History of Puerto Ricans in the Oquirhh Mountains Community

The Puerto Rican community has been present in Utah for over 70 years. Their arrival was largely driven by the Second World War. During that period, the first Puerto Rican arrivals settled in Salt Lake County.

Part 1: The History

The Puerto Rican community has been present in Utah for over 70 years. Their arrival was largely driven by the Second World War. During that period, the first Puerto Rican arrivals settled in Salt Lake County. The Utah Copper Company housed many Puerto Ricans in the city of Bingham, which was once a thriving community located in the Bingham Canyon region of the Oquirrh Mountains.

To begin, Bingham was first settled in 1848 when brothers Thomas and Sanford Bingham grazed cattle and horses. Ore deposits were later discovered in the area, eventually leading to the beginning of mining operations. Bingham began to grow as a result.

On February 29, 1904, the town of Bingham was officially incorporated. Communities such as Highland Boy, Jap Town, Greek Town, and Copperfield (not to be confused with Copperton, which is a separate city) sprang up around Bingham as the area flourished.

In its heyday in the 1920s, Bingham’s population peaked at 15,000 residents. As more work opportunities became available, more people moved into the area.

Under the provisions of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted complete citizenship in the United States. During the Second World War, the U.S. War Department sought to bring between 800 to about 1500 Puerto Rican workers to the mainland. Copper production was at its peak during that period and mines needed workers to keep up with demand.

The U.S. Employment Service (USES), now recognized as The Department of Labor, played a crucial role in the recruitment of laborers from Puerto Rico. USES set up the selection and transportation process for workers to arrive in the mainland U.S. Upon meeting the necessary qualifications, workers were selected and then transported to the mainland. Once they arrived, they were deployed across the country, working for different industries.

Facing a labor shortage due to the war, the Utah Copper Company, the precursor to Kennecott Utah Copper, began recruiting workers from Puerto Rico. Two hundred unskilled laborers from the island were hired under a six-month contract to work in the mine. Adolph Soderberg, an engineer employed by the mine, and J. C. Landenberger, the track foreman, made a prior trip to Puerto Rico to arrange for laborers to be brought to Utah.

As part of the worker program, employers secured the transportation of workers to the U.S. mainland. Employers also forwarded the cost of transportation to the workers, deducting it from their salary. If workers completed their six-month contract, they were provided with transportation back to Puerto Rico.

The track department, commonly known as "the track gang," employed a significant number of Puerto Rican workers. The company provided “rooming houses'' for them in Bingham. At the end of their contractual agreements, a significant number of them went back to the island while others stayed in Utah.

As the war persisted, so did the worker shortage. During the war, a portion of men enlisted in the military, while others left mining and moved on to work in the defense sector. Soderberg, accompanied by employment director E. F. McFarlane, returned to Puerto Rico to find more workers. In the spring of 1945, an additional 300 workers were recruited to fill positions at the mine. By the fall of that year, the war had ended.

Part 2: The People

Teresa Jaramillo and Rachel Velez 

Teresa Jaramillo and Rachel Velez are sisters who are originally from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. They came to Bingham during their teen years in 1956. Their father, Emilio Nieves, and their uncles, Felix and Cecilio Reyes, came to work for the mine during the period of Puerto Rican recruitment during and after World War II.

“When I first came, my dad brought us and we lived in Bingham,” Rachel said. “That's where the mine was.”

In the 1940s, Puerto Rico's economy was transforming from an agricultural-based system to an industrial one. Puerto Ricans who were displaced as a result of the changing economy were able to either find work in other parts of the island or find their way to the mainland U.S. for employment.

“They had a lot of Puerto Rican people up there in Bingham Canyon,” Rachel said. Bingham was already a culturally diverse place. The presence of people from various parts of the world, including Puerto Rico, made the region distinct in Utah.

Immigrants from Europe, including Wales, Scandinavia, and as far south as Greece, as well as Asian and African American settlers, established themselves throughout the Bingham Canyon area.

Like other new workers, Emilio and his brothers started out laying track for the steam engines responsible for transporting the ore for processing. Eventually, they would transition to other jobs within the company.

