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Alta Mines

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This page was last updated on April 20, 2019.

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(This is a work in progress; research continues.)

Overview

(The focus of this work is a basic history of Alta, as it relates to the transportation of ores, as gleaned from sources not likely used in previous works.)

The following comes from Utah History To Go:

Silver was discovered in the area in 1864, and by the following year the first verified mining claim was filed. The first settlement in the area, Central City, consisted of a sawmill along with several small boarding houses and businesses. The town soon boasted a population of 216.

In the fall of 1871, Alta was established only 850 yards east of Central City on what was the widest flat area of the canyon. Starting with the Alta Hotel, Central City merchants began relocating their log buildings. The borders of the two communities soon merged, the name Central City was dropped, and its residents were absorbed into Alta. Though Alta is a Spanish word meaning "upper or higher," the actual origin of the name has remained unclear. By 1872, the town's population had boomed to 3,000 and there were 180 buildings.

Alta was embroiled in speculation almost from its birth. Its first settlers neglected to obtain claims for the land upon which they built their businesses and homes. It was soon learned that Walker Brothers and Company had applied for and received claims for the Alta townsite; the company offered the land to the settlers at $50 to $250 a lot. Most of the "squatters" eventually settled accounts although some simply moved.

The Alta townsite was finally platted and recorded with the Salt Lake County Recorder on July 23, 1873. The townsite plat consisted of thirty rectangular blocks, each containing twenty-five lots measuring 75 by 25 feet.

By 1873, Alta's decline had begun with decline in the value of silver through demonetization as well as widespread severe economic problems which were compounded by the local problems of inaccessible ore, expensive smelting processes, and extensive water in the mines. By 1880, the population of the town had fallen to only 300, and production fell from a peak of $13.5 million in the 1870s to 1.3 million.

Alta experienced a boom in 1904 with new discoveries being made by the Jacobsen Brothers in the Columbus Mine. While the old townsite was never reoccupied, the miners were housed in bunkhouses built and maintained by each separate mining company at the center of their operations. The production of silver ore peaked in 1917 and declined steadily thereafter. By 1930 Alta was virtually a ghost town with only six registered voters.

In the late 1930s Alta began its second life. With Sun Valley, Idaho, as a model, a group of interested businessmen and skiers organized the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association, which negotiated with the U.S. Forest Service and raised $10,000 for construction of a ski lift at Alta.

On November 13, 1938 Alta's first ski lift was officially dedicated; but the lift did not become operational until January 15, 1939. Its second season saw the purchase of 86,000 ski lift rides; and its first international downhill and slalom competition was held in March 1940.

The following comes from "Alta, the Cottonwoods, and American Fork" by Laurence P. James and James E. Fell, Jr., citing portions of The Lady in the Ore Bucket, by Charles L. Keller:

In the spring of 1903, Anton "Tony" Jacobson, working with his brother Alfred, filed notice of appropriating water in Little Cottonwood Creek to build a concentrating mill and electric power plant. After constructing the power plant in the canyon about four and a half miles west of Alta, the brothers began concentrating ores in November 1904. The electrically powered concentrator transformed ores valued at $15 per ton into concentrate sold to smelters at $45 to $60 per ton. The mine that fed the concentrator suffered from a buildup of excessive water which hampered operations, but the concentrator continued to process ores from other mines in the canyon for some time. After passing through receivership and witnessing the closing of most of the mines that the operation served, the company closed its mill and sold the electric plant to the Utah Power and Light Company.

To move the minerals to smelters, operators experimented with various methods of transportation, a number of which proved expensive but only marginally successful. Henry M. Crowther of the Continental Mines and Smelters Company constructed a tramway down Little Cottonwood Canyon. In the face of environmental hazards, the tramway—with a number of realignments—operated from 1905 until March 1910, when an avalanche destroyed it. Between September 1915 and June 1918, Walter K. Yorston operated the Alta-Cottonwood Railway Company, which ran trains over tracks that eventually extended from Wasatch at the mouth of the canyon to Alta. The operators incurred such great cost in constructing and operating the railroad, however, that they failed to cut into wagon traffic and eventually trucks replaced both means of transportation.

