Historical Events Related to the Geology of Utah

Utah is known for the spectacular exposure of its geologic features and the diversity of its mineral resources and geologic hazards. Most of Utah’s many state and national parks, monuments, and recreation areas showcase the variety and scenic beauty of Utah’s landscapes and geology. Some of Utah’s unique geologic features include Great Salt Lake, the Wasatch fault, and the canyonlands area of southern Utah. Utah also has an abundance and variety of natural resources, ranking fifth in the nation in total value of nonfuel minerals; first in the production of beryllium and gilsonite; second in copper, gold, magnesium metal, and potash; fifth in silver; sixth in salt; and fourteenth in coal (1997 rankings, the latest year for which production figures are available). Unfortunately, Utah is also known for its geologic hazards. The Wasatch fault is one of the longest active normal faults in the world, and Utah is among eight states that the U.S. Geological Survey has given a landslide hazard rating of “severe,” the highest of five hazard classes.

The geology of Utah has provided an important backdrop to the cultural history of the area for as long as people have lived in this region. As the Utah Geological Survey celebrates its 50th anniversary, it seems appropriate to highlight some of the important people and events related to the geology of Utah.

Prehistoric: Native Americans utilize many geologic resources, such as salt from Great Salt Lake for cooking; stone for construction, tools, and weapons; clay for pottery; and minerals for colored pigments and ornaments. 1776 During the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, detailed notes and drawings are created that include the first observations on Utah geology.

1843-44: The first geologic specimens (rock and mineral samples) from Utah for scientific investigation are collected by John C. Fremont during the second of his five western expeditions.

1845: John C. Fremont’s report of his 1842 and 1843-44 expeditions is the first scientific publication to include information on Utah’s geology.

1847: Almost from the day they enter the Salt Lake Valley, early Mormon settlers obtain salt by boiling water from Great Salt Lake in iron kettles.

1849: While exploring for colonizing sites and available resources south of Salt Lake Valley, Parley P. Pratt and his men discover iron ore at Iron Mountain near present-day Cedar City in Iron County.

1849-50: While leading one of the earliest railroad surveys of the West, Captain Howard Stansbury makes the first detailed descriptions of Utah geology (of the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake Desert) and the first scientific report of an earthquake in Utah.

1855: Jules Marcou publishes the first geologic map of Utah as part of a geologic map of the United States in an obscure German journal.

1858: Utah’s first reported gold discovery is at Gold Hill in Tooele County by westbound travelers on their way to California.

1859: Utah’s first dinosaur discovery, and North America’s first sauropod find, is made during the 1859 Macomb Expedition which explored the rugged canyon lands of southeastern Utah. The expedition’s scientist Dr. John S. Newberry collected bones from a sauropod dinosaur subsequently named Dystrophaeus viaemalae.

1863: General Patrick E. Connor and others formally organize Utah’s first mining district, West Mountain (Bingham), after the discovery of lead-silver ore in Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains of Salt Lake County.

1866: Gilsonite, originally called uintahite and discovered in Utah, is first announced to the scientific world. It has been mined since the 1880s and is shipped worldwide. Gilsonite is a solid hydrocarbon that is resistant to acids and moisture and is used as a base or component in various paints, anticorrosive coatings, insulating and waterproofing jackets for underground pipes, and automotive body sealers.

1874: The Silver Reef (Harrisburg) mining district is organized by John Kemple, who first discovered silver in sandstones of the area in 1866 or 1869.

1877: Inferior deposits of coal had been found in Utah during the 1850s and 60s, but now mining begins at Utah’s first major coal development, the Wasatch Plateau coalfield at Winter Quarters in Carbon County. This coal quickly becomes fuel for the stoves and furnaces of the Wasatch Front.

1890: Lake Bonneville, U.S. Geological Survey Monograph 1 by G.K. Gilbert, is published. Gilbert, one of America’s greatest geomorphologists, was the first to study and describe the prehistoric lake features of Lake Bonneville.

1891: Discovery of natural gas in the Farmington Bay area on the east shore of Great Salt Lake marks the beginning of Utah’s natural gas industry.

1901: One of the largest historical earthquakes in Utah is the Richfield earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 6.5.

1906: The Bingham Canyon mine becomes the world’s first open-pit copper mine and starts the porphyry copper mining business worldwide. Today it is the largest excavation on earth with 250,000 tons of rock being extracted every day.

1907: The Virgin oil field in Washington County becomes Utah’s first oil-producing field (although not in commercial quantities because of its small production).

1909: Paleontologist Earl Douglass discovers thousands of dinosaur bones, including several nearly complete skeletons, at the current site of Dinosaur National Monument.

1915: Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal is created. It contains the largest concentration of Jurassic Period dinosaur bones ever discovered and is a unique natural exhibit with more than 1,600 dinosaur bones that were deposited in an ancient river bed.

1919: Utah’s first national park, Zion National Park, is established to preserve and protect its scenic beauty and unique geologic features.

1923: Debris flows, triggered during a cloudburst rainstorm, emanate from canyons in the Farmington area of Davis County causing the most disastrous flood in Utah’s history, killing seven people and damaging homes, roads, irrigation canals, crops, water systems, railroad tracks, and telephone lines.

1930: Major debris flows and floods in Davis County kill more than 2,000 farm animals (mostly chickens) and damage or destroy crops, structures, automobiles, roads, railroad tracks, farmland, and irrigation systems.

1934: The largest historical Utah earthquake is the magnitude 6.6 Hansel Valley earthquake in northwestern Utah, which produces surface fault ruptures along a zone 5 miles long with up to 20 inches of vertical displacement. In downtown Salt Lake City, two adjacent tall buildings sway sufficiently to make contact. This earthquake influences further development of seismographic instrumentation within Utah and stimulates local attention to earthquake-related problems.