“They worked wherever Kennecott needed them,” Rachel said, “They worked in different parts of the mine.”

After a period of adjustment, Rachel and Teresa became accustomed to the local environment. Nevertheless, the language barrier made things challenging for them being that they were still adjusting in some ways.

“It was a little hard because I didn't speak English at the time,” Teresa said, “I went to school and I didn't know English, but then I learned English, and it was okay.” Despite the challenges, she kept at it and eventually graduated from Bingham High School.

Like Rachel and Teresa, other Puerto Ricans had ample opportunities to acclimate to their surroundings in the Bingham Canyon area at the time. In the town of Copperfield, a special English class for men was held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the Copperfield School House under the tutelage of George Martineau.

In addition to immigrants and other newcomers adapting to life in Utah, locals in Bingham made efforts to celebrate their cultures. In 1944, the Upper Bingham School in Copperfield organized its annual Christmas program. The theme for that year was “Christmas in Many Lands.” It highlighted the seasonal festivities in Japan, Greece, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

Because of the cultural diversity in Bingham, various communities provided mutual support through different means. For instance, certain store owners would stock merchandise that brought a sense of familiarity with individuals' lives in their home countries.

“They had a Greek store that had Puerto Rican [products] like green bananas, bacalao (salted dried cod) and things like that,” Teresa said. Whatever her family could not get in Bingham, they would travel to Salt Lake to get it. Seeing familiar products brought a sense of feeling closer to home.

“It makes me feel so happy,” said Teresa, “I wanted to buy everything. Oh, I want this, I want that! Oh, they have this! ‟”

Such occurrences made life in Bingham exciting for Emilio Nieves‟ children. Teresa recalls the annual parade that Bingham celebrated.

“They had Galena Days,” she said, “They had a lot of things going on.”

Galena Days was established by Bingham Mayor Ed W. Johnson in 1939. The event commemorated the city’s incorporation in 1904. Johnson wrote of the city in a souvenir program published for the occasion, "Our confinement between these towering mountains seems to produce a closer bond of fellowship among the people.” Celebrations included a parade featuring floats from local schools, businesses, and organizations. One specific event during the Galena Days celebration remains vivid in Teresa's memory.

“The men let the beards grow and the one that had the longest and prettiest beard, they [would] get prizes,” she said, “[It] was like a festival.” Galena Days were celebrated until 1957. The festivities were a part of what Teresa appreciated about living in Bingham.

In general, Puerto Ricans socialized with one another and maintained a sense of community among themselves.

“If you see somebody that you knew, you would talk to them,” Teresa said, “If they have a little get together, sometimes they [would] invite [you] if they knew you.”

Just as Bingham recognized the contributions of Puerto Ricans during their lifetime, they also acknowledged their significance in death.

Gregario Gonzales, 37, was killed in a cave-in while working in the mine on March 17, 1951, just after three in the afternoon that day. A native of Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, he had been living in Bingham for three years. According to a company spokesman, Gonzales attempted to climb over a bank when the cave-in occurred. The cause of death was listed as a skull fracture. He left behind a wife, a daughter, and a brother. His funeral services were held at the Bingham Mortuary Chapel.

Other Puerto Rican miners who died during that time include Jacob Rodriquez Lopez, who was 36 at the time of his death. Originally from Arecibo, Lopez worked as a machine man who was preparing to load explosives into a hole on a Sunday morning when a rock fell from 50 feet up and struck his head. He had been with the company for six years. He left behind a wife, Carmen Vasilia Pantoga Lopez and six children.

Despite the inherent dangers associated with working in the mine, Emilio and his brothers remained there for 30 years until their retirement.

Rachel’s future husband, Artemio Velez, arrived from Caguas, Puerto Rico in the 1950s. He began working at Kennecott when he was 20 years old.

“He came [on] his own,” Rachel said, meaning that Artemio didn’t arrive in Utah as part of a recruitment campaign. Shortly after he started at Kennecott, Artemio, who was in the Army at the time, was called to serve in the Korean War.

