Rafael Lopez came to Utah to help break a strike up in Bingham Canyon in 1912. A year later, he was a fugitive – and a folk hero.
When Greek miners went out on strike in 1912, the Utah Copper Company turned to Mexican labor to keep production moving in its Bingham Canyon mine. Some of the strike-breakers stayed on after the dispute was settled. One of them – a miner named Rafael Lopez – became a folk hero among Mexican workers for his successful – if violent – defiance of authority.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the mining camps of Bingham Canyon were melting pots of Finns, Serbs, Greeks, and French. The Mexicans who looked for work there often had to take the least desirable jobs, but Lopez made forty dollars a day extracting ore from abandoned old slopes, and made a reputation as an industrious worker.
But one evening in 1913, Lopez murdered a fellow miner – Juan Valdez – on their way home from work. Some claim that Lopez lost his temper and shot the man in cold blood. Others say he took revenge on the man who killed his brother. We may never know. But in the days that followed, Lopez led the police on a manhunt that made him a household name.
When deputies tried to arrest him, Lopez retaliated, killing three more men. So police retaliated by jailing 54 Mexican miners on charges of “vagrancy.” As he continued to avoid capture, Lopez became a kind of hero among Utah’s Mexican community. They cheered him as he eluded police and mourned him when a sheriff detonated dynamite to trap him in the mineshaft where he was supposedly hiding.
But Lopez’s body was never recovered. Some miners claimed to have seen him haunting the shafts, slopes, and drifts of Bingham Canyon. Others refused to work until he was found. And many believed that Lopez escaped to Mexico, never to be heard from again. Whatever his fate, the Mexican miners who coped with low pay and dangerous conditions turned Lopez into a folk hero, telling stories of his exploits for years to come.
Image: Some believe the man in this photo to be Rafael "Red" Lopez, however we may never know what became of the infamous outlaw. Courtesy of True West Archives.
See Vincent Mayer, Utah: A Hispanic History, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1975; Lawrence P. James, "The Search for Lopez," Desert Magazine, June 1967, pp. 34-37; “Renegade Remembered,” Desert Magazine, September 1967; Robert Kirby, “Remembering the worst day in Utah law enforcement,” Salt Lake Tribune, November 20, 2013.