Hard Rock Mining and Petroleum

Mining has been an important part of Utah's economic development. Early settlers began organizing exploration parties and mining efforts almost immediately after arrival because they needed the products of mining for development. They searched for coal, mined salt, and established an iron works in southern Utah. However, the real foundation of Utah's mining industry was laid by federal troops stationed in Utah. They staked the first claims, organized the first mining districts, and incorporated the first mining companies. The mining of gold and silver led to the mining of lead, zinc, and copper. Early iron discoveries were later developed in the production of steel. Petroleum and uranium have been important products as well. (See sources used in compiling this research guide. See series holdings.)

Gold and Silver

Federal troops stationed in Utah discovered valuable ore deposits in Bingham Canyon near Salt Lake. This prompted extensive searching and prospecting for gold in Utah mountains. Some of the most productive early mining districts were located in northern Utah counties. They include the original West Mountain or Bingham District as well as Big and Little Cottonwood Districts in Salt Lake County. They include the Tintic District in Juab County, the Park City District of Summit County, and the Rush Valley, Ophir, and Camp Floyd Districts of Tooele County. When prospectors discovered gold or silver, boom towns often sprang up. Towns like Silver Reef, Mercur, and Knightsville lasted until the mines were worked out and then prospectors moved on. To be of value, mineral deposits must be mined, milled, smelted, transported, and sold for a profit. Therefore, extensive commercial mining in Utah had to wait until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

Copper, Lead and Zinc

While looking for gold, prospectors also found complex ores containing lead, copper and zinc. These became important in the late 1890s because metallurgists developed new methods of reduction which enabled their profitable extraction. Some gold and silver mining companies stayed in business by moving into the extraction of lead, zinc, and copper. During the early 1900s several large smelting furnaces were constructed in the Salt Lake area. These provided a great advantage for the miners of nonferrous metals. In Bingham Canyon copper mining expanded to the extent that the town disappeared and Kennecott Copper took its place. Historically copper has been the most important mineral produced in Utah.


Iron and Steel

Early Mormon efforts to produce iron in Cedar City failed not only because of the harshness of the environment, but also because settlers lacked a source of coal for the furnaces. Railroads and technology enabled the establishment of steel mills in Utah County in the early 1900s which brought together the iron ore from Iron County and coal from Carbon and Emery Counties. The federal government enlarged this operation during World War II, when it built the Geneva Steel Plant to supply steel for ship building operations in California.


Oil exploration has been going on in Utah since 1891, when the first oil well was drilled. Early discoveries in Washington and San Juan Counties prompted the most active period of petroleum exploration (1907-1914) in Utah history. While a few 'gushers' were opened in San Juan County, there were no discoveries of significant enough quantities to overcome the difficulty of transporting oil to larger markets, and thereby enable commercial production. A second surge of oil exploration in the 1940s and 1950s, this time by large oil companies, led to discoveries large enough for commercial production. Modern oil companies drilled deeper and constructed pipelines to transport the crude oil from the wells in San Juan County and the Uintah Basin to refineries in Salt Lake and Davis Counties.


Uranium has also been an important product of Utah's mining industry. The Manhattan Project of World War II stimulated a demand for uranium and sent thousands of prospectors into the hills. Lucrative government contracts motivated the formation of numerous uranium mining companies. In Utah uranium was discovered in San Juan, Grand and Washington Counties. The boom, 1953-1955, was short lived because in 1956 the Atomic Energy Commission announced that the supply of uranium was already sufficient for the nation's needs.

Series Holdings

Several records series at Utah State Archives contain information about Utah's mining industry. Incorporation records are an important source of information about Utah mining companies. Other sources include the following:

Bingham Canyon (Utah)  
City attorney records, 1954-1972 Series 17461
Department of Natural Resources  
Annual reports, 1968-ongoing Series 20863
Labor Commission  
Biennial reports, 1917-ongoing Series 18097
State Board of Equalization and Assessment  
Mine net proceeds returns, 1900-1918 Series 2439
State Land Board  
Biennial reports, 1896-1978 Series 1974
State Planning Board  
Mining Studies, 1929-1941 Series 1175
Utah State Tax Commission. Property Tax Division  
Natural resources annual property returns, 1910- Series 2476
Natural resources assessment records, 1909- Series 2496
Occupation tax and net proceeds returns, 1938-1986 Series 14266
Governor: (1965-1977: Rampton)  
Correspondence, 1965-1976
Governor's papers may contain additional information about mining issues.
Series 13856

Sources used in compiling this document:

Arrington, Leonard J. "Abundance from the Earth: The Beginning of Commercial Mining in Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 193-219.

Hansen, Gary B. "Industry of Destiny: Copper in Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 262-279.

Harlin, Osmond L. "Utah's Black Gold: The Petroleum Industry," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 291-311.

Larson, Gustive R. "Bulwark of the Kingdom: Utah's Iron and Steel Industry," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 248-261.

Laws of Utah, 1870, "Providing for Incorporating Associations, for Mining, Manufacturing, Commercial and other Industrial Pursuits," p. 136-137.

Nelson, Elroy. "The Mineral Industry: A Foundation of Utah's Economy," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 279-291.

Sorenson, Don. "Wonder Mineral: Utah's Uranium," Utah Historical Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1963). Pp. 280-290.

Page Last Updated August 26, 2002.