Ribbons of Coal in Utah

July 02, 2013


Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

Geologic history and human history meet along U.S. 6 south of Castle Gate in central Utah. On one side of the road, high above railroad tracks busy with coal-laden trains, black ribbons of coal streak an otherwise tan-to-brown sandstone highway cut. The scar reveals what looks to be a massive layered cake. Across the way sit a set of historic markers, telling tales about a famous robber, mining tragedies and energy production. Note how the stream, railroad, roadway and geologic layers all follow one another.

Ribbons of Coal in Utah2As the ribbons testify, this is coal country. Although known for its red-rock national parks and mountain ski slopes, Utah’s official state rock is coal. Most of it hereabouts was laid down as plant matter in prehistoric peat bogs and swamps that formed during the Late Cretaceous, when dinosaurs ruled the region, according to the Utah Geological Survey. In the intervening eons, continental collisions crunched, dropped, lifted and folded the resulting coal beds and associated rocks, and the layer cake was formed.

Historic markers across from the cliff detail more recent history. A large wood marker with fading lettering describes “Utah’s Coal Industry,” reporting that this is, appropriately, Carbon County. (Other U.S. counties share the name, also due to coal mining, in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Montana). It tells of the area’s modern settlement, the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and development by the railroad and others of the coal mining industry, beginning in the 1870s. A smaller marker nearby tells of a single colorful incident involving one of the West’s most notorious characters: “Near this site stood the Pleasant Valley Coal Company office and store,” it says. “On April 21, 1897, in one of the most daring daylight robberies, Butch Cassidy, Elsa Lay, and Bob Meeks robbed paymaster E. L. Carpenter and made off with over $8,000.00 in gold and silver….”

Nearby, a beautiful but sad marker recalls the terrible Castle Gate Mine Disaster of March 8, 1924 when an explosion nearby instantly killed more than 170 miners, most of them immigrants. A more upbeat monument recognizes the coal-fired, steam- and electricity-generating Carbon Plant, built in the 1950s. Also known as the Castle Gate Plant, it's still operating and visible down-canyon to the south. My father, Don Boren, helped build this power plant. Photos taken on May 16, 2013.

Photo Details: Top - Camera Model: NIKON D60; Focal Length: 18.0mm; Aperture: f/9.0; Exposure Time: 0.0080 s (1/125); ISO equiv: 200; Software: QuickTime 7.6.4. Inset - Same except: Focal Length: 34.0mm; Exposure Time: 0.010 s (1/100).