(This page printed from UtahRails.net, Copyright 2000-2018 Don Strack)

Alta Mines

Index For This Page

This page was last updated on April 15, 2018.

(Return to Mining Index page)

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


(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.


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.

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, Volume 19, number 4, May 30, 1917, page 43)

(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.)

(Read more about the Salt Lake & Alta Railroad)

February 1924
As measured at the railroad loading station at Wasatch at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Alta District shipped 1,255 tons 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. It was not stated how much of this was over the LCTC and how much was by wagon. (Salt Lake Mining Review, February 15, 1924, Utah Digital Newspaper Project)

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, Utah Digital Newspaper Project)

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, Utah Digital Newspaper Project)

April 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 between Wasatch and Tanners.)

(There is no mention of the Alta Scenic Railway in available online newspapers.)

February 1927
In February 1927 George H. Watson took control of the Emma Silver Mining Company, the Alta Merger Mining Company, and the Alta Consolidated Mining Company, with the new company being called the Alta Michigan Mining Company. The mines had been idle during 1926. (Salt Lake Mining Review, February 15, 1927, Utah Digital Newspaper Project)

"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)

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