One of the most enjoyable things we do in the southwest is search for petroglyphs and pictographs, the rock art made by the native peoples. Sometimes we come upon them as we hike in canyons and at the base of cliffs. Sometimes we find information about them in books or online, and then we go hunting. It often takes several tries and some luck, as when, with our son, we finally located the famous solstice snake near Pritchett Canyon in Moab. When we came upon it, we gasped in amazement at the serpent, impeccably pecked in the rock, more than fifteen feet long.
Petroglyphs are designs incised onto the rocks, and they are both more recently made and more common than pictographs, which were painted onto the rocks, typically more than 1,500 years ago. It is always special to find rock paintings. We wonder how they have lasted so long, and we marvel at their beauty. Their strangeness forces us to ask what they might mean. What were these ancient artists thinking when they created them?
We saw our first major concentration of pictographs at Sego Canyon in Utah. We knew they were there, but somehow it took us many visits to nearby Moab before we went to find them in 2011. So far, we have made three trips to marvel at what can only be described as astonishing works of art. No matter how many times we look at them, we are endlessly fascinated and filled with joy.
These glorious rock paintings, made during the archaic period (roughly 8,000 to 1,500 years ago), are a short trip from Exit 187 on Interstate 70, which is forty-four miles from the Utah-Colorado border. The road off the exit passes through the nearly deserted town of Thompson Springs, named for E.W. Thompson, who operated a sawmill in the area. There was a railroad stop here, and cattle were shipped from it. A spur line from a coal mine five miles up the canyon gave further life to the place, but the collapse of mining in the 1950s when trains stopped using coal and the building of Interstate 70 spelled the demise of Thompson Springs. The 2010 Census notes a population of thirty-nine.
The pavement ends when the town does, and we drove on a dirt road across open cattle range for about three miles, chuckling at the cows and calves glaring at us as we bumped along. We found a small parking lot and with great anticipation began our rock art search. We scrambled down and up a deep ravine of crumbling dirt and found walls that contained a mix of petroglyphs and pictographs. The latter depict shields and animals, including horses, which suggest that they were made more recently by Ute Indians.
We hiked across the ravine again, and gasped when, on a long cliff wall close to the dirt road and just a short distance from the parking lot, we saw the pictographs for which Sego Canyon is best known. We carefully climbed onto a rock ledge to get a close-up view. Image and after greeted us, at least thirty of them. The designs are mainly large human-like figures, painted red. They have a ghostly appearance and lack eyes, arms, and legs. Strange appendages sprout from some of the heads. There are other kinds of figures as well, possibly representing animals and hunting weapons.
Across the road from the rock ledge, above a small cattle pen, there are more pictographs and petroglyphs. The ledge beneath them is less accessible, but we managed to get on it. Many of the images have been damaged by the guns and graffiti of vandals, a fate the major panel has inexplicably and luckily avoided.
Archaic pictographs in this region are done in what is called the Barrier Canyon style, named after the famous rock art at the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon (formerly Barrier Canyon), which is a detached part of Canyonlands National Park. The people who made them were gatherers/hunters who no longer followed and hunted large animals such as mastodons, which had become extinct. Climate changes about 4,000 years ago had made the landscape drier and harsher, and humans had to adapt to it. They did so by hunting smaller game and learning to make baskets and stone structures for the storing of what they gathered. Their area of movement contracted somewhat, as they more intensively utilized their desert home. Perhaps this greater attachment to place allowed them the time to make the pictographs. They may also have developed ideas and social structures to cope with the mysteries of human existence, especially the greater scarcity of game.
