Raye C. Ringholz
Beehive History 16
It was the winter of 1949 in Houston, Texas. Charles Augustus Steen was twenty-eight years old. Fired as a geologist by the Standard Oil Company of Indiana for “rebellion against authority” and blacklisted throughout the petroleum industry, he was working as a carpenter to support a pregnant wife and three toddlers. But all the time he pounded nails the graduate of Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy dreamed of the day he could get back to his first love and go wildcatting for oil on his own. Maybe make a fortune. Then one December he picked up a copy of the Engineering and Mining Journal and knew his time had come. “Can Uranium Mining Pay?” a headline challenged. The accompanying story hailed a potential uranium boom evolving in the ragged badlands of the Colorado Plateau. “. . . Risks are being taken and profits are being made,” the article stated. “This speaks well for the independent producers there because many of them are newcomers to the mining field, having been farmers, ranchers, fruit growers, etc. It should also be a challenge to experienced mining men to come into the area and do as well or better.”
Uranium was suddenly the most critical material the United States had ever known. It fueled atomic weapons. It promised electrical power; gas-free operation of cars, planes, and locomotives; preservation of meat; and even distillation of sea water. Most important, a domestic supply of uranium was needed to maintain a nuclear edge in the cold war that was developing with Russia. But such a motherlode was nonexistent.
The Manhattan Project
America had been caught shorthanded during World War II, when the Manhattan Project, a top-secret branch of the U.S. Corps of Engineers (later reorganized as the civilian Atomic Energy Commission) was developing a lethal atomic bomb to end the hostilities. Fuel for this nuclear weapon was uranium. As our nation’s own supply of the ore was severely limited, the project had to import most of the needed material from the Belgian Congo (Zaire) and a small amount from Canada.
The only known source of local uranium in those days was in the Four Corners area where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. In the early 1900s, after Madame Marie Curie isolated pure metal radium from uranium salts, the uranium-bearing pitchblende and yellow carnotite on the Colorado Plateau (once used as Indian war paint) triggered a rush of prospectors. The region became the primary source of Curie’s “miracle element” until the advent of World War I.
On the heels of the radium boom, another ore came into prominence. Vanadium, a waste product of radium mines, was found to enhance the tensile strength, wearability, and elasticity of steel when added to the molten metal with iron. Production of warships, planes, and industrial machinery triggered a new mining fever on the Colorado Plateau. Fortune-hunters descended on redrock country once more to mine vanadium from the abandoned radium waste piles.
Some twenty-five years later, with the development of nuclear weaponry, the Manhattan Project calculated that there would be a small amount of uranium in the old radium-vanadium dumps. A highly secret operation to mine and mill these tailings for the precious uranium oxide commenced. Not until 1947, after Howard Balsley of Moab, Utah, and Fendall A. Sitton from Dove Creek, Colorado, went to Washington to convince bureaucrats of the possibility of a full-scale uranium industry on the Colorado Plateau did the AEC finally send out the call for prospectors.
Uranium Prices Guaranteed
Uncle Sam was desperate for the mineral and willing to pay for it. As the only legal purchaser of the ore, the Atomic Energy Commission established minimum prices, guaranteed the rates for ten years, and added a $10,000 bonus for each separate discovery and production of high-grade uranium from new deposits.
This was all that Charlie Steen needed. He bought a secondhand jeep and a broken-down drill rig and headed for the Colorado Plateau. After studying the reports of Manhattan Project geologists who charted the back country, he decided that a triangle drawn from Moab, Utah, on the west, Dove Creek, Colorado, near the Utah-Colorado border in the southeast, and Grand Junction, Colorado, to the north contained the heart of the action. Confident of his expertise as an oil geologist, he ignored established uranium prospecting guidelines drawn by federal geologists and was convinced that uranium could collect deep underground like reservoirs of oil and then leech upward into the Morrison Formation where most of the ore had been located. Consequently, instead of prospecting ridge lines, he looked for downward sloping, or anticlinal, structures behind existing claims where small amounts of uranium had been found.
Unlike most uranium prospectors, Steen did not own a Geiger counter to help locate hidden deposits. He rattled around the back country for almost two years, scrounging grubstakes from friends and family and moving his wife and four sons into tiny trailers and tarpaper shacks. Finally, in the spring of 1951 he staked twelve claims behind the old Big Buck Mine, which had been worked by Dan Hayes, Jim Bentley, and W. Y. Brewer—an area then labeled worthless by Manhattan Project engineers. Despite local ridicule over “Steen’s Folly,” he persisted. On July 6, 1952, Steen struck the biggest deposit of high-grade uranium ore in the country. Within the first six months his Mi Vida (“My Life”) Mine, southeast of Moab in the Lisbon Valley, shipped a million dollars worth of ore that was so pure it assayed up to 87 percent uranium.
The Uranium Boom
Steen’s strike triggered a mineral rush that rocked the entire Colorado Plateau. Shortly after announcement of the Mi Vida find, Vernon Pick, a middle-aged electrician from Minnesota, discovered the Delta Mine northwest of Hanksville. After blocking out approximately 300,000 tons of ore with an in-place value of forty dollars per ton, the Delta’s monthly production averaged 1,500 tons. Two years later Pick sold his mine to international financier Floyd Odlum for $9 million and a custom-converted PBY airplane. Odlum renamed the mine the Hidden Splendor, but soon after his purchase the highly touted vein pinched out. Local wags then dubbed the mine “Odlum’s Hidden Blunder.”
UTAH URANIUM PRODUCTION
Pratt Seegmiller of Marysville remembered some yellow rock he’d seen in the back country years before. After racking his brain to remember the site, he staked the Freedom and Prospector claims, which proved to be among Utah’s richest deposits.
Joe Cooper, a road contractor in Monticello, partnered with his father-in-law Fletcher Bronson and earned over $25 million on the Happy Jack Mine.
Texan Blanton W. Burford and his partners sliced into an eight-foot vein of high-grade uranium ore while bulldozing a road into their claims on Rattlesnake Mountain near Moab.
School teachers, insurance brokers, used car salesmen, and shoe clerks around the nation converged on the Colorado Plateau to seek their fortune. Even a group of high school students staked forty claims and later sold them for $15,000. By the mid-1950s, almost six hundred producers on the Colorado Plateau were shipping uranium ore. Employment in the industry topped 8,000 workers in the mines and mills. Another bonanza in penny uranium stock established Salt Lake City as “The Wall Street of Uranium.” The AEC had turned the tap and caused a flood.
But by 1964, after producing almost 9 million tons of ore valued at $250 million, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that “it is no longer in the interest of the Government to expand production of uranium concentrate.” The market was saturated. There were 71 million tons of reserves—enough to satisfy United States needs through the next four years. For the first time, private enterprise was invited to purchase uranium oxide and the AEC put federal buying on hold. During the late 1960s the industry rallied again with mining by large companies for developing nuclear plants. But the furor was never the same. Ostensibly, the uranium boom was over.