Timeline

During 1872, from January 1st to August 15th, the Emma mine shipped 4,000 tons of ore to England. From August 15, 1872 to January 1, 1873, the Emma mine placed 6,300 tons on the open market, making the total production for 1872 10,300 tons. ("Statistics of Mines and Mining In the States and territories West of the Rock Mountains," 42nd Congress; 1873, Fifth Annual Report)

October 30, 1904
A article in Salt Lake Mining Review article made note of the Columbus Consolidated Mining Company starting operations in April 1902. The company's property included 17 different claims, the most famous being the Old Flagstaff. In the two years since its opening, the Columbus Consolidated was reported as having completed 3,500 feet of tunnel, and having installed a mill of 150-ton daily capacity. Other mining companies mentioned included the Continental Mines and Smelting Corporation, which began work in July 1903, having completed 1,500 feet of tunnels since then. The Continental company was also reported as having recently completed a 100-ton mill and the installation of an aerial wire-rope tramway. "...good headway has been made in the construction of the tramway, which will be five miles in length, being the longest line yet built in the state, the material and equipment for which is being furnished by A. Leschen & Sons Rope Company, of St. Louis." "The tram will parallel and supersede about four miles of the old mule or horse tramway." (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 30, 1904, page 18)

The aerial tramway at Alta, in Little Cottonwood canyon, was operated by the Continental Mines and Smelting Corporation. The tramway, of Bleichert design, was four miles long, from Alta down to Tanners Flat. Begun in 1904; completed in 1907.

October 31, 1904
The new mill was located at Tanner's Flat, and the Continental Alta Mines & Smelters company was considering some arrangements for other mines along the route of the aerial tram between its mine and its mill, to be able to use it without mixing their ore with the ore of the Continental-Alta company. These arrangements include separate loading stations, different colored buckets, and separate ore bins at the mill. (Salt Lake Herald, October 31, 1904)

The Continental Alta aerial tramway was also used by the Columbus Consolidated company. At various times over the next 5 to 8 years, the aerial tramway was out of commission due to a snowslide taking one or more of the supporting towers. Finally in March 1910, a slide destroyed several towers and the tramway was out of commission for most of the following months. While the aerial tramway was being repaired, the mining companies were forced to depend on teams and wagons to get their ores to market, but due to poor road conditions, they faced higher costs and at times complete shutdown due to weather conditions that prevented the wagons from transporting the ore.

November 1, 1904
The mill of the Columbus Consolidated mining company was started, but would take another week for the minor adjustments to be completed before full production could begin of reducing four tons of ore to one ton of ore for the smelters. (Salt Lake Telegram, November 1, 1904)

January 1, 1905
A five-mile aerial tramway, the longest in the state, was close to completion, operating between the mine of the Continental-Alta Mining Company, and its mill. The tramway had 62 supporting towers, and was the same design as the recently completed Silver King tramway in Park City. The mill was powered by a Pelton water wheel that received its water from a 4,000-foot, 14-inch pipeline, and was the only water-powered mill in the state. The tramway was of the Riblet design, and had a capacity of 20 tons per hour. The article does not mention the actual location of either the mine or the mill. (Salt Lake Herald, January 1, 1905)

April 12, 1905
The mill, power plant, and aerial tramway of the Continental Alta mining company were complete and being adjusted for good and reliable operation. There had been numerous delays due to severe weather, and shipping delays for tramway cabling and other finishing materials. By the third week of April, the mill and the tramway were in full operation. (Deseret Evening News, April 12, 1905; Salt Lake Herald, April 25, 1905)

June 1907
The Continental aerial tramway was completed at Alta to serve the Columbus Consolidated mine, shipping 100 tons per day. (The Mining Reporter, June 6, 1907, "this week")

December 20, 1911
Michigan-Utah Consolidated mining company was organized on December 20, 1911, by the merger of the Utah Mines Coalition, City Rocks, Grizzly, and Copper Prince groups. Duncan McVichie was the majority shareholder. (Salt Lake Herald Republican, December 21, 1911, "yesterday")

The Grizzly group had formerly been part of the Continental-Alta group, which went through its own bankruptcy in August 1909. Other properties included the Cleave Tunnel, Topeka Tunnel, City Rocks Tunnel, Butte Mine, Black Bess Mine, Solitude Tunnel, Utah Mines Coalition, Lavina, Darlington, Regulator, all which had been under the Continental-Alta group.

