Mining Memories | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 29, 2016 News » Cover Story

Mining Memories 

The dwindling few who recall living in Bingham Canyon fight to keep alive memories of a community that was stolen from them.

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In the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley, the New Bingham Highway climbs into the mountains. It runs past the offices of Rio Tinto Kennecott, then through the leafy, quiet rural idyll of Copperton, past barren, overgrown land on the right, before cresting a hill—only to be closed off by several 2-foot-high concrete blocks. On foot, the hill drops down toward the former town of Lead Mine, telephone poles on the left, to reveal a far greater obstacle in the form of a manmade mountain. In the summer, the mountain is green with Kennecott-planted vegetation, but this early spring day it's a dirty gray, reflecting its nature—namely millions of tons of waste rock ripped from the bowels of what Native Americans called the Oquirrhs, the shining mountains.

This man-made mountain is far more than a dumping ground for the byproduct of a 113-year-old open pit mine that is one of the largest in the world. It's an unmarked tombstone, a resting place for the hopes and dreams, the lives and loves of a community once known as Bingham Canyon.

At its peak, Bingham Canyon was home to more than 15,000 miners and their families who had come from all over the world to work the mine. The community's main artery was a 5-mile, 20-foot-wide Main Street that snaked up the canyon. At the Bingham Mercantile store at Carrfork, the street split. To the left was a one-way tunnel that led to the hamlets of Copperfield and Dinkeyville and to the right led to Highland Boy. "That canyon was so narrow, a dog had to wag its tail up and down," old-timers quip. Throughout the canyon were small communities bearing such now-politically incorrect names as Frog Town, Jap Camp and Greek Camp, each reflecting, to some degree, its residents' ethnic make-up.


"Our confinement between these towering mountains seems to produce a closer bond of fellowship among the people," wrote Mayor Ed W. Johnson in the 1939 souvenir program for Galena Days, the first of a series of frequently held celebrations of mining and canyon life that continued until 1957.

With Salt Lake City 30 miles away, Bingham had every amenity you could want, be it neighborhood grocery stores, cafés and bars like Pasttime and Copper King, and even its own movie theater. Local, retired advertising executive Bill Nicholls lived in Frog Town as a child, and remembers paying 45 cents at the Princess Theater to watch Flash Gordon serials, eat popcorn and drink malted milk.

Compared to the long-dominant Utah migration narrative of persecuted white Mormon pioneers pulling handcarts to what would become Salt Lake City, Bingham's all-but-marginalized story was of a wealth of international migrants from the late 1800s onward, who ultimately would be driven out by the very mining companies that paid for them to come here.

For all Bingham's picturesque small-town pleasures, life was hard for both miners and their families. "Women who married three times, still outlived their husbands," Kennecott retiree Eugene Halverson recalls. He estimates between 300 and 400 miners died each year from lung diseases related to inhaling mine dust. Dust wasn't the only killer—accidents, cave-ins, along with avalanches and fires jumping shacks so close you could hear your neighbor snore—made life in Bingham hazardous. But the people who lived in the canyon, and in Lark, a smaller mining community directly to the east of the mine, loved their communities with a fierce pride.

In the largest human displacement by a mining corporation in Utah history, former mine owner Kennecott Copper squeezed out the communities, buying up homes and businesses for cents on the dollar so the mine could expand.

Since the late 1990s, the foundations of Bingham City have been buried beneath a mound of waste rock so high it all but eclipses the snow-capped mountains behind it. Lark, meanwhile, is a wasteland.

Halverson has for years written about his memories of Bingham life on a blog called "Gene's Family Tree." In a post titled, "Bingham, a time to cry," he quotes a deceased former mine worker. "Yes, I envy all of you that can go back to your home town and sharpen memories of day gone by, because I have only my memories to reflect on. The town I spent my youth in is gone. There is no remnant of the town to sharpen my mind—nothing to focus on and bring in to sharper remembrance those long-gone days."

In the last few years, Bingham and Lark's former residents have brought their long-buried yet still mourned homes back to life, freeze-framing and sharing their memories through virtual communities. Bingham native and now St George resident Eldon Bray administers a Facebook page called "Bingham Canyon History." Some of its 1,946 members post photographs of Bingham, its streets, businesses, people and craggy landscape. A community that had vanished from Utah is viscerally evoked in black and white images asthose who lived in Bingham and their relatives post joyful comments, having identified faces and places in the pictures previously consigned only to fading memories. On a Facebook page entitled "Lark, Utah," along with historical images of the town and its people, amateur historian and former Lark resident Steven Richardson has provided a wealth of documents, news clippings and reminiscences about the town's history. As one woman writes on the Lark page, beneath a 1947 school class picture, "I love to see pictures like that. It makes my heart happy."

