In 1847, the primary influx of Utah pioneers, Mormon settlers (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), arrived in Salt Lake Valley. Unlike settlers in other western states who prospected for precious metals, early Utahns concentrated on farming, raising livestock, and establishing communities, and only mined materials necessary for home industries such as salt, coal, lead, and sulfur. Therefore, it wasn’t until 1858 that a gold discovery was reported. Westbound travelers on their way to California found gold at Gold Hill in Tooele County. Native Americans initially drove away prospectors, discouraging any mining in the area. Prospectors were persistent, however, and in 1869, the Clifton (Gold Hill) district was organized. Small amounts of gold, silver, and lead were produced over the next few years. Mining activity and production increased in 1892, when a mill was constructed to treat the ores.
General Patrick E. Connor, stationed with his regiment at Camp Douglas in the foothills east of Salt Lake City, and others formally organized the first mining district, West Mountain (currently Bingham) in 1863, after the discovery of lead-silver ore in Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains of Salt Lake County. Placer gold was discovered in Bingham Canyon the following year. These placers were the largest and most productive ever discovered in Utah, yielding about $1.5 million in gold. However, they were practically depleted by 1900.
A gold placer in the Mercur (previously Camp Floyd) district in Tooele County was discovered in 1870. A few prospectors staked claims but soon abandoned their endeavors due to the scarcity of both water and gold that could be panned. Silver ores kept the district alive until around 1880. About 1883, gold-bearing ores were found, but the gold could not be separated from the rock. Disappointed, prospectors again left the district. Then, in 1889, these ores were rediscovered and the gold successfully recovered using the newly developed cyanide leaching process. From 1890 to 1900, almost 2 million tons of gold ore were treated, producing over 380,000 ounces of gold worth about $8 million.
In the 1880s, Bluff residents intermittently prospected the San Juan River and its tributaries. In 1892, exaggerated tales of the area’s fabulously rich river placers and sandstone terraces spread like wildfire throughout the West. A stampede of 1,200 prospectors followed, creating the “Bluff excitement” in the winter of 1892-93. After enduring hardships, much fighting, and some bloodshed, the prospectors discovered that the gold was very fine grained, making recovery difficult, and in a few months the area was practically abandoned.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, gold placer mining was conducted in the Tushar, Henry, La Sal, and Abajo Mountains and along the Colorado, San Juan, and Green Rivers and their tributaries. Early gold-producing districts, some mining gold as a by-product of other metals, included Tintic, Bingham, Mercur, Park City, Gold Mountain, Gold Springs, State Line, Clifton, Park Valley, Spring Creek, American Fork, and San Francisco.
During these early years of discovery, thousands of claims were filed and many mines started. Eventually most of these were either mined out and abandoned, or were consolidated and worked by large mining companies.