BRIGHAM CITY — There were no fortunes made digging in the hills of Box Elder County.
Even though the biggest gold nugget ever found to date in Utah turned up in the waters below Willard’s peaks, no one ever got rich. No one ever struck silver and enjoyed a cushy retirement.
In terms of boom or bust, Box Elder County was mainly a bust.
Or, as former science teacher Ron Cefalo says, Box Elder’s “mineral mining was kind of hit and miss.”
But that doesn’t make the history of mining in this mineral-rich county any less interesting. If anything, it only makes the sweat and blood evidently shed all that more poignant.
All one has to do is look at the hulky, heavy ore buckets at a new exhibit at the Box Elder Museum. These clumsy, finger-crunching metal buckets ferried iron ore out of cliffs and mountain canyons where mines were reached by trail, not road. And you can understand that in pursuit of ambitions, fortunes and lives were spent.
Over the past century, Box Elder County has offered up an amazing array of minerals. Copper, silver, iron, the metal alloy antimony used in bullets and bearings. Also, says Cefalo, “a teeny amount of gold — not much.”
Now-defunct mines can be found throughout the sprawling county, from desolate Pilot Peak near the Nevada border to mountain cliffs overlooking the Great Salt Lake. Even today, hopeful people still labor over small claims — a larger number than you might think, says Cefalo — using backhoes instead of pickaxes.
At its peak, more than 400 mining claims were staked out between Ben Lomond Peak and Collinston in northern Box Elder County. “Most of those claims are long gone because they just played out,” says Cefalo.
This history is chronicled in a new permanent exhibit at the Brigham City-based museum, which has already recounted the fossil history of the county under the direction of Cefalo, the museum’s curator and general expert about anything found below ground in Box Elder County.
The museum is housed in the old Bunderson Elementary School building. And now, an older kindergarten room has been adapted to show and tell the history of minerals.
Box Elder artifacts
There are mining artifacts from area mines — tools, narrow-gauge train rails, core samples drilled from the canyons above Honeyville, an old smithing table. Also on display are examples of the many minerals uncovered over the years — just as miners would have seen them —along with photos of the mines, all referenced to a large map of Box Elder County.
Some of the story could be told in the names of the old mines, whose heyday lasted from the 1870s to the first couple decades of the 1900s. One of the longer-lasting mines, Baker Mine, located in the limestone cliffs above Honeyville, was worked until the 1940s. Still, we’d like to know, did the owner of the Peg Leg Mine north of Grouse Creek indeed have a wooden leg? Who was the Prince of India in the name of a mine above south Willard? Did the workers in the American Mine and the Mexican Mine socialize after a hard day?
Much of this little-known history is retold at the Box Elder Museum, in the ore buckets, mineral samples and vintage photographs collected by curator Cefalo. It’s a moving and enlightening story told in artifacts, he says.
This smaller ore bucket from Baker Mine above Honeyville once hauled about 60 pounds of ore down the mountain at a time.
That “side dumper” cart, the size of a large hay bale, likely carried ore out of a mine above Willard on a narrow-gauge track. Nearly all that remains of the old American Mine are some cart wheels that have been eroded over time, telling of the heavy and dangerous loads it carried out of underground mines.
And this timber jack from a mine near Mantua was used to prop up the roof of an underground mine until a safer beam structure could be built.
Maguire’s gravity tram
But the prize artifact is an ore bucket from the famous Maguire “gravity tram” that carried heavy iron ore out of the Napoleon Mine in Maguire’s Canyon above south Willard. It’s hefty — about 700 pounds, Cefalo estimates, and would carry a load of 500 pounds or so of iron ore down the cliff side, across what are now gravel pits, to a site near the hot springs on the border of Box Elder and Weber counties.
“In fact, you can still see the old mounds and old mill ponds still there,” he says.
Cefalo and 17 of his high school science students hauled the cart from its mountain resting place many years ago. At about 700 pounds, the cart was transportable only on shoulders after prying off the upper arm from the base.
The curator laughs as he tells the story of Don Maguire, one of Utah’s more famous precious metals speculators. A native of Nevada, Maguire had plenty of claims in the canyon now named for him. He searched for copper, silver, a bit of gold and iron ore.
Trouble was, the cliffs are nearly impassable, so Maguire put to work his “brilliant” idea of a tram that would use gravity to carry the large loads of ore to the foothills. “It was a precursor to our ski lifts,” said Cefalo. At the bottom, workers would hop in the buckets for a ride to the top, “and that’s how they changed shifts,” he says.
Large beams were formed into X-shapes up the mountain, with each X holding a beam that supported the cable.
But Maguire’s smarts turned a bit to the darker side. He was suspected of luring investors, says Cefalo, by “salting” the results of his Box Elder mines with minerals that actually came from Nevada.
The mountains of southern Box Elder were termed the Sierra Madre Mining District, and its history is chronicled in the book “Sierra Madre West: The History of the Mines Below Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks” by brothers Mike and Steve Holmes.