The pictographs they made were often—as they are at Sego Canyon—large anthropomorphs (stylized human figures), with no or vacant eyes and ghost-like bodies with no hands or feet. Sometimes, the torsos have designs in them, as, for example, the “intestine man” in Seven Mile Canyon near Moab, or the nearby anthropomorph with a snake in its mouth. Colors are often red, black, or white, though the snake-in-mouth figure has blue eyes. Maybe the figures reflect some sort of religious practice. Perhaps as a drier and hotter climate made game-hunting more difficult, shamans produced the pictographs (and also twig figures found in caves that, according to researchers, bear a striking resemblance to the pictographs) as a kind of shamanistic intercession with the spirit world to bring more game or give the group a successful hunt.
The paint came from natural pigments such as ochre, with urine, blood, animal fat, and plant oils used as binding agents. It could be applied by brushes made from animal hairs, by fingers, or by blowing paint onto the rocks in a spatter from the artist’s mouth. A hand print, for example, could be made as a stencil, with paint spattered onto the rock around the artist’s hand to form a reverse image.
No matter why the pictographs were done or how they were created, the results are, to our modern eyes, beautiful and inspiring, showing us that these ancient people were thoughtful and aware, with a sense of shape and form that makes us feel a kinship with them.
Further along the Sego Canyon road, there is a fork. We turned right and drove to what used to be the mining town of Sego. We knew we were in what is left of Sego when the road literally turned to coal. The black rock reminded us of the miserable mining towns in which we were born, and immediately a sense of foreboding and depression filled us, the exact opposite of the elation we felt at the rock art sites we’d just left. I thought of grandma, mom, and Uncle Danny unloading dynamite from the trucks at the coal mine, and all the misery that went with that gruesome labor. Did the Sego miners hate their work, their isolation, and poverty? What joy did they find in this bleak place?
Sego was originally named Ballard, after Henry Ballard of Thomson Springs. Ballard discovered anthracite coal in the canyon in 1908 and began to hire local workers to mine it. He sold his holdings to a Salt Lake City business man, B.F. Bauer, who began to mine on a much larger scale, using a wider pool of laborers, including European immigrants. He formed the American Fuel Company, and with Ballard financed the building of a rail spur between the town, now called Neslin after the mine superintendent, and Thompson Springs. The wash plant installed by Bauer was the largest west of the Mississippi.
The mining was plagued by troubles from the beginning, mainly by both the lack of water so necessary for coal mining and track-destroying flash floods. These problems caused the mining to be sporadic and sometimes stopped it altogether. The resultant fall in profits led the owners to cut wages or stop paying them. Miners were paid in scrip, redeemable at the company store. If they tried to shop in Thompson Springs where prices were lower, they were threatened with dismissal. Regular cash wages weren’t paid until the early 1930s when the miners joined the United Mine Workers union. The company was reorganized in 1916, and the town’s name was changed in 1918 to Sego, after the Utah State flower, the Sego Lily, an ironic choice given the glaring ugliness of the place. Neither event changed the fortunes of the owners.
Mining continued, fueled mainly by railroad demand, but by 1947, costs so outweighed revenues that the company decided to end production. By then, employment was down to twenty-seven miners (from a peak of about 125). The remaining men pooled their money and with the aid of two banks, bought the mine. Unfortunately, bad luck haunted them: floods, fires, and the replacement of coal by diesel as the power source for the trains. By the middle of the 1950s, Sego was no more. People moved away, and some buildings were hauled to Thompson Springs, Moab, and Fruita, Colorado.
All that remains of Sego now are the shell of the stone company store and fragments of homes, railroad trestles, and the old boarding house, all scattered among the desert bushes and trees. The company had built houses, but it had also allowed the miners to build their own shacks and dugouts, primitive housing to say the least.
The final insult to Sego was hurled in 1973:
For several decades, the canyon was still lined with many homes and buildings, but in the spring of 1973, nature’s worst enemy — people — destroyed much of what was left. On that terrible day, two carloads of treasure hunters were seen searching the old town with metal detectors. Unfortunately, later in the day, many of the buildings lay in smoldering ruins, as the treasure hunters sifted through the cooling ashes. Very sad that the greed of a few destroyed much of what was left of this old mining camp.