Mining is a brutal industry that devastates landscapes. The obliterated Oquirrh Mountains speak to that. The company gets its ore, workers get their salaries and one day the community has to pick up the social and environmental pieces left behind.

The corporate-driven demise of these two communities, protracted over years as far as Bingham Canyon was concerned, a few tension-filled months in Lark's case, left only those who had lived there to mourn their passing.

"They took my memories," Halverson says. "They buried Bingham. I used to be able to go to the top of the mine and see where things were." With no trespassing signs keeping people away, "Now, I can't even go up there. Just seems like they took everything away from me."

"You miss out on so much companionship and love and feelings," says Stella Saltas, the 88-year-old mother of City Weekly publisher, John Saltas. She was born in Bingham and had to join the forced exodus from the canyon in the early 1990s. Since then, she has lived in a rambler in West Jordan. The long-gone city, she says, "will always be home. I live here, but it's not home."


Many of Bingham's displaced citizens say they left a part of themselves in the canyon that they never regained. Some, such as authors Eldon Bray and Scott Crump, have self-published books celebrating and preserving their memories of the canyons.

Other former residents meet monthly at cafés and restaurants to share memories and keep alive old friendships forged in Bingham. Then there's the Fourth of July chuck-wagon breakfast at Copperton Park, a tradition started in Bingham Canyon and continued in Copperton by the local Lions Club chapter.

These gatherings underscore the fragility of such communities; each year fewer Bingham Canyon survivors show up for the eggs and pancakes.

London-based mining conglomerate Rio Tinto purchased the mine in 1989. On its website, it employs similar tools, but instead of an adhoc tour of personal histories and recollections, the corporation favors a 360-degree panoramic tour of the mine, which measures three-quarters of a mile deep by two-and-three-quarters miles across. "You can see it from the moon!" the tour guide in the video says.

"Currently, we are planning on operating until at least 2029, and the long-term outlook for copper is strong," spokesman Kyle Bennett writes in a response to emailed questions.

Meanwhile, far from its shadows, in kitchens and basement studies, the children of Bingham Canyon build through photographs and words a virtual re-creation of a beloved world long since lost. Halverson says they have no choice. "If you don't write these stories, and don't pass them on, they will die."

The canyon got its name, according to local historian Marion Dunn's book Bingham Canyon, when Thomas and Sanford Bingham herded their cows there in August 1848. Back then, the canyon was covered with pine trees, many measuring 3-5 feet or more in diameter. Along with scrub oak and wildflowers, the Oquirrh Mountains were sources of timber to first build homes, the Mormon Tabernacle and to shore up the walls of underground mines.

Individual mining claims gave way to acquisitive businesses. By the early 1950s, U.S. Smelting, Refining & Mining Co. owned the underground mines that let out near Lark, and Kennecott Copper owned the above-ground mine directly to the south of Bingham Canyon.

Johnny Susaeta is a spry, twinkling-eyed 93-year-old who still displays the rugged good looks captured in photographs of the heroic local football star 70-plus years ago enshrined in a room dedicated to alumni at Bingham High in South Jordan. The World War II veteran and retired Kennecott worker's parents were Basques who met in San Francisco after emmigrating from Spain. Susaeta grew up in Highland Boy, where he knew Slavs, Italians, Serbs and Croatians. "I spoke most of their languages when I was young," he says.

It was a tough town to grow up in, one where fighting was a way of life. "I got in a fair amount of fisticuffs," Nicholls recalls. "Fighting was your way into making your mark and being accepted."


While Bingham taught its residents that diversity and acceptance went hand-in-hand, when they went to Salt Lake City, they'd often experience rejection. "When I went to the valley with my Mexican friends, they wouldn't let us go dancing unless I ditched them," Halverson says. "Well, hell, who would want to ditch their friends?"

When hostilities broke out in Europe at the beginning of World War II, Bingham ethnicities of every stripe went to war, leaving women to take over mining work. "Everybody in town was signing up," Halverson recalls. Johnny Susaeta signed up with four friends. "We ran around together, so we decided we'd go win the war."

Three made it back uninjured.

