The town of Bingham is a story about mining. A story about the largest open pit copper mine in the world. From the time ore was first excavated in the canyon, the town lived and breathed with the winds of the mines. Eventually, the town would give up life itself when the mine grew so large that it consumed the entire town altogether.
When it existed, the town of Bingham was located in a narrow canyon that scarcely permitted space for a single row of houses and a road wide enough to turn around in. As residents added new houses they had to do it at each end of the single row of homes until the town was a long string that wound up the canyon bottom. Soon, the town was 7 miles long and only a half block wide.
Those living in Bingham had a good but hard life working around the mine. They experienced regular fires, floods and snow slides. The grass and forest on the hillsides was over cut to make the situation even worse. Still the town grew until by 1920 there was a population of 15,000.
Today the town is gone, but the mine is almost three miles wide and a half mile deep. Over five billion tons of rock have been excavated to yield 12 million tons of copper along with significant amounts of gold, silver and molybdenum. Tourists are welcome to drive to the Bingham Canyon overlook and gaze at the inspiring view of the mine and the Salt Lake valley.
Thomas and Sanford Bingham first grazed horses and cattle in the canyon in the 1850’s. In their treks, they chanced upon precious metal ores at the surface. Being of the LDS faith, and fine members of the community, they took their findings to Brigham Young, the head of the church, and asked him for advice. Young told them to let it be. He could foresee what such a discovery might mean for the community that had just spent years traveling west to Salt Lake City in order to found their own town where they could live their lives as they wished, away from the influence of outsiders.
It was many years before anyone staked a mining claim in the canyon. Soldiers from the U.S. Army were the first to find and lay claim to the ground in 1863. Soon dozens of mining camps sprang up in the valley.
By the mid 1870’s, large amounts of ore was tunneled out of the mountain, crushed to a small size, and then hauled by wagon to smelters in the Salt Lake valley. Silver and lead were the primary metals with smaller amounts of gold. At that time, the copper found with the ore was considered a nuisance and complicated the extraction process.
The Highland Boy mine was one of the first to realize that they had deposits with 15 percent copper and this was worth more than the small percentage of gold they found. They began to ship copper ore out for processing around 1896.
In 1906, Garfield smelter began a large operation north of the Bingham mines, near the Great Salt Lake. The town of Garfield grew up around the smelter. Over time most of the ore from Bingham was shipped along the Oquirrh mountains to the Garfield smelter.
Engineers established in 1910 that basically the whole mountain contained low grade copper ore and there was no real reason to tunnel for it. They began to remove the overburden and dump the ore directly into train cars. This also eliminated the need for steep grades up the slopes to the mine tunnel entrances. Eventually Utah Copper Company was formed from the producing mines in the canyon and it began to excavate the ore at the surface in one massive open pit mine.
Expanding operations at the mine eventually overtook and destroyed the town of Bingham in the 1950’s. By 1961 nothing of the town remained. Many residents moved to the town of Copperton a few miles away.
There was, and still is, a lot of railroad activity in support of the giant copper mine. Many magnificent railroad structures were part of the lines around Bingham. Long trains of ore cars could be observed puffing along, on tall spindly wooden trestles and crooked looping switchbacks along the western edge of the Salt Lake valley.
The narrow gauge Bingham Canyon & Camp Floyd railroad was one of the first railroads constructed to haul ore from the mines to processing centers in the Salt Lake valley. The narrow gauge tracks from the mines connected with larger railroads at Bingham Junction (later known as Midvale). In 1879 the railroad’s name changed to the Wasatch & Jordan Valley (W&JV) when the line was extended into Sandy, and then to a granite quarry in the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The Rio Grande Western (RGW) railroad bought the W&JV in 1881 and in 1890 they converted the track to standard gauge.
Smaller branch lines also formed in Bingham canyon that ran from the main track at the bottom, up steep grades to the various mines entrances on the hillside. At first mule teams provided the power to haul the railroad cars up these side tracks and gravity pulled the cars back down.
The Copper Belt railroad was formed in the 1900’s and it traveled 4 miles up the canyon. Extremely steep grades, up to 7.4%, required the use of geared Shay locomotives. This line was only a break even operation and in 1905 the Rio Grande Western took over operation. In 1908 the line was sold to the RGW.
As the type of mining changed to open pit excavation, the need for steep grades was eliminated and 0-4-0T switchers were used to move the ore cars around the mine.
Around 1910, George Gould, owner of the RGW, was totally focused on building his Western Pacific railroad and he let the service of the RGW suffer. The owners of the mine, the Utah Copper company, eventually got fed up with the poor service, stopped using the RGW, and built its own Bingham & Garfield Railway tracks from the mine to the Garfield smelter. Finally, in 1925 the RGW sold the Bingham branch to Utah Copper. Over the rest of the century the equipment hauling ore at the mine became more modern and sophisticated. Steam powered engines were replaced by diesel, and still later electric.(*)