“He had just started again at Kennecott from the Army, and he was in the Army about four years,” Rachel said. During his time in the service, Artemio attained the rank of Sergeant. After serving in Korea, he returned to work for the mine.

“They were good with the workers,” Rachel said, “Kennecott supported their workers a lot.” She highlighted the company's training and benefits programs as being the main reason her husband stayed with the company.

After years of adjusting to life in the Oquirrh Mountains, living with parents, and getting married, the two sisters left Bingham in the 1960s and relocated to different parts of Salt Lake Valley.

“I graduated from high school, and I needed to work, so we came to Salt Lake to work,” Teresa said.

Like Rachel and Teresa’s father and uncles, Artemio continued working at the mine until his retirement in the 1980s. After many years of dedicated service to both the mine and the U.S Army, he passed away in 2008.

Teresa's husband, Belarmino “Bill” Gilbert Jaramillo Jr, served in the United States Marine Corps and worked for the mine as an electrician and welder until his retirement. Bill passed away in 2021.

Nowadays, Rachel lives in West Jordan while Teresa lives in Texas with her daughter and grandchildren. Although Bingham ceased to exist in 1972 and its residents have either relocated or passed away, both sisters retain vivid memories of their time in their once bustling corner of the Oquirrh Mountains.

John Ramos

While some Puerto Ricans made a home for themselves in Bingham Canyon, others experienced it as a place to visit for the day or as a stopover on their way to the mines for work.

“I remember Bingham Canyon as a little kid,” said John Ramos, a former Kennecott employee. Although he never lived there, John recalled visiting Bingham and hearing stories about the city

from his father, Emilio Ramos Ortiz, who originated from Caguas, Puerto Rico and briefly lived in Bingham while working at the Utah Copper Company during the recruitment period of the 1940s.

“Oh, that was an awesome town,” John said of Bingham. “It's like you've been down to the main street of the old Park City.”

In the olden days of Bingham, businesses lined the main thoroughfare into town while residences were scattered behind them. The streets were narrow, which allowed for one, maybe two vehicles to travel in each direction at a time. Cars would sometimes be parked on the sidewalk to allow traffic to go through. John said he remembers taking trips with his dad to see the copper mine and passing through the city center. He also remembers the main road into town as being unpaved.

“We went up to the pit through town where all the little stores were,” he said, “They used to sell stuff, you know, clothes, whatever. And it was just a little downtown for Bingham Canyon.”

Every two weeks on payday, John would accompany his father to Bingham to collect his paycheck. While they were there, they would run errands and visit friends.

“My dad used to go grocery shopping at the company store.” John said, “That's where his check would come in. They didn't mail them back then. They'd just get it right there at the grocery store.”

Getting up to the pit itself required special access via trains.

“They had a trolley that used to be there too, used to take you from the pit up to the upper area too,” John said.

Among the buildings John visited was the Gemmell Memorial Clubhouse, named after Robert Campbell Gemmell, a prominent mining engineer and General Manager of Utah Copper Company who died in 1922. The clubhouse served as a community center that provided rest and relaxation to mine workers. It was demolished in 1975.

“They had where the Puerto Rican people lived, the Mexicans lived, the Japanese people lived, the white people lived,” John said. As diverse and as communal as people were in Bingham, certain individuals preferred to keep to themselves when they were not engaged in work or commercial exchange.

“The Mexicans, the Puerto Ricans, you know, just like the Chinese people go together,” John said, “They all [had] their own colony, more or less. That's how Puerto Ricans were, you know, and the Puerto Ricans and the Mexicans got along fairly good because they spoke the same language.”

Despite that, John said he recalled meeting many people during his travels to and from Bingham.

“I met a lot of nice people up there,” he said, “I knew a lot of the Puerto Rican people that my dad knew, and they knew me. So, we used to go visit these people in Midvale, West Jordan, Herriman. We used to go visit all these people.”

The town of Lead Mine, which was located west of Copperton, became a frequent hangout spot for John and his friends when they got older.