Nicholls' father was a blacksmith. At war's end, he bought the Coppergate bar in Bingham. Wide-eyed, 8-year-old Nicholls arrived in Bingham just days before the end of the conflict. Each night, he went to sleep to music from a jukebox in the bar below playing country music. The day the war ended, he marveled at the parties in the street, people hanging out windows banging pots and pans, firecrackers going off as residents sang and danced in the streets.

Meanwhile, next to the mountains, Lark had a store, a gas station and a hotel, a bar and two churches—Catholic and Mormon. The land itself was owned by the U.S. Smelting, Refining & Mining Co.—some residents owned their homes, while many took advantage of cheap rents, the mining company-cum-landlord preferring to subsidize rents to have its employees close by.

Lark sat on a hillside with spectacular views of Salt Lake Valley. "It was right on the corner of the valley," says Lark historian and former Kennecott geologist Richardson. "You could look out and see the Wasatch Mountains." He and his wife would go for walks after dinner on the sand dunes, the smells of the copper minerals in the tailings that formed the dunes rising up to greet them.

What it shared with Bingham was the same miners' work ethic, and for some the same net result, men dying young of silicosis and their widows struggling to support their children.

Unless you owned your home, renting from the company made you vulnerable to eviction, if, as in the case of Crump's grandfather, you fell sick with "miner's lung." He and his family were evicted because he couldn't work anymore. A friend found him rooms elsewhere in Lark, where his wife cared for him until he died. She raised her children on a tiny pension until she found work at the Lark Mercantile and as custodian of the local Mormon ward house.

With the world's insatiable appetite for copper ore, the various canyon communities the mining corporations had relied on for labor found themselves in the way of the mine's expansion.

The process of families being displaced that first began with open-pit mining operations, picked up pace in the 1950s. By 1959, Kennecott Copper began aggressively buying up canyon private properties and homes. At a meeting, Dunn quotes one resident saying, "Why should we sell our homes for a song, move to the valley and go into debt 20 years?"


"It was all ending," Nicholls says. "Almost all of them were gone, there were a few holdouts who didn't want to take their pennies on the dollar offer."

Nicholls' father sold his Coppergate bar in 1961. The work had taken its toll on him, his son says."It just about destroyed him physically. He was an alcoholic, it was hard, hard work. He went through years of real struggle financially to keep things going."

Kennecott offered to pay the appraised property market value. Nicholls' father paid $39,000 in 1945 when he bought the bar. Kennecott offered him the same amount to sell in 1961. While his father wasn't pleased with the offer, "he was just happy to get out and get out with something," Nicholls says. "They really had the city over a barrel."

In a blog post on Gene's Family Tree, Halverson writes of playing as a child in the abandoned city. "The town's water tank was now our swimming pool. Abandoned mines, buildings and equipment made a wonderful playground." That included "a gun turret set on a narrow gauge circular track," that decades prior allowed company strike breakers to "shoot strikers through one of several gun ports."

The city disincorporated in 1971 and the remaining holdouts left. When Crump returned from his LDS Church mission, "all the buildings were gone." As he drove up the canyon, "I'd go by empty foundations. It was just a ghost town."

Compared to the campaign of economic and social attrition Kennecott waged successfully against Bingham Canyon, the mine's owners faced a public-relations nightmare when it sought to raze the much smaller town of Lark.

On Dec. 14, 1977, a Kennecott official summoned Lark's 591 residents to a meeting at the LDS ward house. It had just agreed with UV Industries, which had previously bought out the U.S. Smelting, Mining & Refinery Co., to pay $2 million for 640 acres, which included Lark. The people of Lark had to vacate their homes by Aug. 31, 1978. Those who owned homes had to move them; those that rented faced eviction. Kennecott would neither buy the homes nor pay moving expenses, the official said. The company, he added, "is not in the housing business."

The acquisition, Rio Tinto's Bennett says, was for several reasons, including "owning buffer property adjacent to (the mine) and as a site for infrastructure that captures and moves storm water."

Hilda Grabner was a descendent of Cornish miners, who were among the first immigrants to start mining the canyon. The retired teacher had lived in Lark on her own since her husband died in 1939, cultivating an immaculate English garden.

Then 81-year-old Grabner was one of six Lark residents who, strangers all to air travel, nevertheless flew to New York to attend a stockholders' meeting of the financially struggling Kennecott. Grabner and another resident were given five minutes. One irate shareholder shrilly interrupted them multiple times with the question, "Are they stockholders?" Grabner silenced her by replying, "We're stockholders in human lives."