The Michigan part of the Michigan-Utah name comes from a group of heavy investors living in Houghton, Michigan.

March 30, 1914
"As the Salt Lake & Alta railroad is now in position to transport ores from Wasatch, it makes a saving in transportation of about $1.50 per ton." (Salt Lake Mining Review, March 30, 1914)

June 30, 1914
The South Hecla mine at Alta was shipping about 65 tons of ore daily. Teams were moving the ore from the ore bins at Alta, to the ore loading station at Wasatch, with 30 men driving 16 teams in wagons holding four to seven tons each. (Salt Lake Mining Review, June 30, 1914)

May 30, 1915
The Michigan-Utah has a force of men at work reconstructing the headhouse and repairing the aerial tramway (former Continental Alta tram), which extends from the mine to Tanners Flat, fur and one half miles, and it will be in operation in a few days. It is the intention of the company as soon as it is finished to extend the tramway to Wasatch, nearly three miles further down the canyon, to connect with the Salt Lake & Alta railroad. When completed to Wasatch the tramway will be of sufficient capacity to handle all the ores of the Alta district if the different mining companies of the district elect to avail themselves of this cheaper means of transportation." (Salt Lake Telegram, May 30, 1915)

July 6, 1915
A visit to the Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood mines found that the Cardiff mine in Big Cottonwood was shipping 50 tons of ore daily, by teams in wagons of 5 tons capacity. The visitors passed 26 teams moving up and down the Big Cottonwood canyon, with the teamsters saying that some of them were making three trips each week between the Cardiff and the Murry smelters. In Little Cottonwood, the South Hecla was shipping 25 tons of ore daily, by team to the ore loading station at Wasatch (about one carload), then by Salt Lake & Alta railroad to the smelter. (Salt Lake Herald Republican, July 6, 1915)

November 15, 1916
"Ore at Tanner's Flat. There are now about 800 tons of ore at Tanner's Flat, belonging to Michigan-Utah, waiting for transportation. There has been a scarcity of teams in the past two or three weeks. This, however, has been partially overcome. The Michigan-Utah also has between 200 and 300 tons at the mine ready for transportation. This is being sent down to Tanner's Flat over the tramway as fast as possible. On the Despain lease on the Big Cottonwood side, already 125 tons of high grade are has been shipped down Big Cottonwood by teams. The company is arranging to hoist this ore through the raise between the Cleaves and Solitude tunnels, so that when winter makes the Big Cottonwood roads impassable, work can still continue and the ore be handled over the company's tramway." (Salt Lake Mining Review, November 15, 1916)

May 16, 1917
Little Cottonwood Transportation company, a narrow gauge railroad, beginning to haul ore from Tanners on May 16, 1917, from the aerial tramway of the Michigan-Utah mine. (Salt Lake Mining Review, May 30, 1917)

(The Little Cottonwood Transportation company connected with the standard gauge Salt Lake & Alta at Wasatch, by use of an over-and under ore loading station on which the narrow gauge cars dumped into the standard gauge cars below.)

(Read more about the Little Cottonwood Transportation Co.) (In service from 1917 to 1921)

(Read more about the Salt Lake & Alta Railroad) (In service from 1914 to 1917, then by D&RGW until about 1925)

January 1924
As measured at the railroad loading station at Wasatch at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Alta District shipped 1,255 tons (about 42 carloads) during the month of January 1924, from the following mines: South Hecla 560 tons; Columbus-Rexall 250 tons; Michigan-Utah 225 tons; Emma Silver 230 tons. By this late date, all of the ore would have been hauled by teams and wagons from the mines to Wasatch. (Salt Lake Mining Review, February 15, 1924)

February 1924
As reported by George H. Watson, the Alta District shipped 680 tons during the month of February 1924, from the following mines: Alta Merger Mines 400 tons; Columbus-Rexall 160 tons; Michigan-Utah 120 tons. It was not stated how much of this was over the LCT and how much was by wagon. (Salt Lake Mining Review, March 15, 1924)

