The Spirit of a Coal Town From Yesterday

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From Troy Taylor's 2003 Book -- Down in the Darkness

Utah is one of the most beautiful states in the Union and also one of the strangest and most haunted. Between the Indian spirits, the lives of pioneers lost and the unusual lore of the Mormons, it has come to be regarded as a place where hauntings are easy to find -- but not often talked about. In this land of mountains, wondrous deserts and mysterious ghost towns, haunted mines are simply realized as a part of the wonderful landscape.  About 13 years ago, I had the chance to spend an extended period of time in Utah, working in the book business. During the time I was there, I became fascinated with the region and spent almost all of my free time hiking, exploring ghost towns, half-heartedly looking for lost treasure and of course -- tracking down legends of ghosts and haunted places. It turned out to be a great experience for me and many of the adventures that I went on are chronicled in this book for the first time. On occasion, they were not for the faint of heart.

When the Mormon settlers first arrived in Utah in 1847 and took up residence around the Great Salt Lake, it was quickly realized many of the things necessary for carving a life out of the wilderness were missing. There was little timber for lumber or fuel and it was also soon apparent that coal would be needed. There was none close to the valley and so the pioneers directed their search toward the cliffs and mesas that would come to be known as Carbon County.

By 1849, extensive coal deposits were found in the canyons of the region but were too far from Salt Lake City to be mined economically. In 1854, Brigham Young offered a reward of $1,000 for the discovery of a coal vein within 40 miles of the city. While a number of mines were started in the vicinity, none were close enough to gain the reward. After the railroad was completed in 1869 though, the distance did not matter quite so much and almost overnight, towns like Nolen, New Peerless and Coal City became booming mining camps. Almost all of the coal mines were within the borders of Carbon County.

Today, nearly all of the coal camps are ghost towns, hidden away in brush-choked canyons and along seldom-visited plateaus. They are silent and now forgotten but a few of them have fascinating stories to tell. One of these ghost towns, Latuda, was located several miles up Spring Canyon in Carbon County and over the years, it has gained a fascinating story of a woman in white whose life was destroyed by the coal mines.

The town was settled in 1917 but actually saw its first residents three years earlier when an ambitious coal developer named Frank Latuda opened the Liberty Fuel Company high along a rugged canyon wall. Although the location seemed almost inaccessible, he operated tiny wooden coal cars inside of the mine and delivered his product by tramway to the railroad below. Latuda continued this operation until 1917, when a new mine was opened on the canyon floor. Several mining innovations, including a mechanical loader and an air-sand cleaning plant, were first used at this Utah mine.

(Right) The abandoned Latuda mine office as it looked when I visited the town back in 1990.

In 1918, about 20 homes were constructed around the mine and the new town was christened Liberty, in honor of the company. The water for the settlement had to be supplied by the nearby town of Helper, although bitter water for the mine was pumped from a small spring up a side canyon. In spite of the remote conditions and undrinkable local water, the community slowly grew. The mine office was built in 1920 and 35 more houses were constructed in 1922. The top floor of the office was used as a hotel for visiting executives and a doctor’s office occupied another section. The first school sessions were also held here until 1923, when a separate building was constructed. Around this time, the post office demanded a new name for the town, as they were already overrun by other towns called Liberty. After a vote, the residents decided to use mine developer Frank Latuda’s name instead.

The town prospered in the years that followed and the mine employed an average of about 100 workers. Stores and shops opened to serve the needs of the miners and their families and the community grew to about 400 people. In 1927, disaster struck and in one afternoon, several avalanches thundered down the steep canyon walls, killed a number of people and wiped out a row of homes. The terrible event was not enough to kill off the town though. The residents rallied around one another and pressed on for nearly 30 more years.

In 1954, after some four to five million tons of coal had been produced, the mine shut down most of its operation. Only 20 families stayed on during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, some of them still working the mine. Mining stopped completely in 1966 and the last of the families moved away over the next year. By 1967, the town of Latuda consisted of nothing more than a few houses, the abandoned mine and the silent Liberty Fuel office building, which still stands today.

