Toole County officers, 1874
Area: 6,923 square miles; population: 26,601 (in 1990); county
seat: Tooele City; origin of county name: probably from tule,
a Spanish word of Aztec origin, meaning bulrush, a marsh plant; principal
cities/towns: Tooele City (13,887), Grantsville (4,500), Wendover
(1,122); economy: defense, transportation, communications, trade,
services; points of interest: Bonneville Speedway, Deseret Peak Wilderness
Area, Ophir Town Hall, Grantsville First Ward, Old Pony Express and Stage
Route, Iosepa Cemetery, Great Salt Lake.
Tooele County is Basin and Range country. Most of its towns lie in a broad
valley between the mineral-rich Oquirrh Mountains on the eastern border
and the Onaqui and Stansbury mountains to the west. The Great Salt Lake
Desert covers most of western Tooele County, except the southwest corner
where the Deep Creek Mountains rise.
Prehistoric Indian sites have been discovered in the county, but it is the
Goshutes, a branch of the Western Shoshone, who claim this harsh environment
as their ancestral homeland. Their ingenious use of the limited plant and
animal resources of the area amazed the first white travelers. The Goshutes
currently have a reservation in Skull Valley.
Tuilla, as it was originally spelled, was one of six counties created in
January 1850. Its boundaries were changed a number of times before it achieved
its present size as the state's second largest county.
The Mormons herded livestock in Tooele Valley before permanent settlement
began in 1849. The early settlers farmed, built gristmills and sawmills,
and manufactured salt, charcoal, lime, adobe bricks, and woolen products.
Large sheep and cattle herds were developed, and hay and grain became important
crops. But mining and smelting, not agriculture, led the county's growth
from the 1860s to World War II.
The Rush Valley Mining District, organized in 1864 by soldiers from Fort
Douglas, included all of the western Oquirrhs. More than 500 mining claims
were located during the first year. Of the mining towns founded in Tooele
County, Ophir and Mercur became the most important. Ophir boomed in the
1870s with an estimated population of 6,000 and mines that produced millions
of dollars in silver, lead, zinc, and gold. Mercur endured several boom
and bust cycles as well as two major fires; with a population estimated
as high as 10,000 it flirted briefly with the idea of taking the county
seat from Tooele City.
The International Smelting and Refining Company's smelter, built east of
Tooele City in 1910, for some sixty years processed ore carried by aerial
tramway from the Bingham mine. The plant attracted workers from southern
and eastern Europe, diversifying Tooele's ethnic and religious mix. The
Tooele Valley Railroad, completed in 1909, served the smelter's needs and
provided additional jobs.
Military installations built during World War II boosted the county's population
and continue to pump millions of dollars into the local economy. Wendover
Air Force Base (now closed) near the Nevada border became an important site
for bomber training, at one time employing almost 20,000 military and civilian
personnel. Tooele Ordnance Depot (now Tooele Army Depot, or TAD), built
in 1942 on a huge tract of land south of Tooele City, served as a major
supply, storage, and repair center, employing almost 2,000 civilians in
1944. Activity at TAD peaked during the Korean War and again during the
Vietnam conflict. Dugway Proving Grounds, a chemical and biological warfare
test center built at the same time, became controversial in the 1970s when
a large number of sheep in the area were killed, presumably as a result
of nerve gas testing. Today, most of western Tooele County is reserved for
military use. Citizens of Tooele County received a major economic blow in
1993 when the Tooele Army Depot was included on a Defense Department list
of bases to be closed. Although the closure of the depot will undoubtedly
greatly affect the county, citizens and officials are working to mitigate
Miriam B. Murphy