millions of $$$ I would go down, buy the properties and get going.

    1. But wouldn't renovation defeat the purpose?...You know, scrub up the cafe to serve meals again and put in a real train for rides? I see your point but like it just like it is... thanks!

  9. Your photos are amazing!! Thank you for sharing your talent! :-)

  10. Howdy Mark,
    A wonderful and poignant tour of the 'other-side'... That NEW RV kinda stands out among the desolation, doesn't it ?? When 'the dirt' plays out the people have to leave, even the 'old desert rats' can't stay in a place like that.... I does give artists like the Johnsons lots of material to 'work' with, though...
    It makes you wonder 'Why?' some people just like to vandalize historic sites, scrawling their initials & names across art that has been there for 1000s of years...
    Thanx, Mark & Bobbie for the hike & tour.. We sure do enjoy 'traveling' with y'all !!!
    Hope today's a HAPPY DAY !!!!

    1. Grateful, Butter Bean...it is good "material" for people like us :))

  11. That mobile home with the orange car in front of it is Budd's trailer, straight out of the Quentin Tarantino movie "Kill Bill!"

    Nice photo-journalistic essay.

    1. Ha! Maybe it was!!! You could write a script to fit this old town...
      Thanks suzanne.

  12. Mark, You may not see this, as this post is somewhat old, but I used to eat at the Silver Grill and the food wasn't bad at all - and that wasn't all that many years ago. The train stopped only if you had told the conductor ahead of time you wanted off there, and that's where the Moab locals always got off, so it often did stop. It also served the Green Riverites. Quite often I would be hanging around Thompson, avoiding the Moab crowds, when the train would stop and quite a contingency would exit. Always surprising, until you saw them get in cars and leave town. LOL


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