“That was just a little village, maybe 40 houses with a beer joint,” he said, “We used to go there drinking and stuff ,cause it was fun.”

John’s father encouraged him to work at the mine when he was 19 years old. Following in his footsteps, he started out laying down track. John said he recalls how difficult the job was at first.

“You had to work hard back then up there at the mine,” he said, “[Whether it was working for] the track gang or even on the train service. You had to pull your weight.” After a period of time working in the track gang, John transitioned to the role of brakeman for the locomotive team.

The locomotives that Kennecott used during John’s time at the mine were GE125-ton electric 10 locomotives that ran off a trolley wire. They had 3200 HP and had an operating weight of 250,000 pounds. They ran 18 daily 28-mile round trips between the Copperton yard and the Magna mills, pulling between 70 and 80 cars per trip. A team of workers maintained the trolley cars for their steady operation.

“They called them car whackers,” John said. “Car whackers” or “car knockers” as they were also called, were the team that maintained the rail cars. Along with the electricians, the teams would go and fix the cars that were either brought into the yard or were broken down in the field.

“Say a train got derailed, they would come and pick the train up sometimes and put it back on the track,” John said, “„Cause sometimes some of them derailments were very, very bad.”

John remembers one such derailment along one of the tunnels. As he was riding on one of the locomotives, he heard a metallic banging sound while traveling inside Tunnel 5490.

“I looked back, I saw sparks and I saw dust flying,” John said, “The train was derailing.”

At the time, John said the train was traveling about 40 miles an hour. When the front locomotive started to derail, it caused a chain reaction where the cars it was hauling began crashing into each other. By that time, all hell had broken loose inside the tunnel.

“Each car jackknifed inside that tunnel,” he said. Once the chaos settled, it was up to the rail teams to go in and retrieve the vehicles. In the tunnels, there was little clearance on either side to be able to move about freely once the train was in, which made repair and recovery efforts difficult and time consuming.

John said that derailments could be scary. If one was not careful, they could be seriously hurt or worse.

“We had, like, 21 cars and that's all you are allowed to take back then, and I was third car from the end from going derailed,” he said, “And if I'd have been in the middle of that, it would've killed me.”

Nowadays, Kennecott uses Komatsu 930e Series haul trucks to move ore into processing. These vehicles run a maximum of 3500 HP at 1800 RPM and have an operating weight of 575 tons, or 1,150,000 pounds. They use an 18-cylinder Komatsu diesel engine which has a payload capacity of 320 tons. The price tag on these vehicles is five million dollars each.

Once the ore has been deposited by the trucks, a sequence of conveyors transport the ore down the mountain on a 5-mile-long trip before it is crushed and refined. Using this system mitigates the need to maintain and salvage derailed locomotives or cars, among other things.

In addition to working inside tunnels or other confined spaces, there was also the issue of working outside during inclement weather. Because the mine is at a higher altitude than Salt Lake City, weather conditions were a little more extreme. If a person didn't dress properly, they could be in for a miserable time.

“When you're riding on the back end of a train, even when you're on the track gang, it's cold as hell,” John said, “But you know what? You have to be out there. You have to be working.”

The ability to cope with the various challenges at the mine, whether it was working during harsh weather conditions, operating locomotives at high speeds, or fixing stubborn machinery, took special fortitude.

“Being on the back end of a train, you're going 40 miles an hour and you're just holding on for dear life,” he said, “Well, guess what? That wind's coming in your face too. You can't sometimes see five feet in front of you.”

Conditions at the mine could not only be physically and environmentally harsh, but they could also be socially challenging. Cultural diversity in the community did not always translate into cultural harmony at work. Elitism, combined with prejudice exhibited by certain supervisors fostered a sense of antagonism that pitted people against each other, sometimes in highly destructive ways.

“I got fired from Kennecott once,” John said. At the time, a white supervisor who John said was antagonistic toward Puerto Ricans, accused him of stealing a pair of gloves. According to John, the supervisor kept accusing him throughout the day even after John denied taking anyone’s gloves on purpose. After an expletive-filled exchange, John was written up and eventually let go.

