Copperton Railyard Historical Overview

Copperton Railyard was the backbone of Kennecott's railway network for over 30 years. It was built when the demand for copper surged during WWII, and played a critical role in increasing efficiency and controlling rail traffic between the mine and the mills.

The Copperton Railyard, built between 1946 and 1948, served as a transfer station for locomotives traveling from the Bingham mine to the mills in Magna and Arthur and was in continuous operation through the late 1980s. The Railyard increased efficiency and controlled rail traffic between the mine and the mills during its roughly 31 years of operation (Fahrni 2022). 

Starting in 1929, the Great Depression hit the nation hard, with industries such as metal mining, agriculture, and manufacturing being particularly affected and industrial production declining by 47 percent (Britannica 2022). Bingham Canyon mining properties, at the time operated by the Utah Copper Company (UCC), had to reduce operations in the 1930s due to the low price of copper. During this reduction, Arthur Mill was closed, and Magna Mill lowered its overall production rate. As the Great Depression continued copper operations fell to one-fifth of capacity by 1933 (Whitley 2006:240). In 1936, UCC had to sell its assets to Kennecott Copper Corporation (KCC), which had previously acquired 25% interest in UCC (Cononelos and Notarianni 1994). 

Utah, and the metal mining industry as a whole, would not recover from the Great Depression until the beginning of World War II in 1941. The new war caused an increased demand for metals, as well as for agricultural and other commodities, and rapidly pulled the country out of the Great Depression. By 1943, copper production in Bingham had skyrocketed to 323,989,000 tons per annum (valued at $84,237,100) (Notarianni 1990:24-25). With this increase in demand and production, work was plentiful for area miners and mill workers. Wartime production at Bingham Canyon mining properties set new world records for copper mining— including the production of 30 percent of the copper used during World War II—and pushed KCC into the national consciousness (Cononelos and Notarianni 1994:300; Crump 1978:37).

Because copper production was on the rise to meet wartime needs, large investments were made to improve mining-related infrastructure at Bingham Canyon, particularly with regards to the railroad network. As early as March 1941, KCC recognized that the increased railroad traffic caused congestion in the Bingham Canyon area, particularly as the railroads exited the canyon near the town of Copperton. To help address this congestion, KCC began planning for a new railroad yard (Copperton Railyard) in Copperton (Bingham Bulletin [BB] 1941). KCC also began planning the construction of new railroad lines and tunnels from the bottom of the Bingham Canyon Pit to help improve efficiency of ore production and transport. The eventual construction of three new tunnels, the 6040, 5840, and 5490, allowed ore to be shipped from the lower levels of the pit. The construction of these tunnels would help to eliminate costly up-hill ore and waste haulage from the bottom of the constantly deepening Bingham open pit mine (BB 1958). Construction of the planned Copperton Railyard and new rail lines and tunnels would be undertaken by the Utah Construction Company (Strack 2022). 

Prior to construction of the Copperton Railyard, the Utah Construction Company began construction of a new tunnel within the Bingham Canyon Pit at 6,040 feet above sea level (Photographs 1 and 2). The intention of the 6040 Tunnel was to allow for transportation of ore to be shipped from the bottom of the Bingham mine pit.  By 1944, however, construction of the new 6040 tunnel was still underway because it had run into several obstacles including cave-ins, labor shortages, and low pay for employees. 

“Obstacles which have plagued construction crews include two cave ins, one in June, which halted progress for six weeks, and another, which slowed down the crew for two weeks, in July. The shortage of labor has kept shift crews, which in ordinary times number 16 or 18 men, down to 8 and 10…” (BB 22 December 1944).

Photograph 1: 6040 Tunnel under construction 1942 (Utah State Archives 20 January 1942).

On January 25, 1945, the U. S. Army took over the operations of the Bingham and Garfield Railway (B&GR), which was to run through the Copperton Railyard, due to a labor dispute. The dispute was the result of a strike when 37 engineers and firemen walked off the site. While the strike did not affect construction of the Copperton Railyard, it did slow down operations of the railroad. President Roosevelt authorized government control of the B&GR due to the critical role of KCC in copper production for the war effort (Strack 2021). Control of the railroad returned to the company in September of 1945 following the end of the war (Strack 2021).

Photograph 2: 6040 Tunnel in the 1960s (Rio Tinto Kennecott Photograph Collection).

Soon after the completion of the 6040 Tunnel in 1945, construction began on a new, 14-mile-long railroad line from Bingham Canyon to Magna. The new Copperton Low Line (CLL) was constructed between 1945 and 1948 to support the increased production and expansion of mining operations at KCC properties. The railway was electrified and transported ore from Bingham Canyon to Magna. As part of the operation of the CLL, several underground railroad tunnels (including the 6040 and 5840 Tunnels) were constructed between 1944 and 1953 to connect the bottom of the Bingham open pit mine to the Bingham area (BB 1958; Strack 2021). These tunnels were used for both transport of ore and waste rock. Each railway was designed to exit the Bingham mine pit through these tunnels to travel to the newly constructed Copperton Railyard. 

The Copperton Railyard is located along the northern bank and slopes of the Bingham Creek drainage, east of Bingham Canyon and south of Copperton. The CLL railroad enters from Bingham Canyon on the West side of the Railyard as a single gauge rail track and expands into seven to eight siding tracks. At the eastern end of the Railyard the siding tracks rejoin together. The main railroad track exits the Railyard as a set of parallel railroad tracks and crosses over State Route 48. The Railyard included a dispatcher building/tower, which functioned as the Railyard control station. The Railyard also has an electrical control shack that is located near the northeast end of the Railyard. Additionally, there are two industrial buildings and a water pump station at the Railyard. One side of the Railyard was for empty locomotives awaiting ore from the Bingham Canyon mine and the other was for loaded locomotives. The loaded cars would be left in Copperton and the empty cars, brought in by the Magna train crews, would be picked up and hauled back to the pit for reloading.  Magna train crews would then haul the loaded cars back to the Garfield and Arthur mills where they would be dumped and processed (Fahrni 2022). 

