Rafael Lopez

The story of Rafael Lopez has been etched in Bingham Canyon history ever since the day when he was accused of shooting a man in 1913 – before disappearing into the Bingham mine tunnels, never to be seen again.

Hoping to smoke the suspect out, they blockaded and then set fire to the mines. They set up watch at each of the entrances and waited. 

Bingham Canyon was bustling in 1913 when Rafael Lopez allegedly shot another Hispanic American, Juan Valdez, in front of a saloon in Highland Boy. Shootings were a regular event in Bingham. “The Greeks, Serbians, Austrians, and Italians feuded with each other and among themselves. Killings were not unusual.”  

Copper attracted miners from around the globe. Mining companies sought out these immigrants in large cities through labor agents. Miners from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Austria, and Japan flooded mining communities like Copperton, Highland Boy, and Markham.    

Utah Copper Company, organized in 1903, established a new system called open-pit mining. Before this time, mining large veins of copper was seen as more profitable. Daniel C. Jackling and Robert Gemmell reported that large scale mining of small veins could also be lucrative. Critics were skeptical; however, Jackling was so convinced his plan would work that he began to purchase claims in the area. 

Tensions were high in Bingham Canyon when Lopez moved in. Just the year before, the Western Federation of Miners led nearly 4,800 workers to strike. The walkout forced the mine to shut down. To get it back running again would either require negotiations or another labor force. Utah Copper Company decided to bring in strikebreakers from Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. 

Rafael Lopez seemed to understand his situation was bleak as the prime suspect in a murder. Racial and anti-immigrant violence, lynchings, and extrajudicial justice were rampant in the early twentieth century. It was reported that he rushed back to his room at the boarding house, grabbed guns and ammunition, and left out the back door. His tracks led a posse of men on a chase through the snow and out of the canyon. 

Prior to arriving at Bingham Canyon as a strikebreaker, Rafael Lopez’s past is somewhat of a mystery in itself. 

According to his former companion, James Thomas Powell, Lopez was Spanish, and his mother was English. Powell stated in the December 12, 1913 issue of the Salt Lake City Tribune that Lopez was born in Colorado. He learned to speak Spanish when he ran away at the age of 13 to Mexico. He also spoke Italian. He returned to Colorado to help with the family sheep herd. He sold the herd and sent half of the money to his mother. 

Lopez and Powell met in Mercer, Utah in 1910 where they both worked at the Daisy Mine and Mill. It was in February of 1913 that Lopez found himself in Bingham Canyon. At the time, Hispanics were despised by the striking miners, especially so since it was Mexicans and Hispanic Americans that worked in the mines during the strike. Hostility and bitterness surrounded the way that the European population treated Hispanics. Instead of working for Utah Copper Company, Lopez and his partner, Julius Corrello, obtained a mining lease from the Utah-Apex Company in the Minnie Mine. 

The night of November 21, 1913 was not Lopez’s first run in with the law. On July 12, 1913, Lopez got into a fight with some other Hispanic men which ended when Lopez stabbed one of them. Lopez was then beaten by Deputy Sheriff Julius Sorenson, who hit him with a six-shooter. Lopez was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, to which Lopez plead not guilty. Thomas Carrillo, a witness to the stabbing, testified against Lopez. He was found guilty and sentenced to two weeks in county jail. 

According to Thomas Carrillo, Lopez shot Juan Valdez just before one o’clock on November 21st and then hit him in the head with his pistol. Sherriff Sorenson took Carrillo’s .38 caliber pistol and arrested Carrillo as the only witness to the shooting. Sorenson then called Chief Deputy Sherriff Otto Witbeck.

It had snowed, leaving a visible trail above Highland Boy Mine where Lopez. Instead of heading for Tooele, Lopez took a circular course out of the canyon, slowing down the chase. While law enforcement headed to Lark, Lopez made his way to Lehi. Nine miles west of Lehi, Lopez came upon the cabin of Edward R. Jones. Rose Jones welcomed Lopez in, not aware that he was on the run. She fed him beef and potatoes and gave him a cup of coffee before he hastily left. 

Four men on horses approached the Jones’ home, following Lopez’s tracks in the snow. Billy Grant and Nephi Jensen had joined Witbeck and Sorenson to create a four-man posse. They split up, two and two. Two men headed to a thicket beyond the cabin, the other two stopped at the cabin to talk with Mrs. Jones. While discussing Lopez with Mrs. Jones, they heard gunshots. Lopez hit the two riders, knocking them both from their horses. Sherriff Sorenson told a Tribune reporter that, 

“Grant and Jensen remained to keep watch and Witbeck and I went ahead to the house…While we were talking, we heard two shots. We rode back to where we had left Grant and Jensen and found their horses wandering about. Grant and Jensen were nowhere in sight. We were just talking about what to do when a shot rang out and Witbeck fell from his horse.”

With four men dead, the hunt for Lopez became news throughout the West. The already racially and socially tense atmosphere in Bingham turned against Hispanics in the town and in nearby Salt Lake City. Officers were ordered to keep surveillance on all Hispanics in Bingham. Weapons were taken away and in Salt Lake City, Police Inspector Carl Carlson began rounding up Hispanics. Fifty-five Hispanic men were detained, many of which were ordered to leave Salt Lake City on charges of vagrancy.

Several people claimed to have run into Lopez while on the run effectively throwing off the chase several times. Eventually, it was believed that Lopez was hiding back in the mines. Deputies and lawmen set fire to eight bales of hay with sulfur and cayenne pepper that were then drenched with crude oil. They waited two hours while the mines were suffocated with smoke and flame. Yet, no sign of Lopez emerged from the tunnels. Eventually, a search team went into the mine to find any sign of Lopez. He was nowhere to be found. A few witnesses claimed that a man with a heavy beard rushed out of the mine. 

Sightings led patrolmen to a raise near the mouth of the mine. They decided to try to smoke him out again. But this time, Lopez responded before they could set fire to the hay bales. Several shots were heard and the Serbian miner, Tom Manderich, was shot. The sound of gunshots alerted lawmen and they approached the entrance to the mine. Lopez fired on them, hitting the walls of the tunnel and causing stones to break free and hit the men in their faces.   

News of the shootings spread fast throughout Bingham. Hundreds of miners gathered to the Utah-Apex mine. Serbian miners gathered at the mouth of the Andy Tunnel, hoping to find and kill Lopez and took “oaths to kill every Mexican in camp.” The November 30th Tribune report stated that Bingham “is one mass of seething, boiling humanity. Expressions of the most bitter sort are being freely circulated. Vengeance seems to be the burden of the talk of the residents and even though Lopez should be taken alive there seems to be hardly a chance but that a lynching would take place at once.”

Lopez was never sighted again. They attempted to smoke him out of the Utah-Apex mine again, but he did not emerge. The Andy portion of the Utah-Apex mine was closed for over a month before they removed the blockades and reentered the mine. No sign of Lopez was found. 

Newspapers throughout the West reported on Lopez sightings. His story grew in both fame and infamy in Utah communities. One man even later claimed to have crossed state lines to kill Lopez, taking away his chance to a trial. While Lopez’s fate remains a mystery, his life in Bingham Canyon illustrates the social and racial tensions in mining towns throughout the West.