The Mountains Held a Treasure Trove of Minerals

History Blazer, December 1995

Gold seekers like the Donner Party passed right by the Oquirrh Mountains on their way to California. Ironically, they overlooked one of the richest mountain ranges in the world.

The Oquirrhs extend approximately thirty miles. The northern portion of the range reaches into the Great Salt Lake. The southern part ends in small hills northwest of Utah Lake.

Their location makes them one of the first of the Great Basin ranges to reflect the sunrise. Noting this beauty, the Paiute Indians named the range the Oquirrhs (pronounced O-kers), meaning the “Shining Mountains.”

The 10,000-foot-high mountain peaks geologically speak of a violent beginning. The interaction of temperature and chemistry during the Mesozoic Era produced fifteen square miles of mineralization, making it a deposit of extraordinary worth. Millions of years passed, and weathering began to expose some of the ores. But when the pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they only saw the range’s dark green forest and ruddy soil.

In August 1848 brothers Sanford and Thomas Bingham herded cattle and horses onto the high land around the mouth of the main canyon of the Oquirrhs. They tended stock there for two years, and they noticed the rich minerals in the mountains and reported their find to Brigham Young. The president of the Mormon church was not interested in mining. So the Bingham brothers returned to ranching in the mountains. Later they moved to Ogden. The legacy they left behind was their name, Bingham, on the canyon.

President Young was not opposed, however, to harvesting stands of timber on the Oquirrh mountainsides. Archibald Gardner built a saw mill in the south end of Salt Lake Valley in 1853. The trees were cut and hauled from Bingham Canyon and milled on this site. It is claimed that some of the timber was used to build the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

In the 1860s the Civil War and national policy brought a contingent of military forces headed by Col. Patrick E. Connor into the Salt Lake Valley. He and his men constructed Camp Douglas upon benchlands between Emigration and Red Butte canyons. Later, with time on their hands, Colonel Connor encouraged his soldiers, many of them miners, to prospect the country. The wealth of the Oquirrhs was soon discovered.

It took the linking of the Union and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory in 1869 to make mining profitable. At last the ores could be cheaply transported to refineries on either coast. And it took the imagination of Enos A. Wall to see the value in copper.

Colonel Wall was a visionary who thought fortunes could be made mining the metal. He discovered and claimed many locations around the Oquirrhs. He tried to disguise his copper mining by furnishing waste material from his dumps for road construction. To mine on a profitable scale Wall needed capital investment. As he struggled to raise money the project languished.

The gifted metallurgist Daniel Cowan Jackling felt that Wall’s porphyry copper deposit at Bingham had great potential. He obtained necessary financial backing and then came up with the idea of using steam shovels to mine the ore so the ground could be worked in a series of terraces. In 1909, as the area of the excavation increased, the open-pit system of mining became the established method for the Utah Copper Company.

Now, after nine decades of producing copper, the giant mine of Kennecott Copper is more than 2.5 miles across and 0.5 mile deep. This huge bite out of the Oquirrhs is visible from eastern areas of the Salt Lake and Utah valleys. Reportedly, the astronauts even observed it from space. The Bingham copper pit is the largest man-made excavation on earth.

Today the denuded, scarred Oquirrhs “shine” best at night. They are trimmed with electrical lights. Pulsing beacons guide airplanes over the tops of the peaks. Homes sparkle from an inky distance around the foothills. And up the sides of the mountain range Kennecott’s works look like glittering Tinker-Toys.

Sources: Lynn R. Bailey, Old Reliable: A History of Bingham Canyon, Utah (Tucson: Westernlore Press, c. 1988); The Valley of the Great Salt Lake, reprinted from Utah Historical Quarterly 27 (July 1959), 3d ed., 1967; Jack Goodman, “A View of the Mountains of the Valley,” Utah Historical Quarterly 31 (Summer 1963, centennial mining issue).