Concurrent with opening of the CLL in 1948, the B&GR ceased and dissolved operations (Strack 2021). The CLL was constructed at a lower level than the B&GR, which allowed for longer trains and therefore increased ore capacity. New locomotives (Photograph 3) were purchased and the dumper yards at Magna and Arthur mills, where ore was dropped off, were converted to accommodate the higher voltages of the CLL locomotives. 

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Photograph 3: Utah Copper Company 710 GE 85-ton Electric Locomotive

Later in 1948, operations of the CLL and the Copperton Railyard came to a halt when workers from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, local Number 844, walked off the job. Nearly 4,500 workers went on strike for 105 days demanding better pay for train operators. An agreement was made between KCC and the union in February 1949, allowing crews to return to work (BB 11 February 1949).

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Figure 1: Salt Lake Telegram 11 April 1949.

In addition to issues related to worker’s pay and benefits, worker safety was another significant issue associated with operations at the Copperton Railyard.  Just after noon on Sunday, April 10, 1949, two men jumped from a runaway train as it raced down canyon from the Bingham mine tunnel passing through the Central Railyard, located near Dry Fork within Bingham Canyon. Traveling close to seventy miles per hour, the electric locomotive moved twelve cars carrying fifteen hundred tons of ore. Operator William Ablett at the Central Railyard tower notified operator J. L. Murano at the Copperton Railyard that a runaway train was headed his way. As the train raced downhill toward Copperton, Murano closed a switch that that would derail the train and over the PA system he alerted workers in Copperton Railyard that a runaway train was on the way and to clear the yard. As the train flew down the grade toward Copperton, the locomotive and five ore cars broke loose and plunged over the bank. The seven remaining cars sped on to Copperton where it hit the closed switch and left the rails, tearing up 400-feet of track and throwing ore across the yard. Fortunately, no yardmen were injured.  The locomotive engineer and brakeman who jumped from the train both suffered injuries. The engineer, William H. Harper, suffered internal injuries and a possible concussion. Steck, the brakeman, suffered a dislocated shoulder, multiple bruises, and broken leg. KCC track gangs had the track repaired by 4:00 am the following morning (Figure 1).

In April 1951, the Utah Construction Company started work on the 7,000 feet long 5840 Tunnel. Construction of the tunnel was completed in August 1952 and the first ore trains traveled through the 5840 Tunnel on March 26, 1953 (Strack 2022). Between 1956 and 1959, the new 5490 Tunnel was constructed by the Utah Construction Company to transport ore from the bottom of the Bingham open pit mine area to the Copperton Railyard (BB 1957). The project manager was Paul Guinn, and the project superintendent was M.F. (Jimmy) Finlay. The 5490 Tunnel measured 18,000 feet long and the railroad line traveling through the tunnel connected the open pit mine with the CLL railroad just southwest of Copperton (Salt Lake Tribune [SLT] 1959). Upon completion, the tunnel was one of the longest single track mine tunnels in the United States at that time and was the longest of the three tunnels (6040, 5840, 5490) constructed for ore and waste rock transport at the Bingham open pit mine (BB 1959). 

With the completion of 5490 Tunnel, train crews now had three tunnels through which ore trains could leave the pit and travel to Copperton Railyard. Entry into Copperton Railyard from the 5490 tunnel was a straight shot, the tunnel being at the same elevation as the yard. Trains traveling from above the 5490 level were required to negotiate a series of switchbacks down to the 5840 level (east end of the 5840 Tunnel outside the pit). The trains then made the final approach down the steep grade to Copperton Railyard. 

By 1972, the CLL track ran as the “only remaining Utah (rail)road that uses electric-powered locomotives.” (Deseret News [DN] 22 July 1972). KCC claimed that the railroad system was the “world’s biggest” moving approximately 1,196 cars each carrying eighty-five tons of ore and overburden (DN 22 July 1972). Regular operation of the CLL ceased in 1979. By 1985 ore transport to Copperton concentrator was accomplished by conveyor system (which passed through the 5490 Tunnel near Copperton Railyard. The CLL (also known as the Kennecott Railroad) and the 5490 Tunnel and railroad spur continued as the primary ore transportation system for KCC properties until the late 1980s following the construction of the current C6 Conveyor in 1988 and several pipeline systems connecting the open Bingham pit mining operations and the concentrator and smelter locations (DN 1988; Strack 2021). In 1989, the entire mine system was converted to shovel and truck mining, ending the era of electric locomotives (Strack 2022). The Copperton Railyard was largely abandoned after this conversion with only several remaining buildings and structures at the Railyard having since been used by KCC as storage and support facilities (Photographs 4 and 5). 

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Photograph 4: Copperton Railyard during 2022 site recording, facing northeast.
Photograph 5: Copperton Railyard during 2022 site recording, facing southwest.



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1941 Bingham, Utah.

1944 December 22, Bingham, Utah.

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1957 Bingham, Utah.

1958 Bingham, Utah.

1959 Bingham, Utah.

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Deseret News

1972 July 22, Salt Lake City, Utah.

1988 Salt Lake City, Utah 

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Salt Lake Tribune. 1959 Salt Lake City, Utah

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