The Time Of The Great Fever

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It took about a year for word of Charlie Steen’s fortune to really sink into the national consciousness. Then came the summer rush of 1953 with its restless mix of promoters, prospectors, promoter-prospectors, wild dreamers, wheeler-dealers, the first-triers and the last-chancers. They came from every conceivable background—a tavernkeeper from Massachusetts, a shoe salesman from Ohio, a farmer from Colorado, a shady peddler of potential grapefruit ranches from Texas—all afflicted with “the fever,” as it was to be commonly called.

The media, with their constant love of lost and unfound mines, helped spread the fever, with Life going so far as to provide in May of 1955 a basic guide for the amateur prospector, including a list of needs for the “wellheeled” would-be uranaut (everything from ore sample sacks at 24 cents each to a probe-and-reel assembly for detecting radioactivity in drill holes at $655). Nor was the “part-time” prospector neglected: a basic outfit which included a snake-bite kit could be bought for only $180.

As in any mining boom, merchants were obliging. Geiger counters, the crucial tool for detecting telltale gamma radiation, retailed for anywhere between $30 and $600 and could be ordered through Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogues. Clothes makers responded with something for the whole family, including a onepiece “U 235” suit for mother and “Diggerette Junior” duds for daughter. Hollywood gave the hunt social cachet. Humphrey Bogart bought into the boom, and guests at Bel Air parties could be seen, after cocktails, rustling through the manorial shrubbery with Geiger counters thoughtfully supplied by their host.

The real action, however, remained on the less hospitable Colorado Plateau. At the center of it all was Moab, Utah, a once quiet little orchard town where dogs had been known to doze in the wide Mormon streets with little danger to life or limb. But not in the summer of ’53. Those streets were choked with a questing humanity, house trailers without parks, and even raw sewage. The town of fifteen hundred had increased its population more than fourfold overnight and had become known as the “Uranium Capital of the World.” “No Talk Under $1,000,000” read the sign in the local Uranium Club, which required a hundred-dollar entrance fee to escape Utah’s Draconic liquor laws.

The serious transactions took place either at the Arches Café, where over hotcakes and sausages you could buy forty well-hyped claims in the Lisbon Valley at breakfast, and that evening at Fern’s Café, where over a chicken-fried steak you could sell those same forty claims at a 150 per cent profit … on paper, of course. Always on paper.

Traditional virtues traditionally absent themselves from the sites of mineral rushes. Violence, gambling, and prostitution traditionally fill the vacuum. The uranium boom of the mid-fifties proved itself unique again as an exception to the rule. It occurred in the mid-twentieth century in a part of the West surrounded by civilization, in the heart of a conservative Mormon region that lacked an existing apparatus for servicing vice. Furthermore, uranium, being what it was, attracted a disproportionate number of men with technical backgrounds, conservative sorts who would give in to temptation only after acquiring the means to enjoy it properly.

This departure from the Old West scenario did not mean the boom was simon-pure, however. Cheating and gouging and good old-fashioned sheepshearing merely took on novel and more imaginative forms. Salting a probe by dropping bits of pitchblende down a drill shaft to set a counter chattering was not unknown. But the scam artist the old-timers still talk about is the one who had lost a finger and would always wear a glove on his right hand. He would take his marks around to read rock and nothing much would happen until he came to a piece of ground on which he stood to make a profit. Then he always managed to get an excited reading by placing his gloved hand in the path of the instrument—the vacant finger nicely fleshed out with a packing of high-grade ore.

The common man and woman with uranium fever didn’t have to go to the Colorado Plateau to catch it. Across the land, but chiefly in the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City, the shade of P. T. Barnum presided over a mad circus of speculation in penny stocks, a kind of slightly patriotic and capitalistically sanctioned equivalent of playing the slots in Las Vegas. Twenty-four hours a day you could trade in such companies as El Dorado, Shamrock, or King Midas. No matter that the company was without claims, or that it had no intention of ever mining ore, lacking even a pick to dig it up or a wheelbarrow to put it in. On May 24, 1954, more shares were bought or sold over the counter in Salt Lake City than changed hands on the Big Board in New York.

A few of the penny stocks actually did appreciate dramatically, which fed the working stiff’s hope that, while he’d never match Charlie Steen for dollars, he could at least do well and shed less than a hundredth of Steen’s sweat in the process. The harum-scarum years of 1953 through 1955 saw stock certificates worth less than wallpaper given away as come-ons by used car salesmen and merchants on Dollar Days. But not all the players were losers or marginal winners. At the end of 1954 it was estimated that there were twenty millionaires in the Moab area, though no one knew for sure, because the blessed understandably preferred anonymity. Nevertheless, a couple of them joined Steen in the hagiography of the boom.