Feeling that the dismissal was unjust, John contacted Senator Eddie Mayne, a prominent labor advocate and a native of Bingham Canyon himself, to challenge the supervisor’s decision.

“He was strong, and he fought for everybody,” he said of Mayne. With Mayne on his side, the fight was on for John to get his job back and save his reputation.

A hearing took place at the union offices to which John belonged. Witnesses were called in separately to testify on his behalf while he was present. Following that, it was the supervisor's turn to provide testimony. During that phase of the hearing, the atmosphere became tense.

“They called the boss, asked him what happened, and he lied like hell,” John said, during which he sat and remained silent until it was his turn to testify. That is when the situation came to a boiling point.

“[The supervisor] got up in the middle of the [hearing] and he says, ‘You're a damn liar! He’s calling me a liar!” John said. Tempers flared until the supervisor’s boss told him to “sit your ass down or you're gonna be the one that's gonna get fired here.”

After tempers had simmered and all testimony was recorded, it was decided that John would be reinstated at Kennecott with back pay. Although the supervisor was not terminated, John was informed he would no longer be required to work with him.

John praised Mayne for his work and acknowledged his union for supporting him throughout. Despite the ordeal, he recognized that there is always conflict between people, as contentious as it may get at times. Nevertheless, the experience did not discourage him or diminish his desire to keep working.

John continued his employment at Kennecott, gradually moving from the locomotive team to becoming a student engineer. As previously mentioned, Kennecott transitioned from utilizing rail transportation for ore to employing trucks and conveyors. Consequently, any occupation related to locomotive maintenance became obsolete. As a result, John retired from the company in 1990. In spite of the turmoil and transition, John reflects upon his time there with a sense of pride.

“I enjoyed that job quite a bit, you know. I had my ups and downs up there, but most of all, I had a great opportunity to learn things,” John said. The most significant lesson he learned during his time at Kennecott was the importance of self-gratitude.

Part 3: Memories and The Last Days

Bingham continued for several years after it was established. The city was home to Puerto Ricans and many others who contributed to its economic growth, existence, and legacy.

But like those men and women who were recruited to work in the mines, few, if any, of the towns that existed during the peak of mining operations in the 20th century remain today.

As the demand for copper grew, it became necessary to encroach on Bingham and the surrounding communities. Over time, towns in the Bingham Canyon area gradually vanished. In 1955, the residents of Highland Boy were told they needed to move. By 1960, the buildings in Highland Boy and Copperfield were torn down.

A plaque located in the present-day Bingham Copper Mine visitor area says Bingham’s population dwindled to 31 people by 1971. Disincorporation procedures began after a vote on August 31 of that year. On November 22, the City of Bingham was officially disincorporated. Seven months later, in June 1972, the lights went out for the last time. Once the buildings were razed, Bingham existed no more.1 The towns that were once home to Puerto Ricans and many others from around the world lie buried under the waste rock of Kennecott’s mining operations.

Puerto Ricans played a crucial role in the Oquirrh Mountain communities as well as the copper mine that brought them there and offered them a fresh start in life. The towns and their people, the parades and the festivals, and the hardships endured left a mark on those who experienced Bingham and its neighboring communities firsthand. Unless the historical knowledge is passed down and preserved, it will fade into oblivion.

“Most of the people are gone,” Rachel Velez said, thinking back on the people of Puerto Rico who once lived and worked in Bingham. “They left the State of Utah, some died. And what we have is the kids, you know, like my kids.”

Although the towns are long gone, their impact still resonates today with the people who experienced them.

“[Bingham] was just an amazing little town,” John Ramos said.

The resilience of Teresa, Rachel, John, and others before them enabled them to navigate life's obstacles and develop into resolute and tenacious individuals. Despite being overlooked in historical accounts of Utah, Puerto Ricans, who were already American citizens, and other members of the Latin American community were an equal presence and force like the early settlers of Bingham. Puerto Ricans can confidently assert their contribution to the historical narrative of Utah, and of the Oquirrh Mountains.

“I loved Bingham and I love Utah,” Teresa Jaramillo said.



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