This Utah ghost town just struck gold
The town of Eureka sits nestled among the East Tintic Mountains, a range heavy-laden with precious metals that have been mined since 1869. In its heyday, the Tintic Mining District was revered as one of the nation’s richest mining districts for silver, lead, and zinc.
Today, Eureka is what one could call a well-preserved “ghost town” (though it boasts a current population of 740, according to the 2022 census). Historic buildings—most of them empty and even featured on a 2018 “Ghost Adventures” episode—line a modest main street, and remnants of the town’s successful mining history can be seen in every direction. Even the prolific Tintic Mining District itself had lain dormant since 1978.
“As the Tintic mining district closed down, so did the town,” says Vern Tharp, VP of land and water management at Tintic Consolidated Metals (TCM). Before the company revived the district in June of 2019, Tharp says the district had been abandoned for decades—and was passed up by a number of sophisticated mining companies.
When TCM president and CEO Tom Bowens and his team first toured the premises, they found priceless legacy data and infrastructure amongst the rubble. Mining structures that would have cost thousands of dollars (and years to build) were still preserved inside the historically fruitful Trixie mine.
Hundreds of drawings of underground workings and decades of drill logs were also waiting to be utilized. “[The maps and drill logs] were scattered all over the floor. The windows were broken, and the doors were wide open,” Tharp says. “But those records are just as valid today as they were in 1932 because the rock doesn’t change, unlike almost all other industries. If you had some early drawings of computers from 1932, they’d just be in a museum.”
Taking advantage of these historical documents and modern 3D modeling, the TCM team mapped out a promising area of precious metal opportunity—enough to put money on the table and take a chance on further exploration. Then in 2020, when the rest of the world was spiraling due to the pandemic, TCM literally struck gold.
After extending an existing mine shaft about 100 feet, “Boom, we hit this beautiful green, high-grade stuff that was assaying 3-15 ounces per ton of gold,” Tharp says. “The guys were jumping up and down.”
The discovery of ore this high-grade was unexpected, and TCM swiftly transitioned from an exploration company into a production company. With the announcement of Canada-based Osisko Development’s acquisition of TCM, the Tintic Mining District is back on the map as one of the highest-grade gold mines in the world.
Re-building a city from (under) the ground up
On an afternoon in mid-March, I met Tharp outside the city limits of Eureka near a historic Sinclair gas station. As we drove into town, he pointed out the yellow streaks in the hillside where the road was cut into the mountain. Those streaks, called “alterations,” are visible proof of very violent, very hot past magmatic activity—the same activity that often causes mineral deposits underground. “To a geologist, those ‘streaks’ are better than the most beautiful picture you can imagine,” Tharp says.
We drove from one end of Eureka to the other in less than ten minutes—past the Wild West lawman Porter Rockwell’s cabin, a small city hall, and two school buildings. “They have K-12 right here in town, and it’s one of the only assets they’ve got left in Eureka,” Tharp says. “The town is going to have to start from scratch. That’s one of the issues we’re grappling with: How will the town balance growth while bringing in affordable housing? Eureka desperately needs kids for the schools…if we can bring 10 families with two kids per family here, that’s $120,000 per year for the school.”
Across the street from Tintic High School sits B’s Hangout, one of two restaurants in town. Before it was opened, the residents of Eureka went about 20 years without having a restaurant in town at all, says restaurant owner Brandon Gout. Now, most of his clientele are people passing through Eureka to recreate at the Little Sahara sand dunes. “A lot of people who actually live here are on a fixed income, so some will come [to the restaurant] maybe once a month,” Gout says. “They support it, but it’s not enough to keep me going. I depend on tourism.”
Tharp says that there is a lack of affordable housing in Eureka, and many of TCM’s miners currently live in Spanish Fork, Santaquin, or Provo. Still, he and the miners hope that will change once Osisko completes its acquisition. “Additional funding will increase production, which will increase the number of employees,” Tharp says. “We would much rather our employees live in Eureka with their families and drive to work than have to come from elsewhere.”
One Eureka resident who has already benefited from the resurgence of the Tintic Mining District is Brandy Kirgan, who has been with the company since its inception in 2019. Before managing the books, she was a part-time bus driver for Tintic School District. As a single mother, it was hard for her to make ends meet. “I never thought I’d be working for a company like this and be taken care of like I have been,” Kirgan says. “I figured I’d nickel-and-dime it and just get through.”
Sonya Coombs, another long-standing office employee, agrees she never thought she’d work for a mining company. “To me, this was always a man’s industry,” she says. “My dad worked here when I was growing up. I never in a million years thought I would fit in here. But there’s room for us ladies, and I love it.”
