Monday, October 10, 2016

Trekking Around Kennecott's Abandoned Railroads

October 3, 2016; the crown jewel of "The Desert Empire"? The history of railroading to extract copper in the American West is rich and detailed. In fact the documentary The Desert Empire for which this blog is named, spent a large segment about copper mining in Bingham Canyon. Although the Rio Tinto/Kennecott Copper Mine no longer is crisscrossed by tracks, its history with railroads is still around, hidden in plain sight.

"Mining in the American West." That short phrase instantly calls forth pop culture ideas deeply rooted in the minds of many American's. The ruthless barons, the prospectors who traveled great distances to find gold and silver deposits. The men who became rich, and those who lost everything. Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy robbing trains loaded with gold, while being hunted down by county sheriffs and federal marshals. It seems the thought makes us want to yell "There be gold in those hills!" and try our hands at panning for gold. Even our favorite theme parks take us on the "The Wildest Ride in the Wilderness!" with roller coasters based on failing gold mines. Considering it has been over a century since that era, it is still deeply rooted in the collective psyche of the American experience.

October 3, 2016; abandoned railroads aren't the only artifact in Copperton. The Bingham City cemetery is located near the abandoned tracks. Many of the graves were relocated from cemeteries which were in locations that were swallowed up as part of the ever expanding mine operations. The town of Bingham no longer exists itself, having been destroyed by the ever growing copper mine.

With all of our pop culture conscious of western mining, we also have an attached image of ruin and failure. The mines that died up, the towns that vanished, the people that moved on, and the history lost as nature reclaimed the area for itself. (Perhaps the more cynical mind might recall the image of EPA Superfund programs to clean up polluted sites that have resulted because of those abandoned mines.) Some of these abandoned or less active mining areas have put themselves on the map as tourist attractions, such as Virginia City, Butte, Ely, and Utah's own Park City. 

Of course there is one mining discovery from the old west that has not died, and is still at work many years later; the famed Bingham Canyon copper claims. The Oquirrh Mountains were once full of other mines which have since dried up and vanished, such as the mining districts in Ophir and Mercur; but Bingham continues to work, despite the changes in ownership, stricter environmental laws, and even the oddball natural disasters. The Bingham Mining District has produced Gold, Silver, Copper, and Molybdenum through out its long history. 

October 3, 2016; the abandoned Copperton Yard was part of Kennecott's busy electric freight railroad; which was later converted to a diesel operation. The majority of the railroad was shut down at the turn of the 21st century, leaving behind only the switching tracks still in use at the Garfield Smelter.

May 31, 2016; for a time the electric railroad operations in Bingham Canyon and its environment were ruled by these tall 125 Ton electric units which were nicknamed "Magna Motors." KCC 402 is pictured here, preserved near Grantsville, Utah. To my knowledge this is the only "Magna Motor" that is still in Utah, the other members of the class have been preserved elsewhere or scrapped.

Of course one rapidly vanishing aspect of Bingham Mining history is its railroads. A system of conveyors and slurry pipes have replaced the need for a railroad in the area; what once required many ore trains is now done with building-sized dump trucks and pipes which send copper ore on a journey from the Copperton Concentrator to the Garfield Smelter. Kennecott's Utah operations were one of the last mining railroads in the inter-mountain west. Now the railroad's tracks sit abandoned, their right of way mostly intact; but without having hosted any rail movement in over a decade. In a way the history of the Kennecott railroad mirrors the fates of other mining and smelting railroads such as the Virginia & Truckee, the Tooele Valley Railway, the Nevada Northern, the St. John and Ophir, and the Butte Anaconda & Pacific. As technology has changed, so has the need or use of these railroads.

 October 3, 2016; the Denver and Rio Grande's Bingham Branch has been cut from reaching the mine it once served. A few parts of the line (and its sister routes in the area) do remain in use as part of UTA's Red Line for TRAX light rail trains. At night Savage and Utah Railway switch a few of the rail served industries along  the UTA route, and also operate a branchline which still connects to the Garfield Smelter.

October 3, 2016; these abandoned foundations of a roundhouse were once part of DRGW's Welby Yard in South Jordan. This roundhouse appeared to have five stalls, and would have serviced engines that worked the branchlines to Bingham and Garfield. Part of Welby Yard remains in use by Savage and the Utah Railway as evidenced by the tank cars in the background.