May 1924
J. P. Clays petitioned the Utah Public Utilities Commission to build a $200,000 aerial tramway to transport ore from the Alta mines (including the Peruvian mine) to the railroad terminal at Wasatch. The petition was returned for want of jurisdiction. (Salt Lake Mining Review, May 15, 1924)

June 1924
"Shipments from Alta for the month of June, as reported by George H. Watson & Co., amounted to 1914 tons, as follows: Alta Merger, 611 tons; Columbus-Rexall, 536 tons; West Toledo, 315 tons; Michigan-Utah, 209 tons; Emma Silver, 153 tons. Total 1914 tons." (Salt Lake Mining Review, July 15, 1924) (Based on an average railroad car of the era holding about 30 tons, this figure of 1,914 tons equals about 63 car loads, or about two car loads per day.)

April 15, 1925
J. P. Clays, manager of the Peruvian Mining Company, organized the Alta-Wasatch Tramway Company in April 1925 to build a 6-1/2 mile aerial tramway between the mines at Alta and the railroad terminal at Wasatch. The upper terminal was to be just below the operating and drainage tunnel of the Wasatch Mining Company at the mouth of Peruvian Gulch and about 4000 feet below the Peruvian mine itself. The capacity was to be 150 tons per day. The haulage rate for the tramway was said to be about $1.50 to $3.00 per ton compared to the $2.50 to $4.00 and more being charged by the wagon freight companies. No projected date of completion was given. The mines at Alta included the Wasatch, the Hellgate, the West Toledo, the Columbus-Rexall, the Alta Merger, the Emma, the Alta Consolidated, the Michigan-Utah, and others. (Salt Lake Mining Review, April 15, 1925)

(Note that the above news item does not mention the railroad, being the former narrow gauge tramway between Wasatch and Alta operated in the 1875-1895 time period, or the later Little Cottonwood Transportation Company, operated in the 1917-1921 time period.)

April 30, 1925
After shipping 276 tons of combination silver-lead-gold-copper ore during the past quarter, the Emma Silver mine reported that it had 100 tons of the same quality ore waiting to be mined and shipped. The mine was waiting for the "spring break-up" to end, and the roads to be put into condition for hauling from mine to railroad at Wasatch. This indicates that the old narrow gauge railroad between Alta and Wasatch was not being used to ship mined ore. (Salt Lake Mining Review, April 30, 1925)

February 10, 1926
During the 1925 season, the "famous" Alta mines were shipping ore, but the proceeds were being taken up by the high cost of mining and shipping the ore to the smelters. George H. Watson was a ceaseless promoter, but his mines were not breaking even, and had been continuously assessing the company stockholders to cover costs. The state board of equalization showed that all mines in the Alta mining district (both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons) had only $6540 in net earnings. The Cardiff mine in Big Cottonwood, once one of the great mines, reported a gross income of $173,474, but a net of the above mentioned $6540. The Emma Silver mine, given considerable notoriety during 1925 by its president George H. Watson, shipped 591 tons of ore and received $28,440.17, but it cost all of that to run the mine. The Alta Merger mines, another Watson enterprise, shipped 102 tons of ore, with a gross earnings of $2,817.37, but it cost $4,807 to mine and ship the ore. The Columbus-Rexall, long known as one of the outstanding mines of the Cottonwoods, reported shipping just 2,019 tons of ore, with a gross income of $57,386, with not net earnings. There were millions of outstanding low-cost shares, and all stockholders were being assessed to cover costs. (Salt Lake Telegram, February 10, 1926)

September 30, 1926
A lightning-caused fire destroyed the snow sheds, shops and three-story bunkhouse of the South Hecla mine, shutting down the mine's underground activities. The thunder and lightning storm had been followed by a snowstorm that dumped snow that drifted up to three feet. (Salt Lake Tribune, October 1, 1926; October 6, 1926)