The Holmes brothers, Willard natives, describe Maguire as a visionary and the area as a prospector’s heaven. Maguire, the book says, was one of the few who believed “the veins hidden and uncovered in the hills of the Sierra Madre had the potential of becoming the next rival to Bingham Copper or Park City.”
It’s true, minerals along the Wasatch Front showed a promising face, but little was to come of the mining ventures because of the geologic makeup of the cliffs. The “fracturing” from long-ago earthquakes that gives us our rugged mountain cliffs, such as the Willard peaks, means that a vein of minerals will disappear after a bit.
“You really need to have veins for big mining,” says Cefalo. But, “there’s been so much faulting and moving along the Wasatch Front that it’s hard to follow a vein. All of a sudden, it goes up or down or sideways 200 or 300 feet, and that destroys a mine.”
But that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs didn’t give it their all. “I’d like to know how many people were killed just going up in Maguire’s Canyon to build the tram,” says Cefalo
Still visible in the cliffs above Willard and south Willard are steps cut out of sheer rock by miners, said Cefalo. They’re difficult and dangerous to reach, now that they’re largely surrounded at the mountain base by private property. Also still remaining in the cliffs is the large trolley wheel that once supported the top end of the Maguire tram. “It’s about 60,000 pounds,” says Cefalo. “Even a helicopter couldn’t get it.”
Prior to World War I, the thick steel cable of the Maguire’s gravity tram was cut, and the metal — all several miles of it — salvaged for the war effort.
When the cable was pulled, the ore carts fell to the ground in the steep canyon, and have since been lost to time and locked-in property.
That’s what makes the ore cart carried out long ago by Cefalo and his band of science kids so remarkable. “We were fortunate to get it out when we were young and crazy,” he says.
The western mines
The cliffs and fractured rock faces that mark Box Elder County’s east side weren’t an issue on the county’s desert west side. Instead, distance became the issue.
There were several mines in the Pilot Range in the county’s southwest corner. Among them you’ll find the Tecoma Hill and Copper Mountain mines at the base of Pilot Peak — so named because it became a landmark for pilots headed to Salt Lake City.
These mines in the west desert produced primarily copper, and those north of Grouse Creek produced silver and other fine metals. One of Cefalo’s striking samples from the Pilot Range shows little ribbons of bright copper “rutilated,” or running through, a piece of quartz.
But the copper mined in Box Elder County was found combined with iron ore, which makes it complicated to extract, says Cefalo. For many years, the copper/iron ore was taken to a smelter near Tooele, but when it closed in the early 1970s, the miners were left without a market for their ore. “They had to ship their ores back East, and it wasn’t reasonable,” explains Cefalo.
The copper mines around Pilot Peak, he says, “were making some good money for a while.” But in the end, the lack of a smelter closed them down. “You can have a lot of ore, and it can be very rich, but if you can’t process it, you don’t make money.”
Utah’s biggest mine
The museum displays samples of salt formations pulled from the northern end of the Great Salt Lake, which Cefalo describes as “the biggest mine in Utah.”
“More money comes out of the Great Salt Lake than any mine we’ve had, and that includes Bingham Canyon mine,” he said. “We take a tremendous amount of material out of the Great Salt Lake.”
Other mineral samples prompt stories from Cefalo. One sample of tantalite is from a mine near Willard Peak. “The trouble is, they spent $100,000 grading the road up to it, and never got $10 out of ore out of there. The government wouldn’t buy it because it was radioactive, and they couldn’t sell it to foreign markets,” says Cefalo. “They lost everything.”
There’s a sample of antimony from the area above Honeyville. The early miners were after gold and silver, he says, “But they found antimony instead.”
Many of the exhibits in the new mining exhibit have come from people who’ve seen the Holmes brothers’ book, says Cefalo.
The writers themselves believe that the mining history of Box Elder County would be a lot different with the addition of a single component: a facility to reduce the ore to a level it could be smelted.
“The ores … were mostly of a low-grade nature …,” the Holmeses explain. “Although a reduction plant was never built, such an operation could have provided the necessary infrastructure to have made the mines profitable and permanent shippers. Instead, much of the marginal ore material was discarded on the ore heap, while the richer ore was sacked for shipment on burros or hauled out by tram and wagon.”
SAMPLING OF BOX ELDER COUNTY MINES
- American Mine, near top of Willard Peak — Iron ore
- Workman Mine, above South Willard — Iron ore
- Holton Mine, above South Willard — Gold, copper
- Baker Mine, above Honeyville — Copper, silver
- Eldorado Mine, above South Willard — Copper, silver, gold
- Utahlite Claim, extreme west Box Elder County — Veracite
- Peg Leg Mine, upper Grouse Creek — Zinc, silver
- Lucin Pit, west desert of Box Elder County — Fill materials
Source: Ron Cefalo
IF YOU GO
Exhibit: The Geological and Mining History of Box Elder County
Venue: The Box Elder Museum
Location: The Hervin Bunderson Center, 641 E. 200 North, Brigham City. Enter through the main doors (near the recreation office).
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-noon Fridays, Saturdays by appointment.