Fortunately, parts of the history of the Bingham Canyon railroads are still with us. Kennecott has promoted its history rather extensively in the Intermountain West, with displays in several locations near their operations. The Utah State Railroad Musuem has part of a former Kennecott caboose preserved as an interior exhibit highlighting the history of cabooses. A few Kennecott pieces of rolling stock are preserved near Grantsville, Utah. Even the Nevada Northern Railway Musuem was created when Kennecott donated the operation to the citizens of Ely, Nevada. It seems Kennecott was well aware that preservation of its history makes for a great publicity tool!

 March 10, 2016; although the majority of the history of the Nevada Northern was as a separate entity from the history of Kennecott's, it was Kennecott who owned the operation in its final years and ultimately donated it for the purpose of historical preservation.

However, the most interesting remnant of Kennecott's Utah railroading operations is the Garfield Smelter. Unlike the pit railroads, or the ore line between Copperton and Garfield; the track within the Smelter remains constantly busy even in the present day. Rio Tinto (Kennecott's modern day owner) has continued to grow the operations at Garfield. Some of the locomotives that once worked within the mine, and hauled ore trains out of Copperton; have found new life as the switchers which keep the busy smelter supplied and operating. The tracks within the smelter are vital to the process of refining copper ores. After the ore is smelted and cast into anodes, the anodes are loaded into open flatcars. A cut of locomotives will haul these heavy flatcars the short distance to the refinery building, where electric baths will extract any trace mineral within the anodes, and purify the product into 99.9% pure copper. Passerby's on I-80 and Highway 201 might catch a glimpse of this process as the flatcars are moved from building to building.  From the refinery, the finished anodes are loaded into unassuming boxcars which are then shoved down to the interchange track with the Union Pacific. The plant also generates sulfuric acid, which is loaded into tank cars and switched to form a unit train block which is sent out via the Union Pacific. Individual car loads of sulfuric acid can be taken by Savage and Utah Railway to be delivered to BNSF's yard operations in Provo. A large portion of the yard tracks at the Garfield Smelter are full of cuts of these sulfuric acid cars, waiting to be loaded and shipped out. (A virtual tour of current Rio Tinto/Kennecott operations; including the anode flat cars, can be found at this website.)

October 18, 2015; the last class of locomotives to rule Kennecott's ore trains between Copperton and Garfield were these GP39-2 units. Originally these units were used on tracks within the mine itself, the high cabs allowing crews to have high visibility while traveling the track within the pit. The large numbers painted on the sides allowed crews working in the pit the ability to easily identify the locomotives. A handful of these unique engines are still in service at Rio Tinto/Kennecott's massive Garfield Smelter. Here they are seen hauling tank cars of sulfuric acid from the interchange track and into the the smelter complex. 

Perhaps in an ultimate twist of irony, ore trains have indeed began to return to Garfield in the 21st century. But they are no longer hauled by Kennecott itself from their own mine, instead they originate in copper mines across the county; hauled by Union Pacific to be delivered to Garfield. At times the locomotives to transfer those ore trains from Union Pacific tracks and into the smelter, are the veteran GP39-2's which were built to haul ore trains for the bygone Kennecott railroads. Sometimes the past finds a way to repeat itself in the present day.

July 2, 2016; the OGLGD an ore train bound for the Garfield Smelter, travels through Erda, Utah, on Union Pacific's Lynndyl Subdivision. These modern trains could perhaps be seen as the reincarnation of the ore trains which once fueled the Garfield Smelter many years ago.

September 8, 2015; one of Kennecott's largest outbound shipments is Sulfuric Acid, which often travels in a unit train from Garfield to a fertilizer processor in Idaho. That train is seen here at Cache Junction on the Ogden Subdivision, as it makes its journey north.

Septemeber 11, 2016; not all of Kennecott's outbound shipments are part of unit trains. Here on a BNSF Provo-Lincoln manifest on the former Rio Grande north of Thistle, is a Kennecott marked Sulfuric Acid tank car being shipped to points out east.

Even though the sprawling operations of Kennecott's ore hauling railroad have come to an end, the rail traffic in and out of the Garfield Smelter attests to the successful history of mining in Bingham Canyon, and the continued use of railroads to transport the mine's finished goods.

Hasta la proxima vez,
-Jacob Lyman

For more information on Rio Tinto/Kennecott's history I would recommend visiting Don Strack's To Move A Mountain page on his Utah Rails website.

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