The Time Of The Great Fever


Uranium was never totally useless. Navahos and Utes and their Indian ancestors had long used the secondary uranium ores for war paint and pictographs. Howard Balsley recalls shipping carloads of it in 1934 to the Vitro Chemical Corporation, then based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For nine years the firm used his ore to give its ceramics twenty-six different shades of red, green, brown, and yellow. The demand was limited, however.

Uranium’s time did not come until the late 1930’s, when an international team of theoretical physicists saw the likelihood of creating a sustained chain reaction with atomic fission and realized its possible awesome consequences. The world would never be the same. Neither would life on the Colorado Plateau, where there developed a sudden and urgent need for “mineral X,” which was shipped to the hub of all Western uranium activity, the operations office of the AEC’s Division of Raw Materials, in Grand Junction, Colorado. Some disagreement remains about whether the Manhattan Project used domestic uranium or that imported from a rival, the famous Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo, to build the bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945. But miners who sold carnotite to the government and watched the big mounds of yellow tailings (the old “waste heaps” of the vanadium boom) disappear at United States Vanadium Company’s Uravan mill still insist it was all home-grown.

Be that as it may, even after the war, conventional wisdom held that the United States was deficient in uranium reserves.

And so the postwar uranium hunt progressed slowly for four years—even after the government offered its attractive package of guarantee, subsidy, and bonus to the multitudes. Discoveries were largely confined to exposed outcrops in the 140,000,000-year-old Morrison formation of the recent Jurassic Age. But the removal in 1951 of David Lilienthal, who, as head of the AEC, had resisted the pressure of Western mining interests and congressmen to step up the search for domestic uranium, resulted in a marked increase in the number of prospectors clambering over the slick rock plateau armed with Geiger counters and scintillation counters. The sanguine veterans of the hunt believed it was just a matter of time before someone hit it really big.

Mining bonanzas traditionally became associated with a single seeker. The great uranium rush of the 1950’s had such a man to match its many arid mountains in Charles Augustus Steen, a fellow who exceeded any pulp writer’s capacity for invention—the gritty embodiment of every poor man’s dream to shed his rags for riches, the obstinate loner who suffered the world’s mockery to do it his way.

“…the gritty embodiment of every poor man s dream to shed his rags for riches…”

Steen came out of Texas with a degree in geology, a jeep and a house trailer, a wife and three young sons and another child on the way. He also brought a reputation as a maverick, having been fired from his job as a petroleum geologist (“innately rebellious against authority”) and blackballed in the oil industry. Charlie bought himself a secondhand drill rig for nine hundred dollars, or nine-tenths of his grubstake, and proceeded to file on some claims in Big Indian Wash, some forty miles south of Moab, Utah. It was likely looking ground only to Charlie. Atomic Energy Commission geologists had been through and dismissed it, as had some seasoned prospectors who found Steen’s geologic theories ludicrous, if not demented.

Fortune exacted steep dues from Steen. First his drill rig broke down. He was dead broke. He sold his trailer and moved into a one-room tar-paper shack without plumbing or electricity in Cisco, Utah. His wife contracted pneumonia, he had to beg milk for his infant son, his mother sold her house to give him another stake. Finally he wrote letters that raised enough money for him to buy another rusted, rickety diamond drill. Four years of privation in all, made worse by the carpings of those who thought an able-bodied family man should be providing for his own—even if that meant working for somebody else.

It all turned around in July, 1952, when Charlie struck a dirty gray ore at seventy-five feet on the Big Indian Wash. The core sample was fourteen feet thick and interesting, but definitely not the carnotite he had expected to find at about two hundred and fifty feet. Charlie resumed drilling but soon lost his drill bit at the bottom of the hole. To fish it out he would have to go to Grand Junction, Colorado, for the right tool. So he threw some of the gray rock in the back of his jeep and headed for a gas station in Cisco where he could fill his tank on credit.

The proprietor was a “Sunday prospector” who happened to be checking some of his ore with a Geiger counter when Charlie pulled in. “Aw, hell, that’s nothing,” Charlie boasted, half in fun. “Just try what I’ve got.” When the gray ore was fetched from the jeep and put under the counter, the needle leaped against the peg, the counter chattered crazily. It took Charlie Steen an instant to realize he had tapped a thick vein of uraninite. Then he turned and ran home to holler the news to his long-suffering wife: “We’ve hit it big! We’re rich!”

Steen had hit it biggest, hit it richest. The high grade ore brought up through his famous Mi Vida mine brought him a hundred million dollars in a matter of months.