All that remains of Castle Gate today are four historical markers and a graveyard. Oh, and a few straggling Siberian elms shading crumbling foundations that once supported houses—houses that sheltered immigrant families from all parts of the planet. It’s hard to imagine that this place was a step up from wherever they came from, and most likely it wasn’t. Problem was, once you landed in Castle Gate, it was nearly impossible to save up enough money to move on.
It didn’t help that Elza Lay and Butch Cassidy ran off with the mine payroll in 1897. But even if they hadn’t, the money would have just gone straight back into the coffers of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company, which owned all the houses and the only store in town. Your house, your food, your clothing—even your soul, according to Tennessee Ernie Ford—was all on loan from the company store.
Which isn’t to say that life in Castle Gate was relentlessly bleak. Recently I came upon this picture of the 1916 Castle Gate brass band. I am struck by the confidence exuded by these handsome young men in their elegant uniforms. What a fine thing it must have been to have attended a Fourth of July concert at the amusement hall at a time in America when all things seemed possible. But then came the Great War, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that not all the boys in the band came back alive. Those who did stood at least a fifty percent chance of being killed in the great Castle Gate coal mine disaster of 1924, which claimed 171 lives.
Somehow Castle Gate managed to hang on, thanks largely to coal seams measuring as much as thirty feet in height—or depth, depending upon how you go about removing it. What you see on the surface of a mining camp pales in comparison to what lies beneath, which is why, in 1974, the Price River Coal Company decided to get rid of the houses, the tipple, the store, and the amusement hall in order to make way for an enormous network of elevated conveyor belts designed to move coal directly from the mine to waiting railroad cars. As a final insult, the department of transportation knocked down one half of the rock formation after which Castle Gate was named in order to facilitate traffic on Highway 6. Twenty-five years later, the conveyor belts and loading silos were demolished and the mine sealed.
Today the workforce has dwindled to a single watchman, who, last time I stopped to take a picture, told me to go away. Because you never know where the terrorists will strike next!