Faced by a swarm of reporters reveling in the David-and-Goliath fight, Kennecott extended an olive branch. In early May 1978, it offered 120 percent of the appraised value of the homes, $1,000 toward the cost of relocating, and moving owned homes to Copperton free of charge.

Most of Lark's residents voted to take the deal. Perhaps the final insult to Lark's memory was that the nine white-board houses that were moved free of charge by Kennecott to Copperton, were then clad in red brick as part of Copperton Circle.

Richardson expresses frustration that he can no longer visit the land where his former home stood and where he and his wife raised four children. The last time they could walk there, they found pieces of a jigsaw puzzle his wife had made in the dirt. There was the tree where his kids had played on a swing.

"You can't leave the highway," he says, as any straying on to where Lark stood is barred by no-trespassing signs. "There's no sign there was ever a town there."

Rio Tinto began dumping waste over the former city and Main Street in 1997. Retired Kennecott employee Gary Curtis recalls driving one of the first haul trucks to start the down-canyon dumping on his mother's birthday. "I don't know I really realized the ramifications of it," he says now. "You can't take away people's memories, but you dump that rock in there, you've buried history, I guess."

By then, the last holdouts in Lead Mine, which stood at the bottom of the canyon, had gone. Stella Saltas lived there in her final Bingham years, the location of her home and her father's precious garden still partially visible from the road through a chain-link fence. "Little by little, they did it, till you're about the only one left," she recalls.


"I wanted to stay there, that was home, I loved it," she says. Her feelings for Bingham, wrapped up in memories of daily coffee with her own mother on the latter's porch as hawks and eagles wheeled in the sky, are "something you can't explain."

An important remnant of Bingham's existence was Bingham High on the northern edge of Copperton. While the elegant, art-deco designed school, by then a junior high, had been closed in 1996 by Jordan School District, it remained an emotional touchstone for generations of Bingham and Lark graduates who saw it as all that was left to testify to their past.

"Bingham people came from all over the world, really, to be miners," Crump says. "They came from so many places speaking different languages and the school was the gathering place, where they would all come together, to first get ahead in America by getting an education. This was their gateway to a better life, to learn English."

Rio Tinto ordered it razed in 2002. Bennett says the building post-closure by the school district, "fell into disrepair due to vandalism and became a safety hazard," so they had it torn down.

Fourteen years on, feelings still run high. "It's just a sin it was leveled," says Nicholls.

While other residents grabbed small mementos from the site, Johnny Susaeta and his three sons carried away a 2-by-4-foot, 200-pound capstone from one of the Art Deco school's towers. "Everybody else took bricks," Susaeta says, standing by the capstone, which they dug a hole for in his driveway. "We took that."

Now it's simply a weed patch. The only sign there was ever a school there is some steps rising to where the ballpark once stood that rang to the cheers of Bingham fans.

The Bingham Canyon History Facebook page's membership, Eldon Bray says, is largely made up of, "the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who grew up in Bingham or worked the mine. The town and the mine were all locked together in so many ways."

Sit with retired mine worker Gary Curtis as he reviews old mining photos online and the pleasure they provide are clear. He points to a picture of Marvin "Rosie" Ray, father of Russell Ray, Copperton's former postmaster, and recalls the time Rosie "chewed my butt," after he was caught up in a fight. "There's Dr. Richards," he says, pointing to a 1930s photo of a barbecue. "He birthed me."

Thanks to Lark historian Richardson's diligent efforts, including interviewing former residents and posting their stories on Facebook, the Lark Facebook page paints a picture of both the community and its demise.

While Richardson had long been interested in history, his passion to explore Lark's past was fueled by Utah state archeologist Chris Merritt. In 2014, Merritt presented at a history conference a computer-software-generated 3-D flyover of Lark, circa 1978, using a town survey completed by Kennecott to calculate how much to pay residents for their homes, and black-and-white photographs of all the properties. The drone-like view begins from the Mascotte tunnel entrance, sweeping out over the streets and principal buildings that once made up the town. After the presentation, an emotional Richardson told Merritt, "I lived in Lark, I lived in that house," Merritt recalls, Richardson having recognized his former home among the pictures Merritt had used to bring Lark back to life.

Merritt coordinates the antiquities section for the Utah Division of State History and as a deputy state historical preservation officer, reviews "state and federal undertakings for their effects on archeological resources." He first heard of Lark after a state agency sent him a water-mitigation project Rio Tinto Kennecott was proposing on the old Lark site. Merritt learned that while most of the buildings were long gone, "the street system was still intact" in the surface dirt, and there were several 1950s brick structures, along with the old water tower.

