Reflecting on the ‘rich history’ of copper mining at Bingham Canyon

Workers mine at the Utah Copper Company’s Bingham Canyon mine November 27, 1907. The mine has a long history of copper production in Utah, which was added this week. (Utah State History Division)

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reviewing the history of Utah and the United States for the history section of KSL.com.

SALT LAKE CITY — In May 2019, days before the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Utah Governor Gary Herbert unveiled a new commemorative spike meant to symbolize the state’s contribution to the landmark event. in the USA.

The rulers of California, Arizona, and Nevada all brought ceremonial spikes of gold, silver, and iron to the wedding of the rails at the Promonitory Summit in 1869. A century and a half after the fact, Herbert thought that copper would make the most sense for the tip of Utah. .

“What other metal would you rather have? I think copper is very suitable,” he said at the time.

Utah copper returned this week with Rio Tinto’s announcement of a $55 million development capital investment to resume underground copper mining at its Kennecott copper mine in Bingham Canyon. The investment is expected to yield 30,000 tonnes of “high quality” copper over the next five years, according to Nate Foster, acting chief executive of Rio Tinto Kennecott.

The amount of copper is expected to provide electricity to more than 1.2 million US homes. Utah Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson added that the investment is also having an impact, as growth in the energy sector could drive demand for minerals six times the current amount by 2040, and demand for minerals that power electric vehicle batteries could increase 40-fold.

Tuesday’s announcement is just the latest development in Utah’s copper history, particularly at Bingham Canyon. Here’s how mining and copper have come to terms with the past, both in Utah and around the world.

Origin of the Bingham mine

Bingham Canyon copper mining dates back to the 1860s, but the history of the mine known today begins in 1887 when Wall of Enosa quarry miner, visited Bingham Canyon and discovered potential for low-grade porphyry copper deposits, according to Louis Cononelos and Philip Notarianni, who wrote about the mine for Utah History Encyclopedia. Underground copper mining began three years later, paving the way for eventual mass mining operations and two rival mining companies that eventually merged in 1910.

Wall co-founded one, the Utah Copper Company, in 1903, which began by building a plant near Copperton that could process 300 tons a day, Cononelos and Notarianni noted. But getting the mine off the ground wasn’t easy.

With gold and silver mining still very profitable, Wall’s efforts to finance a copper mining operation failed, and in 1903 “he sold the property as an option to a group of investors who were interested in the prospect through the efforts of Daniel C. Jackling,” historians wrote in a document for the National Register of Historic Places.

Workers mine at the Utah Copper Company's Bingham Canyon mine on July 18, 1907.
Workers mine at the Utah Copper Company’s Bingham Canyon mine on July 18, 1907. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

It became the world’s first open pit copper mine a year later. The mine continued to expand when the Kennecott Copper Corporation entered the scene in 1915, purchasing a quarter of the Utah Copper Company. By 1919, Utah had become the nation’s fourth-largest copper producer simply because of Bingham Canyon’s vast production.

A photo of the Utah Copper Company mine at Bingham Canyon probably taken around 1925.
A photo of the Utah Copper Company mine at Bingham Canyon probably taken around 1925. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

It wasn’t until 1936, nearly two decades after Wall’s death, that Kennecott absorbed the rest of the Utah Copper Company. A few years later, it would become an important mine for the nation.

A place in history

World War II led to an increase in copper production, and the Bingham Canyon mine eventually produced almost a third of all the copper used by Allied forces during the war, according to Cononelos and Notarianni.

“(The) Bingham Canyon mine set new world records for copper mining…during World War II,” they wrote. “During the war years, many women worked in the mine, mills and foundry. In 1944, the construction of its own power plant made Kennecott independent of outside sources of electrical power.”

The National Register of Historic Places document on the mine filed in the 1980s stated that it produced more than 24.6 billion pounds of copper between 1904 and 1982. It also underwent a series of ownership changes before its current owner, Rio Tinto, only acquired it in 1989.

There are, however, criticisms of the story of the mine. The organization Earthworks, for example, argued in a 2011 article that mining in the canyon “has resulted in damage to fish and wildlife habitat, significant water pollution, and risks to public health and safety”. These risks explain why local environmental groups were skeptical of this week’s announcement.

But given all of its history – good and bad – it’s no surprise that the Bingham Canyon strip mine and copper mine became one of the first Utah sites ever added to the National Register of historic sites, in 1966.

Work continues Tuesday at the Kennecott copper mine near Herriman.  Rio Tinto announced that it would resume underground mining after more than a century.
Work continues Tuesday at the Kennecott copper mine near Herriman. Rio Tinto announced that it would resume underground mining after more than a century. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Today, the mine is known as “the largest man-made excavations in the world and among the deepest open pit copper mines”, according to Mining Technology. It produced 159,400 tonnes of copper last year, in addition to significant amounts of gold, silver and the chemical element molybdenum.

The next investment, which will further expand operations, is just the latest chapter in the mine’s story.

“We believe these innovations will be game changers in Kennecott’s long and storied history,” said Foster.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist who covers general news, the outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah via Rochester, New York.

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