Railroads and Mining in Utah's Bingham Canyon, Introduction
This page last updated on May 28, 2023.
To Move A Mountain
In 1979, the head of Kennecott's Ore Haulage Division remarked that the division, as the copper company's private railroad, had surely done its part in "moving a mountain of copper ore." Moving a mountain is literally what has happened throughout the decades between the early years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century.
Railroads and mining in Bingham Canyon have gone hand in hand since the first railroad entered the canyon in late 1873. That first railroad was the Bingham Canyon and Camp Floyd Railroad, a three-foot narrow-gauge line that in 1881 became part of the larger Denver and Rio Grande system. In 1890, the narrow-gauge line was converted to standard gauge, a change that allowed both the railroad and the mines that it served to rapidly expand to become the largest and richest mining district in the western United States.
In the early years, the miners were after the gold and silver. As the mines grew, they began mining galena, an ore that was a combination of silver and lead, with traces of gold. The mining of galena ore was the focus of mining operations until the early 1890s, when copper ore became more and more important. America was just starting to use electricity, and to feed that growing market, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, a series of mining company consolidations took place, providing copper wire for America's households and businesses.
In the late 1890s, several mining companies were formed that took copper as part of their name. In 1903, they were joined by the Utah Copper Company, organized to exploit the vast quantities of low-grade copper ore discovered in Bingham Canyon. In 1906, Utah Copper Company, along with Boston Consolidated Mining Company, developed open-cut mining and, with other processes, was very successful in making the mining of the low-grade copper ore a profitable enterprise.
Railroads played an important part in the new open-cut mining method. First, steam shovels would remove the waste material that covered the ore and load it into railroad cars for movement and disposal in other parts of the canyon. As the ore was exposed, steam shovels loaded it into railcars for transportation to the mills, which both Utah Copper and Boston Consolidated had built 16 miles north of Bingham Canyon on the south shore of Great Salt Lake.
At first, the facilities of the Rio Grande Western's Bingham and Garfield branches, along with the Copper Belt Railway, completed in 1901 , were sufficient to handle the rapidly growing railroad business. To increase the capacity, in 1907 the Rio Grande Western completed a new line into the canyon, allowing the operation of longer and heavier trains. But the need for capacity soon outgrew Rio Grande's ability to provide service.
To increase capacity, in 1911 Utah Copper organized and built the Bingham and Garfield Railway as a subsidiary to move its copper ore between the mine in Bingham Canyon and the mills near Magna. The new railroad soon became one of the busiest rail lines in the nation, moving some of the heaviest trains.
In 1923, Utah Copper began converting its steam shovels to be powered by electricity. Within a year, Utah Copper installed electric locomotives at the car dumpers at the mills. Additional cost reductions came when the steam locomotives used in the mine itself were changed to electric locomotives, making Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine one the most modern mining operations in the world.
By the end of 1941, Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine was producing a third of the nation's copper, and the Bingham and Garfield Railroad was setting records by moving more than 100,000 tons of copper ore per day. Also, in 1941, Utah Copper Company became part of the Kennecott Copper Corporation.
As the Bingham mine continued to expand downward, Utah Copper found that it had to move the ore upward out of the mine, only to then move it down the canyon to the mills; this was becoming expensive. To reduce costs, three railroad tunnels were completed between the open-pit mine and the lower portions of Bingham Canyon. The first tunnel was completed in 1944, the second in 1952, and the third (the longest at 3.4 miles), was completed in 1961. A new gathering yard was also completed in 1944 in the lower canyon, further reducing the cost of the Bingham and Garfield Railroad's moving ore cars to the mills.
In 1947, to replace the steam-powered Bingham and Garfield Line, Kennecott completed an entirely new, all-electric, privately owned rail line between the lowest part of the canyon at Copperton and the mills. By this time, the production of ore stood at a daily average of 110,000 tons of ore being moved over the company's own railroad. Traffic on this private railroad was still at this level in 1979 when the electric locomotives were replaced by new diesel locomotives. The electric locomotives in the mine itself were also replaced by diesels, beginning in 1976.
Although not directly part of the railroads in Bingham Canyon, Utah Copper (and Kennecott Copper as its successor) made railroads a vital part of its operations. There were extensive rail operations at the Magna and Arthur mills, as well as connecting rail lines between the mills and the smelter farther west at Garfield. After Kennecott bought the smelter in 1959, railroad operations along the south shore of Great Salt Lake became essentially an in-plant network, connecting each of the components of the copper-production process, including the Garfield copper refinery added in 1950.
From the earliest days, railroads were used to move copper ore, as well as waste rock at the mine. By the early 1960s, Kennecott found that having to maintain a network of electrified railroad tracks was an inflexible and expensive effort. To reduce costs, in 1963 trucks were introduced to move waste rock. By 1966, the upper two-thirds of the mine had been converted to the use of trucks to move both waste rock and copper ore.
In 1983, the entire mine was converted to the use of haulage trucks. Rail haulage was used for reload only, a process that used trucks to move ore to several centralized locations. The largest shovels would then reload the ore into railcars. These reload sites were at the 6040, 5840, and 5490 levels, where there was direct access to the three railroad tunnels. Prior to the end of 1983, there were 42-truck haulage levels and just 11-rail haulage levels. The last reload site, at the 5840 level, was removed in March 2000, allowing the 5840 Tunnel to be closed, bringing to an end the use of railroads in Bingham Canyon. All railroad operations ended in late 2001 when the North Concentrator Complex was closed.
The North Concentrator Complex had as its major components the Bonneville crushing and grinding plant, along with the Magna concentrator, with a slurry pipeline connecting them. Both had depended on rail service when first put into operation, in 1908 and 1966 respectively. Railroads came to Bingham Canyon in 1873, and the shutdown of the North Concentrator Complex in 2001 brought with it the end of Bingham Canyon railroads.
My interest in Bingham Canyon railroads started in 1969 while visiting the mine with some model railroad friends, one of whom worked as an engineer on the Ore Haulage Railroad. Right away, I became hooked on the subject. For a very brief four-month period in 1979, I worked as a brakeman on the Ore Haulage Division. Research and compiling a history about Bingham Canyon railroads did not take form until the early 1980s, at which time and with the blessing of certain members of management at the mine and in what remained of Ore Haulage, I was able to visit many of the shops, offices, and work centers at the mine and at the mills. In the 1984-1985 time frame, with the dark clouds of complete shutdown on the horizon, several employee friends saw the need to rescue numerous historically valuable items, including literally hundreds of photographs. Those rescued items, along with a wide variety of additional research, make up the majority of the contents of this history. Several railroad historians, including Steve Swanson, Ken Ardinger, Blair Kooistra, and the late Jim Ozment, helped throughout the years to ensure that I received a steady flow of additional information and photographs. My sincere thanks goes out to all who have helped, whether they are named here or not. The effort has been spread out over many years, but the delays and diversions have all been worth the time it has taken to get make this history available.