Copper Belt Railroad Wrecks

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This page was last updated on October 14, 2016.

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The Copper Belt railroad operated with Shay locomotives from day-one in February 1901. It couldn't handle the booming traffic as the copper mines expanded, forcing Rio Grande Western to build a replacement line with a much lower grade than Copper Belt's 7 percent. The new Rio Grande line was completed in January 1907, after which the Shays became secondary power serving the smaller mines and their ore bins.

The booming traffic in the canyon, and the Copper Belt's desire to prove it was up to the task, forced the operating department to push the boundaries of its typical down-bound load limit of just three 50-ton steel gondolas. More locomotives were purchased (a total of five by 1906), and crews worked double shifts. Wrecks were regular, and many were fatal for some of the crews.

After each wreck, the locomotive involved was moved to Silver Brothers Iron and Foundry Works in Salt Lake City for repairs. Located at 540 West Seventh South, the Silver Brothers shop was the largest heavy iron and steel repair for the entire region. Although Silver Brothers itself is gone, that original building is still there, with numerous additions that were added over the years. Silver Brothers Iron and Foundry Works was reorganized in November 1915 as the Salt Lake Iron & Steel Co., with members of the Silver family still as officers.

(Read more about Silver Brothers Iron and Foundry)

There are several photos of Copper Belt wrecks, but few show an accurate date, or location. One shows a boiler being winched up the embankment, onto the Copper Belt tracks. Another shows a boiler being hauled by horse teams down canyon. Obviously, two different wrecks. The Wall ore processing mill was at a severe curve, and was demolished twice by a Copper Belt Shay leaving the tracks and plunging to the canyon below (about 100 feet), crashing through the mill building. There were homes and stores all along the bottom of the canyon that also suffered from Copper Belt derailments.

There were six major wrecks and derailments on the Copper Belt line that involved the Shay locomotives:

January 10, 1904 -- The railroad's only locomotive derailed and fell down the embankment into town. "The scene of the wreck was at the rear of the Opera House hall" in Bingham, possibly at the foot of Carr Fork. (SPLA&SL loaned its no. 11 Shay locomotive, which later became UP no. 59.)

February 28, 1904 -- Near the Boston Consolidated loading bins in Carr Fork. New locomotive (which arrived at Bingham on January 17, 1904) was "on its back."

March 6, 1907 -- In Upper Bingham, near the Ohio Copper mine. Shay locomotive derailed and turned over. Two cars derail. Five crew members injured, two fatally.

March 8, 1907 -- Shay locomotive no. 2 derailed and fell down the embankment into Wall's mill (also known as Dewey's mill), about midway between Carr Fork and Markham Gulch. There were no injuries to the crew other than minor bruises. Wall's mill was out of commission until late July 1907. (There is a photo of the locomotive boiler being winched back up the embankment to the Copper Belt track, on the down-canyon side of Wall's mill.)

March 21, 1908 -- Shay locomotive no. 5 derailed and fell into Wall's mill (again). The engineer, fireman, and conductor all perished as a result of the wreck. The mill was out of commission until October 1908. (Salt Lake Herald of March 22 included a photo of the destroyed Wall's mill, showing that the damage to Wall's mill was on the up-canyon side of the mill.)

February 15, 1912 -- Shay locomotive derailed and fell into several buildings along Main Street. Four crew members perished. The cause was found to be greased rails by disgruntled employees. (A review of photos and Sanborn fire insurance maps of 1907 and 1913 suggests that the buildings damaged or destroyed during this derailment were nos. 479, 483 and 485 on Main Street in Bingham.)

Concerning the wreck in February 1912, a photo exists of the Shay locomotive boiler being moved down Bingham's Main Street. The boiler was so heavy that they needed what appears to be 20 horses to get the boiler away from the wreck site and out of town. Photos show damage to one of the brick building. The damage to the front of the brick building was because the Shay hit the upper rear, causing some brick to be knocked loose, and knocked the entire side out of alignment. That whole block of brick buildings were demolished very soon after. There was a wooden building in an open space between the brick buildings, and it was destroyed when the Shay locomotive fell off the hillside. They removed the wooden building to get the locomotive boiler out into the street so it could be removed, using the horses in the photo. The whole thing was a pretty big event in Bingham that year (1912), which is why there are so many photos.

(Read more about the last years of Copper Belt operations)

Other Derailments

In a wreck on February 22, 1907, at a point on the Boston Consolidated's mining railroad at the top of Carr Fork, two ore cars connected to the Boston Consolidated Shay ran away after a coupling chain broke, and collided into a flat car holding a party of visiting dignitaries and journalists. The accident resulted in the deaths of Clinton B. Leigh, reporter for the Salt Lake Herald, and state representative Seth Taft. The Copper Belt railroad was not involved.

In a wreck on December 18, 1907, Shay locomotive no. 2 and three cars ran away on the 7.5 percent grade to the Commercial mine, derailing near the Silver Shield mine. No mention of damage to the locomotive.