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Little towns swallowed up by a pit

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The place where Alta Miller grew up is so dead and gone that even "ghost town" is too substantial a phrase.

In a ghost town you'd find an old foundation or two; maybe some weathered lumber. You'd find, at the very least, some dust. But Miller belongs to a small and diminishing number of Utahns who hail from a spot that has literally vanished into thin air.

Thomas Wolfe thought he couldn't go home again. But at least his town was still on the map.

At 96, Alta Miller is one of the oldest former inhabitants of the towns that used to line Bingham Canyon — places such as Dinkyville, Frogtown, Upper Bingham and Highland Boy — in the Oquirrh Mountains, west of Midvale.

Midvale used to be the city you'd visit on special occasions if you lived in Dinkyville or Frogtown. Now it's the home of the Midvale Senior Citizens Center, where earlier this week Miller and some of her old friends gathered to reminisce about their hometowns — towns that have since been replaced by the world's largest open pit copper mine, a hole so big that it's one of the two man-made creations visible from outer space.

"You know how people say they have roots someplace," Micaela (Mickey) Ortega Trujillo noted. "My dad used to say he had no roots." That was after their town, Highland Boy, was wiped off the map.

"It's just air now," said Roma Ganz, 86, who grew up in Copperfield.

But it isn't really buildings — or even land — that is the heart of a town, Trujillo said. "People make a town," she said, even people who no longer have a hometown to come from. Her hometown is peopled by folks who remember clotheslines stretched across the road (the people on one side washed on Mondays, the other side washed on Tuesdays), and the Columbus Day parades (nobody remembers anything special about Pioneer Day), and the fire that nearly wiped out Highland Boy (the rumor has always been that Utah Copper turned off the water because it wanted Highland Boy to burn).

Bingham Canyon was first settled by Thomas and Sanford Bingham, two brothers who were sent there by Brigham Young to harvest lumber. But when soldiers discovered gold there in the 1860s, the canyon soon attracted miners looking to strike it rich. Soon there were immigrants from all over the world, and the tent towns turned into settlements with pockets of Swedes, Japanese, Croats, Serbs, French, Italians, Mexicans — 13 nationalities eventually.

And even though the Croats and the Serbs never got along, Milan Bursach says, and the Mexicans were "a minority within a minority," Trujillo says, most everybody looked after each other ("we had a common denominator — poverty," Trujillo said). They cared about each other much better than people do nowadays, Isabell Sorrels says.

The last of the towns disappeared in 1967, and the canyon they stood in was gobbled up by Kennecott Copper in 1971. Now, all these years later, Sorrels will occasionally take a trip to the copper mine. She'll stand at the observation deck, like some tourist from Toledo or Tokyo, and she'll gaze at the place that isn't any more. "I get homesick," she said.

"The only thing that looks the same," she said, "is the outline of the mountain tops."

E-MAIL: jarvik@desnews.com