1942-44: To meet increased war demands for steel, the Geneva steel plant, one of the largest producers of steel in the West, is constructed. This has a major impact on the mining of Utah iron ore, coal, and limestone and dolomite.

1948: A natural gas well in Ashley Valley field, near Vernal in the Uinta Basin, is deepened to become Utah’s first oil well to produce petroleum in commercial quantities.

1952: Charlie Steen’s discovery of pure uraninite ore near Moab brings about the uranium boom of the Colorado Plateau.

1959: A rock-filled causeway across Great Salt Lake is built for the railroad. The causeway restricts circulation of water between the north and south arms of Great Salt Lake, creating a higher water level to the south and saltier water to the north.

1961-65: Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey and University of Utah College of Mines and Mineral Industries jointly publish the first detailed geologic map specifically of Utah in four parts at a scale of 1:250,000.

1962: An extremely damaging magnitude 5.7 earthquake occurs near Richmond in Cache Valley. Over three-fourths of the houses in Richmond are damaged, the Benson Stake Tabernacle has to be demolished, and mudslides and rockfalls close highways and canals.

1963: Great Salt Lake water level drops to its lowest historical elevation of 4,191.35 feet above sea level.

1966: Recognized worldwide as the primary source for skeletons of the flesh-eating Allosaur, the Cleveland- Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is designated a National Natural Landmark. Over the years, bones have been taken from the quarry representing at least 70 different animals and 14 species. Casts and original skeletons assembled from these bones are on display in over 60 museums worldwide.

1969: Production of the only developed source of beryllium (bertrandite) ores in North America begins at Spor Mountain, Juab County. Beryllium is a rare, light-weight, high-strength, heat-resistant metal that is used in a variety of high-tech products and applications including aerospace vehicles such as the space shuttle, and computer and telecommunication equipment. Topaz becomes Utah’s official state gem. Topaz is found in cavities in the rhyolites of the Thomas Range of western Utah and occurs as very hard, transparent crystals in a variety of colors.

1970: Operations begin to mine potash underground from the Cane Creek mine near Moab. Accidental flooding forces conversion of the mine to a subsurface solution mine. Water is injected at one end and then pumped out 300 days later at the other end. This water, saturated with soluble potash and salts, is pumped into shallow evaporation ponds where the dried potash is eventually removed by earthmoving equipment.

1972: A magnesium plant (currently named MagCorp) begins operations to utilize magnesium chloride brines from Great Salt Lake for the production of magnesium metal and chlorine gas.

1975: Discovery of the Pineview oil field in Summit County sparks new interest in overthrust belt investigations that ultimately lead to the discovery of prolific oil and gas fields in northeastern Utah. Geothermal resources in the Newcastle area, located on the southeastern edge of the Escalante Valley, are discovered. Commercial greenhouse complexes take advantage of the geothermal system for space heating and produce tropical plants and hydroponic vegetables for markets in the western United States.

1983: Extensive flooding and landsliding due to rapid snowmelt, combined with above-average precipitation over several years, results in damage so extreme that 22 of Utah’s 29 counties are declared eligible for national disaster assistance. In Salt Lake City, streams are diverted onto streets to handle the excess flow. The most damaging and costliest landslide is the Thistle landslide in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah County, which dams the Spanish Fork River, cutting off major east-west rail and highway corridors, inundating the town of Thistle, and costing over $250 million. The Mercur mining district, located in the southern Oquirrh Mountains, is revitalized after being idle since 1942 when the Mercur mine began production, becoming one of the major gold producers of North America. Production from the mine ended in

1997: due to depletion of the ore reserves.

1984: The geothermal waters of the Roosevelt Hot Springs near Milford in Beaver County are used to generate electricity at the Blundell power plant, resulting in the first significant commercial generation of electricity from geothermal resources in the United States outside of California.

1985: The Apex (Dixie) mine, Tutsagubet mining district, Washington County, reopens as the world’s first mine to operate primarily for the extraction of two space-age metals, gallium and germanium, which are used in light-emitting diodes, photo detectors, integrated circuits, and fiber-optic systems.

1986: Great Salt Lake rises to its historical high of 4,211.8 feet due to above-average precipitation over several years.

1988: Mining begins at the Barneys Canyon operation, which consists of at least five gold deposits located in the Oquirrh Mountains about 5 miles north of the Bingham Canyon open-pit mine. Production is expected to continue through the year 2001. The Allosaurus fragilis, the largest carnivore of the Jurassic Period, becomes Utah’s official state fossil. More allosaur specimens have been found in Utah’s quarries than any other dinosaur. On average, allosaurs weighed 4 tons, stood 17 feet high on two legs, and measured 35 feet long.

1991: A horizontally drilled oil well is successfully completed in the Moab area. Horizontal drilling is an ideal technique to recover oil trapped within fractured rock and can be used to revitalize oil fields.

1991: A new carnivorous dinosaur, Utahraptor, is discovered at the Gaston quarry near Moab. This is the largest (estimated at 20 feet in length) and oldest known dromaeosaurid (about 125 million years old, Early Cretaceous Period). Dromaeosaurids, popularly known as “raptors,” may have hunted in packs and slashed their prey with a blade-like claw that was attached to each foot. Coal is officially recognized as the Utah State Rock. Coal is found in 17 of Utah’s 29 counties, but coal mining is primarily concentrated in Emery and Carbon Counties.

1992: Ground shaking during the magnitude 5.8 St. George earthquake causes damage to buildings in St. George and nearby communities and triggers a massive, destructive landslide about 28 miles away in Springdale which destroys three homes.

1998: Landslides in northern Utah severely damage homes. The Thistle landslide in Spanish Fork Canyon is reactivated.

Survey Notes, v. 31 no. 3, September 1999