I felt like a millionaire! To go from 85 cents an hour bagging groceries to more than $2 per hour working at “The Smelter” was simply astounding! I began to imagine all the wonderful things I could do with my 56 Chevy, but mom had different ideas. Can you say college and mission? More than $2 per hour did have some additional costs however, as I was soon to find out. One of the smelter’s policies seemed to be to hire high school and college-age boys who were pursuing their educations when a regular employee didn’t show up for their shift. I imagine the smelter was responsible for helping literally thousands of kids through college during its 60-year run on the foothills east of Tooele. All that’s left now of this revered edifice, which doubled the population of Tooele, are some remnants of the old aerial tram towers that brought one-half of the copper ore from the Bingham Canyon operation 4 1/2 miles to the International Smelting and Refining’s endeavor in the mouth of Pine Canyon.
One gorgeous spring morning, I “rustled” at the administration building and was overjoyed when I was assigned to the High Line. The High Line was the highest paid job I was told. Workers on the High Line were assigned to dump railroad cars full of ore into the storage bins of the Sample Mill. To me, the bottom of the storage bins seemed to be 500 feet straight down. My job was to ride the full ore cars down to the cat walk in the bottom of the cars, scraping the sides with shovel or air hose in hand as the ore was expelled through the belly dumpers into the bins. To miss that narrow cat walk between the opened belly doors was to surely fall to one’s death on the ore present, or not present in the bins.
I was doing just fine that High Line day until I didn’t jump soon enough to the front of the small “motor” that would transport the empty cars to the stack, and grab the next one to be dumped into those deep bins. As I missed the railing on the front of the motor, and barked my shins, I grabbed on wherever I could, and held on for dear life. It seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds until they noticed my predicament, and stopped the motor to help me up from hanging precariously over the bins. I took my banged and bruised body into the break room to lick my wounds, and hardly noticed the “male wall paper” that was profusely on display. This, needless to say, was my first and last High Line experience.
The Smelter was finished in 1912, and afforded work to about 2,000 men. It came into existence because of law suits in the Salt Lake Valley over gasses from their smelters killing off crops in the fields nearby. In the Tooele operation it was reported that, in addition to crops, trees and other vegetation, even horses died under the pollution still in the atmosphere after being cleansed in the tall smoke stacks. Soon after the smelter’s completion, the rich copper ore from the Bingham Canyon side dried up, and the aerial tram system wasn’t used as extensively, even though it saved well over 30 miles to get the same raw materials by rail to the Tooele plant.
After this dry up in rich copper ore, ingenious owners and managers retooled and found they were able to use the same basic furnaces to extract lead and zinc. The Tooele Smelter soon became a custom lead refining plant and treated ores from more than 15 different mines throughout the west. Always looking for quicker and less expensive transportation costs, the Elton Tunnel was bored through the mountain to the Salt Lake side. The tunnel was located just above present day Lincoln (Pine Canyon) and was in operation until 1947. Even though copper wasn’t produced in Tooele after 1946, the custom lead refinery continued until the smelter’s close in 1971.
Incidentally, the Tooele Valley Railroad was built before the smelter was started as a way to get building materials to that site. It then eventually became the principal source of delivering raw ore to the smelter. It also served for years as the main form of worker’s transportation to and from “Old Smokey.” The railroad still claims a soft spot in my heart. We all bragged about hitching a ride home from school on the back of the locomotive, although I’m not sure anyone ever did.
As a reminder, the Tooele Pioneer Museum is hosting a “Free Photo Contest” from July 17 to July 27. All entries must be submitted to the Tooele Pioneer Museum at 47 E. Vine St. on July 17. Photos must have been taken in Tooele County during the past two years by the person submitting the entry. Almost any photos except portraits will be accepted. We are hoping for scenes that have some historic or pioneer value. Photos will be appraised by a panel of judges headed by Dave Bern, Chief Editor of the Transcript-Bulletin. Ribbons and prize money will be awarded thanks to EnergySolutions. For further information go to www.sc.supchapters.org or call Darrell Smith at 882-3872.