On our way out of Sego, we paid our respects at the town’s cemetery. We walked around it, and saw flowers still placed at some of the humble graves. Not everyone who lived there is forgotten.
The close proximity of the magnificent pictographs in Sego Canyon and the sad remains of Sego made me think of how the quality of human life sank between the periods when archaic people gathered and hunted in the southwestern deserts and the miners of Sego eked out their precarious and hardscrabble existence. From what the anthropologists and archeologists tell us, the artists who made the pictographs had life expectancies and overall vigor that must certainly have been greater than that of the miners and their families. Once sedentary agricultural societies arose, life expectancies fell and diseases increased in human communities. Improvements didn’t occur until well into the industrial era, thanks to better sanitation, advancements in medical science that reduced infant mortality, and the brave actions of aroused working classes.
When I remember the polluted mining town in which I was born and the hard life of the people there, even in 1946, the year of my birth, I know for certain that I would rather have lived as an archaic hunter and gatherer, in clean air and open surroundings than as a miner is Sego, living in a hovel, breathing foul air, and risking my life and the well-being of my family every day I went to work. Work I might add that was done to enrich a few men and not to feed my community, which, had I been an ancient man, would have been so tightly knit that there would not even have been a word for “I.”
Great description and brief history of the area.
I started visiting Thompson Springs, the paintings and the larger Book Cliffs area in the late 80’s. During that time the Thompson Springs hotel and cafe were still open. In fact I spent a night at the hotel once, waiting for a friend to arrive by train. The train is long gone, as is the hotel, now falling apart as I witnessed this past August. The brick cafe in town still stands strong, but its been closed for years. It was used for a scene in the movie ‘Thelma and Louise’ (1991).
You might have noticed a small water tank on your right just outside town as you were driving to the paintings. There once was a deep pond next to it, one that served the locals as a swimming hole, which I was fortunate to cool off with during some hot summer days. Its now dry. Anyway . . . it wasn’t all that long ago that Thompson Springs was an oasis and a real town.
Did you notice the prairie dog town as you drove into what remains of Thompson Springs? When driving by last summer I had the luck of watching a golden eagle flying adjacent to my car. No doubt it was looking for lunch. I, though, was out of luck. I did sense that the pictographs have been fully discovered, as the light traffic to the area seemed to attest.
Don, Thanks for your interesting comments. We didn’t know about that Thelma and Louise scene filmed there. We didn’t see the prairie dog town. Next time, we’ll look for it. How was that hotel when you stayed in it? It is sad to see abandoned places and think that they once had a lot more vibrant life. Though Sego must have been a pretty miserable place even when the mining was going pretty strong. Happy travels, Michael Yates
I enjoyed your article but felt the need to state that there is no correlation between age and type of rock art. In other words, there are petroglyphs that are 10-12,000 years old in the states and pictographs that are much younger. It was how they were used and by whom that differentiates between them.
And, some peoples used one style exclusively over the other as well as others who used both.
Thanks, Mary Ann. Points well-taken.
Thanks for the Sego Canyon article. The first time I saw the petroglyphs was in 1976. I was with some surveyors staying there for 2 weeks. There were 2 20 year-old men from Cleveland that had followed their dream. They had purchased a wrecker or tow-truck in Cleveland. Then picked the most remote place they could find on the map, Thompson, Utah. They received very little business, ate peanut-butter sandwiches, and pumped gas for money. They left town with the crew and never went back there. They had the wrecker for several years. I have know them since then.
John, Thanks for the story! It’s still a pretty remote place. We had a flat tire the first time we went there. We stopped at the gas station, and the man working in the store there said he could fix our tire when he got off work. We waited and he had us move the car to a nearby dirt road adjacent to the tiny trailer in which he lived. His name was Reno, and he had moved to Thompson Springs from Grand Junction, where he had worked at a tire store. He also worked for the town and helped keep vandals away from the petroglyphs. Quite a character, and he told us he wished he had moved years before.