February 1927
George H. Watson, president and manager of Alta Michigan Mines company, announced that the company had secured an option on controlling stock of the Emma Silver mine, the Alta Merger mine, and the Alta Consolidated mine. All three companies included properties that had produced "considerable" silver-lead ore during the 1870s and 1880s. Watson estimated that only 20 percent of the ore reserves had been explored. The mines had been idle during 1926. (Salt Lake Mining Review, February 15, 1927)

May 10, 1929
The mining stocks of the Alta Michigan Mines company, and the three companies that it controlled were all selling for $1 or less (Alta Michigan, $1; Alta Merger, 25 cents; Alta Consolidated, 15 cents; Emma Silver, 10 cents). (Park Record, May 10, 1929)

By August 1928, Alta Michigan Mines stock had fallen from the $1 per share shown above, to just 40 cents per share. (Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 1928)

October 15, 1929
The mines of the Alta Michigan Mines company were idle during 1929. (Mining Journal, October 15, 1929)

September 17, 1932
George H. Watson and others organized the Alta United Mines Company to own and control a total of 34 mines, encompassing 2100 acres, essentially all of the mines on the south side of the Alta basin. The three holding companies previously holding ownership and control were the Alta Merger Mines company, the Alta Consolidated Mines company, and the Alta Michigan Mines company, all of which were owned and controlled by Watson and others, in the name of George H. Watson & Company. The new company held 12 miles of underground tunnels, including nine drain and transportation tunnels. (Salt Lake Telegram, September 17, 1932)

April 7, 1933
George H. Watson announced "today" that there had been a consolidation of "practically all of the mining properties of the Little Cottonwood and American Fork districts, and the taking over of eight miles of railroad running from the mouth of Little Cottonwood canyon to loading stations at the Alta mining district." (Salt Lake Telegram, April 7, 1933)

November 1, 1935
"Board Buys Road Route — Clearing the way for construction of a modern highway in Little Cottonwood canyon, county commissioners Friday purchased from the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad 11 miles of right-of-way." "The federal government, it was reported by County Surveyor George M. Haley, has already approved a grant of $158,535 for the work. Salt Lake county's share of the construction cost will be $20,638." "The 200-foot right-of-way, extending from a point near the settlement of Granite to the mining town of Alta, near the canyon head, will form the basis for the new highway. The road will be 24 feet wide." (Salt Lake Telegram, November 1, 1935, "Friday" was November 1st)

1937
"The ore discoveries continued, but rejuvenation of the town was discouraged by the lack of transportation facilities. Alta is about 8,500 feet above sea level. In eight miles the road to Salt Lake valley drops 4,000 feet. Ore of any but the highest grade could not be moved profitably by wagon. A narrow-gauge railroad gave some relief until high operating cost forced its abandonment. The solution has been found in federal highways and auto trucks. Splendid roads up the canyons are nearing completion. Medium grade ore soon will be marketable.' (Davis County Clipper, July 30, 1937)

George H. Watson Biographical Notes

May 1906
The Alta and Hecla Mining and Milling company was incorporated in Utah. Officers were: Herman Bamberger, president; A. Hanauer, vice president; George H. Watson, secretary-treasurer. The mining claims controlled by the new company included the Colusa and Never Sweat group of five claims located in the south fork of the Little Cottonwood district. In June 1907, Watson was shown as the manager of the mines. (Salt Lake Telegram, May 22, 1906; Salt Lake Tribune, May 23, 1906; Salt Lake Herald, June 22, 1907)

February 1910 — George H. Watson chosen as manager of the Columbus Consolidated mine. (Deseret Evening News, February 9, 1910)

August 1910 — Columbus Consolidated and Alta and Hecla mining companies were merged to form the South Hecla Mining Company, with George H. Watson as manager, then as president a year later. The new company held 550 acres of mining claims, covering the following old six claims: South Columbus, Bingham Centennial; Alta-Quincy, Ivanhoe, Alta and Hecla; South Columbus Consolidated; Lilburn; and Columbus-Wedge. (Salt Lake Herald Republican, August 18, 1910; Salt Lake Telegram, September 11, 1911; July 5, 1912)

March 1915 — Watson created the George H. Watson and Company, as a new brokerage house that allowed he and others in the company to sell stocks on the Salt Lake Stock and Mining Exchange. (Salt Lake Mining Review, March 15, 1915)

