By Lynn Arave
One of the hardest things in the world to move could well be mountains.
They are considered fixed and immovable -- the ultimate in steadfastness.
However, a real Utah mountain -- one from the Oquirrh Mountains -- is completely gone and a gapping hole remains.
The Kennecott open pit copper mine is Utah's most impressive man-made feature. It's only one of two unnatural things on the planet than can be spotted by orbiting astronauts (The Great Wall of China is the other). At 2.5 miles across and almost a mile deep, you could stack two Sears Towers on top of each other and still not reach the top of the mine.
However, most people probably don't realize that there's a "missing mountain" at Bingham Canyon — not the mountain of earth removed from below ground but a large mound that once soared skyward.
"It was a mountain," said Philip F. Notarianni, director for the Utah State Historical Society and lifelong resident of Magna.
Indeed, two large paintings in the Utah Governor's Board Room at the Capitol depicts clearly how the earliest Bingham Canyon mining, located about 17 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City, looked. In the early 1900s, the reverse of what we see now was true — a road spiraled upward as the process slowly mined the mountain away before the "pit" came to be.
According to Lila Abersold, visual arts coordinator for the Utah Travel Council, "Harry" H.L.J. Culmer made these two paintings of Bingham Canyon, probably some time between 1910-20, though no exact date has even been recorded.
They were among the earliest of paintings in the Utah State Capitol and capture Culmer's fascination with the mining industry.
"They are important paintings," Abersold said. "They offer a very early view of Bingham Canyon."
With more than 16 million tons of copper mined there — more than any other mine in history — a mountain is long gone and a gigantic hole is now there that could be up to 500 feet deeper in the future.
(How deep is this deep? During an insider media tour of Kennecott's Mine in the early 21st Century, I was offered a chance to take a ride to the bottom of the mine. I recall asking how long that would take. The answer was a couple of hours! I didn't take the time to go ... wish I would have.)
Also, even holes can change. A massive slide inside the Kennecott Mine in early 2013 changed the face of the mine from the accompanying photos. (The visitor center is having to be relocated and could reopen in the spring of 2014.)
In Bingham Canyon's early days (1863-1900), all mining was done underground as tunnels were dug into the mountain. Miners were also then looking for gold, silver or lead, because the 40 pounds of copper per ton of ore wasn't a profitable process then.
By the late 1890s, all the easy mining had been done, and new considerations for the area were made.
Engineers Daniel Jackling and Robert Gemmell surveyed Bingham Canyon and proposed that copper ore could profitably be mined from the surface, using railroad cars and steam shovels. Their first report showed that the cost of producing one pound of refined copper would be six cents. With the selling price of copper at 14 to 18 cents a pound, their report looked impressive on paper.
There were skeptics, but by August 1906, steam shovels mounted on railroad tracks began digging into the mountain.
Less than three years later, the Utah Copper Company had 11 steam shovels, 21 locomotives, 145 dump cars and 16 miles of railroad tracks on the mountain. After buying out the Boston Consolidated Mining Company, which owned a portion of the mountain, mining really took off.
The "hill," as it was called, got smaller and smaller, and in 1912, there were 5,000 mine workers.
A major improvement came in the 1920s, when electricity replaced steam to power the shovels and locomotives. Shovels were also mounted on caterpillar tractors, giving workers more freedom to move about.
In fact, the Deseret News in December of 1922 reported that "a mountain once more begins to move" as mining activity increased dramatically at Bingham Canyon. "A whole mountain of copper is actually being moved away," the News reported.
It was in the 1930s that the "hill" was gone and mining work started to dig a pit. In 1936, Kennecott Copper Corporation bought out the Utah Copper Company.
Go online to the Utah Historical Society's old photo collection site,history.utah.gov/Photos/C275/index/form.htm and search for Bingham Canyon to see many early 1900 black-and-white photographs of the former mountain and Bingham Canyon.
(-Adapted from a Dec. 31, 2003 story by Lynn Arave in the Deseret News.)
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org