Open-pit mining became practical with the invention of steam-powered shovels and railroads, which soon replaced picks and wheel barrels at Bingham Canyon Mine. Financing for the project came from the era's industry titans, including Meyer Guggenheim and John D. Rockefeller.
The day of my trip, the visitor center security guard -- Rosella Rauer, an 87-year-old grandmother who is also a history guide -- shared some of her recollections of the once-vibrant communities scattered across these hillsides.
In 1941, Rauer and her husband, a geologist, moved from Iowa to the company town of Bingham Canyon. She lovingly described the steep, narrow, one-lane community as "20,000 people and 40 nationalities -- we had everything."
At one exhibit booth, Rauer pointed out a photograph of her old home on Main Street across from the Gemmell Club. There, she attended dances, concerts and sporting events.
But the town had its seedier side. Like other Western mining communities, it was known for its bars, gambling joints and brothels. I couldn't help smirking when I discovered these dens of iniquity were frequented by allegedly upstanding Mormons from nearby Salt Lake City, according to Bingham Canyon's long-time mayor.
However, the residents of Bingham Canyon didn't own the land beneath their homes. Kennecott did, and decided to extract the minerals in the early 1970's; the town has since disappeared.
Decades before the visitor center and gift shop opened in 1992, the mine was a popular local attraction. Mary Poulson, 89, of Salt Lake City, last saw the pit when visiting friends living in the defunct town. She returned recently with her son, Steve Poulson, 63, also from Salt Lake City, and two of her great-grandchildren from Kentucky.
"I figured it's about time I came to look it over," Poulson explained.
What Lies Beneath
Steve Poulson, a retired stockbroker, praised Kennecott for cleaning up its operations. For decades, the concentrating, smelting and refining processes emitted a nonstop cloud that blew southward along the mountain range, and "it was really ugly," he said.
Unlike Salt Lake Valley, I couldn't see any smog hovering above Bingham Canyon.
The plume Poulson used to see along the mountain ridge was mainly sulfur dioxide, the primary byproduct of the copper-smelting process.
Kennecott says its new smelting plant, opened in 1995 (reportedly at a cost of $880 million), is the cleanest smelter in the world, capturing 99.9% of the emitted sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas, which is then used to generate power for plant operations or converted to sulfuric acid for agricultural uses.
Further, in the pit itself, trucks spray a million gallons of water a day on mining sites and dirt roads to reduce dust; company vehicles run on biodiesel fuels; and Kennecott's electricity plant operates with low-sulfur coal and natural gas.
But despite Kennecott's efforts, a century of smelting and refining copper ore has left an ugly legacy. Areas around the Bingham Canyon Mine are on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of the nation's most polluted sites, as they contain dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic and selenium.
In recent years, however, Kennecott has attempted to "reclaim" thousands of acres by replacing polluted soils with clean topsoil and sowing thousands of native plants, such as sage, scrub oak, aspens and wildflowers. The southern waste area has become home to wild turkeys, owls, coyotes and other wildlife. North of the Bingham Canyon Mine, Kennecott has expanded an area to safely store polluted rock.
Back at the visitor center in the pit, as the methodical mining continued, I pondered the value of this rock and its role in the global economy.
Besides copper, Bingham Canyon Mine ore has produced a staggering treasure trove of other rare minerals, including more than 1.4 million pounds of gold, 12 million pounds of silver and 850 million pounds of molybdenum, a metal used for hardening steel or in special alloys.
Then I met the most animated visitor at Bingham Canyon Mine, 68-year-old Wolfgang Muller of Coswig, a small town near Dresden, Germany.
As a retired printing-machine technician, he enjoys "all things technical," he said. He and his wife, Ursula, learned about Bingham Canyon Mine in a chance encounter with a German tourist at a Utah state park.
Pointing across the pit's expanse, he said he was glad they visited, because "it's absolutely crazy."
Muller stole my words.
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