Through a report on the site compiled by the state, Merritt learned that in contrast to the LDS ward house-centric neighboring city of West Jordan, Lark, with its majority Hispanic population, had a Catholic church at its center, with the union hall next door. The LDS ward house was "off on the bench land further away." he says. "This is a classic mining town."

Since the site is not publicly accessible, working on documents he found in the state archives such as the town survey, "led us to a digital preservation of the community. That underscored you don't need to have that physical place to retain a community. You can still have it through this digital expression."

Merritt plans to invite Lark old-timers to the Sept. 30 Utah State History Conference in West Valley to record their recollections of "what they remember about Lark, what sticks out about it."

The sleepy town of Copperton all but stands guard on Bingham's mountain-tombstone, dump trucks visible on the waste-rock pile's upper echelons in the distance above houses on the west side of Copperton park.

Once it had a café, a gas station, a grocery store, an elementary and a high school, but "that's all gone now," says Copperton resident Ron Patrick. "Basically it's like we've moved away from some of the conveniences of the world."

Walk the quiet, drowsy streets and you encounter few cars or people. Copperton has three churches, a Mormon ward house, a Catholic and a Methodist church. Crump says being LDS and a Republican, "I'm in a minority. Republicans met in a telephone booth, while Democrats were a force to be reckoned with. They met in the Lions Club."

Walk with Patrick the block from his house to his father's, and he talks about people he knows and the houses they live in. He doesn't know the number of their house, just where it is.

"People change," Patrick says. "The town don't."

While residents talk about the possibility of Rio Tinto one day buying out Copperton and leveling that, too, Bennett writes that, "The company has no plans to buy land within Copperton in the future, and it is unlikely that land in Copperton would be needed to accommodate growth."


That isn't true for Lark, though. Tearing out the guts of a mountain, in order to process the less-than-1-percent of copper ore it contains, generates 50 million tons of waste rock every year. Rio Tinto is placing some of that waste rock close to where Lark stood, 40 years after it tore the town down.

The only threat, resident and Copperton council member Kathleen Bailey sees, is encroachment from the valley itself. "Every year, they build further up Bingham Highway. I think one day they will be at our door."

Every Fourth of July morning, Copperton Park rings to the preparation of a chuck-wagon breakfast and the shouted encouragement of the young and the old as they take part in three-legged races and other short sprints. "A lot of people from Bingham come back for that day," Patrick says. "They'll sit here all day in the park and just visit."

Where once the breakfast used to be for 2,000 people, Patrick's father Bud says, "now you do good if you have 500 or 600. You don't get many people who lived in the canyon and remember it."

This year's celebration will also see the unveiling of a memorial to the demolished Bingham High by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

Ask Rio Tinto what should be done to memorialize Bingham Canyon, given the role it played in the mine's development—including so many deaths from miner's lung—and Bennett responds by highlighting his company's focus on achieving a "zero-harm workplace." He writes, "We recognize the ultimate sacrifice many miners made before modern health and safety standards were in place."

Bill Nicholls and Maynard John Berg, both graduates of Bingham High, are the driving force behind a permanent memorial for the school, if not the city. They had searched fruitlessly for one of the capstones that crowned the school's towers to use for the memorial. In mid May, having given up the hunt, a Copperton council member told them about Susaeta's capstone in his driveway.

In the late afternoon May sun, Nicholls and Berg, Susaeta, a volunteer and a City Weekly reporter gathered around the capstone.

"This is the key to our monument," Nicholls says. "We thought none of these existed. When I saw it, I just about fainted."

Berg squatted down by the capstone and dug a little of the dark, loamy soil that had been its home for so long. "I call it providence," he says.

The four men removed the capstone and took it to a shed at Copperton Park, to join several hundred bricks and smaller pieces of the old school's masonry that had been rescued by onlookers.

Shortly after the men drove away, one of Susaeta's relatives realized that they had not filled in the hole that removing the stone had created. In the late afternoon sunlight, the black soil leant it the quality of a grave. The man picked up a shovel and dragged the edge of the blade over the surrounding concrete, filling in the sides of the hole with dirt, before finding some blocks to fill in the rest of the yawning space.

The metal scraping against stone echoed around the silent neighborhood, providing a soundtrack of sorts to the dumper trucks lined up on the upper ridges of the waste-rock mountain that looms above the town. CW

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