The Kennecott Copper Mine (initially known as the Bingham Canyon Mine) is an open pit copper mine located in the Oquirrh Mountains near the Salt Lake City in Utah. It is currently the world’s largest man-made excavation. The mine is operated by the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation a subsidiary of the UK-based Rio Tinto Group.
Copper was first discovered in the Bingham Canyon by brothers Thomas and Sanford Bingham. But because they were faithful Mormon followers they followed advice from their leader Brigham Young who directed that they should not pursue the mining.
As a result, they did not stake a claim. The brothers and their family left the canyon in 1850. The first claim on the canyon was the West Jordan claim staked in 1863, followed by the Vidette claim. Initially it was gold and silver where the main minerals mined in the area, until 1873 when a railroad was built that copper and other minerals were considered for mining.
Copper Mining Begins at Kennecott
The Kennecott Copper Mine was established in 1896 when Thomas Weir and Samuel Newhouse bought the gold and copper rich Highland Boy Gold Mines with investment from some Englishmen and Utah Consolidated Gold Mines Ltd. For the development of the copper minerals, the duo also formed the Boston Consolidated Gold and Copper Co. Ltd. In 1903 Enos A. Wall and Daniel C. Jackling established the Utah Copper Company to mine copper in the area. The company constructed a mill at the Copperton and begun mining operations in 1906.
Due to the presence of a large but low-grade copper ore at the Bingham Canyon, the two companies decided to use an open pit mining technique. By 1907 the operations of both the Boston Consolidated and the Utah Copper were approaching each other and instead of fighting over the minerals the two firms decided to merge.
As a result of the merger, the two firms increased their operations resulting in a busy industrial complex of an exemplary railroad pit operations. By 1912 the copper mining in the canyon had grown to become the world’s largest industrial mining complex.
In 1915 the Alaska-based Kennecott Copper Corporation bought a 25% stake in the Utah Copper and then increased their stake to 75% in 1923. This led to the adoption of the name Kennicott Copper Mine.
The Kennecott Mine Continues to Expand
The mine continued to expand rapidly and by mid-1920s it employed over 15,000 people. The mine continued to expand swallowing up many communities.
With the advancement in mining technology of the 1930s many of the employees were laid off and by 1980 only Copperton with a population of about 800 people remained. Mining was halted in 1985 due to the unbearable cost of mining. However, the Kennecott Company discovered gold in the adjacent Barney’s Canyon which led to increased activity.
Closure of the Kennecott Mine
The Kennecott copper mine was sold to BP minerals in 1987 and the firm reopened in the mine that same year. But due to a number of difficulties BP minerals sold the mine to Rio Tinto Group in 1989. The Rio Tinto Group modernized the mine, the mill, and the smelter bringing down the cost of operation considerably and returning the firm to profitability.
Production was suspended in 2013 due to two major landslides at the mine occasioned the steep walls of the mine.
The Future of this Huge Utah Mine
As the world’s largest excavation, the Kennecott Copper Mine has been an extremely productive copper mine. It was the second largest copper producer in the United States in 2010 producing over 18 million tons of copper. It is by far the largest gold and copper mine in the state of Utah.
Currently, the mine is working on a plan that is set to expire in 2019. Rio Tinto is reportedly studying a plan to add another 1,000 feet depth to the mine. This expected to extend the life of the mine will into the 2030s.
There is still plenty of copper, gold and silver left to be mined from the Kennecott Copper Mine.