Several years ago, I visited the decaying town of Latuda while traveling in Utah and was delighted to find that some remnants of the place remained. Scattered around this portion of the canyon, I found the ruins of a number of homes, although all had long been picked over by souvenir hunters and explorers. Strangely though, the Liberty mine office building was in still in very good condition, save for a portion of the building that had been destroyed by a troubled teenager in 1972. The stone building was two levels high and had a wide, two-level porch that ran the length of the building. Inside, I found carpeting still on the floor and grillwork and a counter still remaining in the payroll office. I had heard that an old safe was still located in one corner of the office, still locked and hiding its treasures, but it had vanished by the time that I arrived in town. My explorations led me to the remains of the old mine, which still looms above the crumbling settlement, but entrance to the shaft was so dangerous that I decided not to try it alone.

Besides that, the old mine was not what had brought me to Latuda -- the reason for my visit had been the ghost who was rumored to haunt the place. I was told that the town and mine were haunted by a “White Lady” who had been known for years to wander about the ruins of the town. According to an old timer that I talked with, sightings of the woman even pre-dated the demise of the town in the 1950’s. The problem was that no one seemed to know who this woman was or why she haunted this place. Most versions of the story seem to agree that she was the wife of a man who was employed at the mine but beyond that, the legends vary. Some believe that she was home on that fateful day in 1927 and was killed by one of the rockslides that wreaked havoc on the town -- or that her child was left home alone while she went to the general store and the toddler was killed by the avalanche. The woman committed suicide soon after.

The most common version of the tale seems to be that her husband died in a mining accident and she was never fairly compensated for his death, which is why her ghost always ends her rambling near the mine office. The widow was now left with a small child to raise and it is at this point that the legend takes yet another series of different routes. Some say that her life ended in a mental institution after she killed her child in a twisted attempt to spare her from a lifetime of suffering. Others say that she hanged herself from the upper balcony of the mine office. Regardless of how she died though, the lady in white has returned to Latuda after death. She walks the now abandoned streets of the town, my sources assured me, oblivious to the fact that everything in town has changed. Other explorers and hikers have reported seeing the woman, wearing a white, outdated dress, as she walks through town in the direction of the mine office -- only to vanish just before she reaches it.

With a notebook filled with accounts, a battered book on Utah ghost towns and a sleeping bag, I camped out along the old road in Latuda on a chilly night in October, waiting and watching for the lady in white to stroll past. I have to confess though -- I never saw her. But even so, having the experience of looking for her in such a scenic and historic region, it was well worth the time that I spent.

The following morning, on my way out of town and in pursuit of another abandoned mine and ghostly tale, I stopped to talk with a longtime resident of the area who was driving toward Latuda in a Jeep that had seen better days. He grinned when he saw me and asked if I had been looking for treasure -- or the ghost. Apparently, these two distractions had brought many up the road to the old town. I laughed and explained that I had been hoping to see the Lady in White. I hadn’t had any luck though, I told him.

“I saw her once,” he replied, “must’ve been back around 1985. I’ve been prospecting, fiddling around really, in these canyons since I retired. I camped back here one night and while I’d heard all the stories, I never expected to see her. But around midnight, there she was. She walked past my fire like I wasn’t there at all. I was too surprised to do anything but watch her go. Before long, she was just gone -- I didn’t see her anymore.”

I told him how I had heard about the story and had come hoping that she wasn’t just a legend but he interrupted me quickly.

“Oh no,” he assured me, rubbing at his rough, white beard. “She’s no legend. She’s the real thing. Don’t know who she is, but they’ve been talking about seeing the lady out here for years.”

Then he laughed and looked at me with as he shook his head. “Don’t suppose I believed it either ‘til I saw her --- seeing really is believing sometimes.”

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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