Many small towns and communities in southeastern Utah were established and died within a decade, while others struggled to create a place to make a living and call home. Where and why these towns were located varied according to the founder’s skills and determination; some found land that could support cattle and sheep operations, others served and supplies the railroad, while others were drawn to fertile land for farming or mining. These towns became self-contained, independent communities that shared one thing in common: the determination to improve their lives by providing a service or commodity the outside world needed. The constant interplay of economics, climate, isolation, and access to markets often shaped their fate and some succeeded – but most did not.

Valley City

In December 1905, the Grand Valley Land and Mineral Company offered land for sale with a promise to build a dam that would provide irrigation for farming and a proposed orchard of 2,500 fruit trees. Howard Balsley arrived by train from Indianapolis in 1908 to finalize the purchase of land for him and his sister, Nellie. A two-story house had already been built, along with several other homes and 40 acres of cultivated land. The project failed (reportedly because an officer of the bank financing it spent payments on racehorses) and, after losing a suit against the developer moved to Moab. He later remarked that it was “the only investment I never regretted losing, for otherwise I would never have stayed here.” Note: See the special exhibit profiling Howard Balsley’s role in making Moab the Uranium Capital of America.


Harry G. Ballard arrived from England to settle in Thompson Springs, buying property and land to ranch. During his travels around the area he discovered a large vein of high-quality coal five miles north in Sego Canyon. Ballard purchased the land and started a small mining operation that eventually came to the attention of the American Fuel Company in Salt Lake City, which purchased the mine. In 1912 American Fuel expanded the coal operation and constructed a new town named for the general manager, Dick Nelson. Nelson had a diverse workforce including a few Americans of English and Scandinavian descent, while miners were Italian, Greek, African American, and Japanese all living in separate sections of the town. By May 1928 Sego was the busiest coal camp in Utah, but two decades later production costs exceeded income and the miners bought the mine; in a few years the mine closed when the railroad converted to diesel-fueled locomotives and no longer needed coal.


The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad operated a depot and water treatment plant to pump water from the Colorado River to resupply its steam locomotives. Drinking water for Cisco’s businesses and homes was hauled in by rail and hand-carried in buckets to cisterns. In 1944 Cisco boasted a post office, general store, one-room schoolhouse, several houses and a ranch owned by the Pace Cattle. Within a decade Cisco’s population was 55 people, but when Interstate Highway 70 was constructed five miles north of town center Cisco and the D&RG converted to diesel locomotives, the Cisco station was unnecessary. You can still see the ghost town of Cisco from I-70 and pass by it between Utah 128 and the Danish Flat exit from I-70.