As you drive upward on the Old Bingham Highway toward Bingham Canyon and the Bingham Copper Mine (locally known as the Kennecott Copper Mine), the first thing you see are the gigantic mine tailings. The Bingham Copper Mine is the largest open pit mine in the world. It is visible from nearly everywhere in Salt Lake County.
The enormity of this mine is beyond description; the tailings are as high as the nearby peaks. It is located in the Oquirrh Mountains on the west side of Salt Lake County about 17 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
As you approach the canyon it appears that you will find nothing there but the mine. But as you begin to enter the canyon from the highway, you come over a rise and are greeted with an incredible surprise – a beautiful little town completely out of time, Copperton.
Copperton was started as a company town by the Utah Copper Company, the first commercial mining organization to own what is now the Kennecott Copper Mine. The town was established in 1926 to house the employees of the Bingham Canyon Mine. The Utah Copper Company owned all of the houses, and had them built for their employees. The Copperton City Park goes back to 1922 as you can see on this sign at the park entrance.
The Utah Copper Company had most of the homes built in the town, and the building was pretty much completed by 1930. In 1955 the company quit furnishing the housing for its employees. Today the homes are all privately owned. Most of the town is located in the Copperton Historic District, which is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. According to Wikipedia, as of 2017 Copperton counted about 579 residents. According to the 2010 US Census, Copperton had a population of 826.
Every summer in July, the Copperton Park hosts a large car show to benefit handicapped children. I have shown my cars in this show twice and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I had never really taken time to explore the town until now.
But you can’t really understand the town without understanding the mine and its history. Mining began in Bingham Canyon shortly after the Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley. Copper ore was first extracted from Bingham Canyon in 1863 by George B Ogilvie and 23 others who filed a claim known as the West Jordan Claim. By 1873 a railroad had been built up the canyon to serve the mining operations. The first minerals mined were placer gold, lead-silver and copper-gold. Porphyry copper was first discovered in test pits and tunnels dug by Enos Andrew Wall in 1887. In 1896, the first open pit operations bgan and those expanded rapidly after the turn of the century.
In 1903, the Utah Copper Company was formed which is the company that started Copperton town. Over the years the Utah Copper Company has been taken over and swallowed up by numerous large multinational corporations. Today the mine is owned and operated by the Kennecott division of Rio Tinto Group, a British and Australian international mining corporation.
Remember that these photographs are only showing the exterior excavations and fill from the actual mine pit. The mine per se is almost 1000 meters deep (0.6 miles) and over 4 kilometers wide. The porphyry copper deposit is thought to have originated from an ancient magma chamber. This is yet another stark reminder of the still active geology of the greater Salt Lake valley and of the basin and range region of the Intermountain west. The giant super-volcano known as Yellowstone Park is less than 300 miles (482 kilometers) from here as the crow flies. In March this year, there was a 5.2 magnitude earthquake in Magna, a small township a few miles north of Copperton on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The quake has now produced hundreds of aftershocks, some as strong a 4.0.
Anway, back to Copperton. I just think the town’s architecture is fascinating. The craftsmanship is unimaginable for a “company town” built on the premise of affordable housing. Once in the town proper, the entire metro Salt Lake City area (home of over 1 million people) is not visible whatsoever. There are a couple of vantage points on the southwest part of the town where you can see eastward across the valley and view the Wasatch Mountains and those peaks to the southeast.
The town just has this isolated persona and even though the Salt Lake metro cities of South Jordan, Riverton and Herriman are just a few miles away, you feel as if you have stepped back in time to a quieter, more relaxed era. The town’s residents seem happy and are definitely more friendly that their big city counterparts 5 miles down the hill.
Here are more examples of that early 20th century architecture and what their 21st century occupants have done with these beautiful little homes. If you are ever in the greater Salt Lake area, it might be worth a couple of hours to go and visit this little slice of 20th century Americana before it disappears forever.
The Copperton residents have worked hard to keep the town’s character intact over the years. This is getting harder every year, and now there is a massive new Amazon warehouse just down the road from Copperton, not even two miles. Surely that new presence will put pressure on this tiny community to open its doors to new housing. Let’s hope not; let’s hope that this little hamlet can be preserved for the gem that it is.
Hopefully my little tour of Copperton and the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine have helped dispel a little of that cabin fever that we have all been experiencing.
Here are a couple more shots of the park and another house to complete the flavor of this 20th century hamlet. Copperton is a place to be treasured and preserved as is. Company towns are a rare thing in the United States, and company towns that have kept their original character and charm are even more rare.
Well, thanks so much for stopping my my blog. I hope you have enjoyed the tour, and I hope this will inspire you to go and explore where you can. Treasure your local culture.
Best wishes, and drop me a note about some local interests in your area.