Though Kirgan and Coombs hope to see the Tintic Mining District succeed insomuch that they can retire from TCM in the future, Kirgan is hesitant to imagine Eureka changing. “If it grew too much, there wouldn’t be that comfort, that feeling of safety,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody—it’s just a big family. I’m not looking for this to become Park City.”
David Sabourin, COO of Tintic Consolidated Metals, has worked in nine different countries around the world. “But Utah is absolutely first-class,” he says. Well, so is the gold.
Inside the Trixie mine, TCM isn’t mining gold nuggets like the ones you might see on Gold Rush-era television shows. Still, miners are finding visible gold, a commodity rarely seen in today’s mining industry.
The rest of what’s being mined from Trixie is xocomecatlite, which Tharp describes as a highly-complex “soup” of minerals. That high-grade ore can be recognized by its colors—bright blues and greens so vibrant they are rarely found in nature, much less underground. Xocomecatlite is so rare, says geologist Matthew Perkins, that he didn’t even know what it was upon first seeing it.
“There’s an enormous amount of free, visible gold you can see in the rock. The tellurates have oxidized into these spectacular greens and blues,” says Perkins, who serves as the exploration manager of TCM. “The Tintic district is known for its exotic, rare minerals, and that’s exactly what we’re finding. These bonanza, high-grade ores are only found in seven mines in the world. Fortunately, Trixie is one of them.”
Though the Trixie mine is currently TCM’s crown jewel, there’s so much more to discover. TCM—and soon, Osisko—owns 7,000 acres of surface area and 14,000 acres of minerals beneath the surface. “The plan is to further develop the Trixie and establish an access tunnel down to the mine from the surface to enable larger-scale mining,” Sabourin says. “There’s gold and silver in the rest of the district, and we’ve already identified some of those potential targets. The Bergen mine is a base metal mine—lead, zinc, and silver. It would be really nice to open up this operation again and be able to mine not only the Trixie Mine precious metals but also base metals, as well.”
The US is one of the best places for mining minerals, Sabourin says, and yet we continue to mine them from South America, the Far East, and other potentially unstable locations. “We could open up some of these operations and actually provide ourselves with the minerals that we need to develop the country—minerals that we don’t have to be relying on other countries to provide,” he says.
Osisko plans to take TCM public, allowing this work to accelerate at a much quicker pace. According to a press release, Osisko plans to increase throughput to 500 tons per day by the end of 2024—a massive undertaking that TCM couldn’t have ever achieved on its own. Still, not everyone was happy about TCM’s acquisition, Bowens says.
“When we accepted the offer, some shareholders were upset. They liked the vision of bringing these mines online and getting payments every year from the gold stream,” Bowens says. “But one of the beauties of [the acquisition] is that it’s actually better for the state and the community. Osisko is talking about opening four mines in seven years. I was being bold saying one every three.”
From gold to ghost and back again
According to Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, the development Osisko has planned for the Tintic Mining District will further improve Utah’s $6.5 billion mining industry—an industry that supports about 30,000 jobs.
“According to Department of Workforce Services data, there are 12 different counties in the state where mining is the highest paying job you can get, and that includes Salt Lake County,” Somers says. “On average, the highest-paying job you can get is in mining. And in the rural parts of our state, that’s more true than ever.”
It’s exciting that the Tintic Mining District could have as bright a future as its past, Somers says. “I think the opportunity to help revitalize some of these areas and to bring in the type of revenue, workers, and investment that this really represents is an exciting thing for the state.”
Somers hopes there will be even more exploration activity in Utah in the future, especially with the recent passing of Senate Bill 250, a mineral exploration tax credit that kicks in once a company starts producing and paying state severance taxes. “The idea that we’re going to become more self-sufficient and bring in a resource for some of these supply chains is really important,” Somers says. “But that doesn’t happen without folks like Tom that’ll come in, explore, and put money on the table to try and develop these resources.”
As far as Bowens’ motivation to put money on the table, he says investing in the Tintic Mining District was a no-brainer. “Usually, people with the money don’t have the vision, and people with the vision don’t have the money,” he says. “All of those old deposits were mined so long ago and were held by so many different small stakeholders. Nobody had really put it all together.”
Tharp likes to describe Bowens as “the Indiana Jones of exploration,” and Bowens has indeed had quite an adventurous career—from explorations in Nicaragua to mapping deposits next to Siberian Tiger tracks in Russia and riding horses in the Gobi Desert. So, where does the excitement of the Tintic Mining District fall on this scale?
It’s probably tied for first place, he says. “Here, it’s not the adventure of a culture—because it’s my culture—but it’s the excitement of the deposit itself,” Bowens says. “There aren’t a lot of explorations, especially these days, where geologists get excited about the discovery. But when you discover grades like these, that’s just as exciting as a sunset in the Gobi.”