January 1916 — Watson and others organized the South Hecla Extension Company, with Watson as president. The new company's claims adjoined and surrounded the South Hecla, Albion, Cottonwood-Atlantis, and Peruvian groups of claims. (Salt Lake Mining Review, January 30, 1916)

April 1916 — Watson and others organized the Alta-Germania Mines company to work several old claims that had last been worked in the 1876-1878 time period. The company included 150 feet of raises and 125 feet of tunnels (the old Dominic tunnel), all in rich silver-lead ore. (Salt Lake Herald Republican, April 12, 1916)

January 1917 — Watson shown as president and manager of the following mining properties at Little Cottonwood: South Hecla; South Hecla Extension; Alta-Michigan; Albion; and others. (Salt Lake Tribune, January 29, 1917)

October 1921 — George Watson and Jesse Knight joined forces to form the new South Hecla Mines Company, encompassing the properties of the Alta Utah Mines, the South Hecla mines, the Albion Consolidated, and the South Hecla Extension mines. (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 30, 1921)

November 1921 — Watson and others bought controlling interest of the Sells Mining Company at Alta, and installed themselves as officers and directors. (Salt Lake Tribune, November 23, 1921)

October 1922 — Watson and others bought controlling interest of the Emma Silver Mines Company, and installed themselves as officers and directors. (Salt Lake Mining Review, October 15, 1922)

February 1923 — Watson and others transferred ownership and control of their Alta mines to control and ownership by the George H. Watson & Company investment company. The investment company then held controlling interest in 21 mining companies, encompassing 97 mining claims, situated on 1400 acres of ground at Alta. The companies included: Alta & Hecla; Lilburn; Bingham Centennial; Greeley; Albion; Alta Germania; Jack; Alta Quincy; Ivanhoe; Albion Consolidated; Ben Harrison; Rustler; South Columbus; Columbus Wedge; South Columbus Consolidated; South Hecla Extension; Alta Utah; Emerald; Sells; and K.P. There were over 10 miles of underground working, which have produced $4 million in value in silver, gold, lead and copper. Operations of the mines remained with South Hecla Mines company, with George H. Watson as general manager. (Ogden Standard Examiner, February 28, 1923; Salt Lake Telegram, March 14, 1923)

April 7, 1923 — Watson and others organized the Alta Merger Mines Company to own or control the above mentioned 21 mining companies, along with the Emma Silver Mines company, the South Hecla Mines company, and the Alta Michigan Mines company, and several additional independent mines in the Cottonwood and American Fork mining districts. The merger also included "the taking over of eight miles of railroad running from the mouth of Little Cottonwood canyon, to loading stations in the Alta Merger mining district." (Ogden Standard Examiner, April 8, 1923)

February 1927— George H. Watson, president and manager of Alta Michigan Mines company, announced that the company had secured an option on controlling stock of the Emma Silver mine, the Alta Merger mine, and the Alta Consolidated mine. (Salt Lake Mining Review, February 15, 1927)

September 1932— George H. Watson and others organized the Alta United Mines Company to own and control a total of 34 mines, encompassing 2100 acres, essentially all of the mines on the south side of the Alta basin. (Salt Lake Telegram, September 17, 1932)

October 1938 — George H. Watson donated 700 acres to the U. S. Forest Service for use at Alta for recreational purposes. It adjoined a tract of 1100 acres he had already donated (in December 1937?) to the forest service. (Salt Lake Tribune, October 9, 1938)

March 31, 1952 — George H. Watson passed away on the evening of Monday March 31, 1952, at age 68. He was found in his bed at his cabin in Alta. He was born on April 30, 1883 in Houghton, Michigan, and had moved to Utah in 1902 at age 19. (Salt Lake Tribune, April 1, 1952)

More Information

-- From The Ground Up; Chapter 12, "Alta, the Cottonwoods, and American Fork" by Laurence P. James and James E. Fell, Jr.; published by Utah State University Press in 2006.

-- Lady In The Ore Bucket; by Charles L. Keller; published by University of Utah Press in 2001

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