- Historic Sites
The Time Of The Great Fever
U-Boom on the Colorado Plateau
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
Joe Cooper was a plain and taciturn Mormon from Monticello, Utah, who made a decent living as a part-time contractor and filling-station pumper and did a little mining on the side. In 1946 he and his father-in-law scraped together one thousand dollars to buy the Happy Jack Mine, in bleak, remote ,White Canyon, just south of Hite, which had been discovered at the turn of the century and been worked intermittently with little success over the years. The Happy Jack looked good. It contained the blue of azurite and green of malachite, the red of iron, the purple of cobalt, threads of silver and gold, the yellow of carnotite, and some black stuff. Unfortunately it was too hard to work the mine for any one metal because it was “contaminated” with uranium. Cooper tried vainly to unload the Happy Jack and was about to let it go for taxes when the Atomic Energy Commission opened the season on uranium. Further tunneling exposed a black lode of uraninite, an ore so rich there was no need for a dump. Cooper kept his operation small, seldom employing more than a couple of miners at a time, pecking away at 40 per cent ore that geologists estimated being worth anywhere between $50,000,000 and $250,000,000—exceeding even Steen’s Mi Vida in potential. In the spring of 1956 Cooper sold the Happy Jack to a Texas syndicate for something between $15,000,000 and $25,000,000, stepped out of the limelight he had always shunned, and resumed the small-town life he preferred
“…the most substantial source of uranium in the United States was uncovered at Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico, and benefited a woman. …”
The third person in the boom’s trinity was Vernon J. Pick, a man about whom, even after a quarter century, mystery and controversy still gather. The full truth about the lucky tenderfoot from Minnesota will probably never be known, in part because he himself apparently told more than one version of how he found the Delta Mine in the San Rafaël Swell just north of Hanksville, Utah. Unlike Joe Cooper, Pick loved the limelight. A frustrated writer, he addressed aspiring uranauts everywhere through the pages of Coronet in February, 1955, with the article “How to Hunt Uranium.” His credentials seemed to be in order. His story had commanded eleven pages in the November 1,1954, issue of Life and was subsequently reprinted in Reader’s Digest . It told how he had come west in November of 1951 after his small manufacturing company in Two Rivers, Minnesota, had burned down and left him with $13,500 in insurance money with which to start a new life. When he stopped at the AEC office in Grand Junction asking where uranium was to be found, he was told the San Rafael Swell in south central Utah seemed a likely place. From November until June he operated out of the small Mormon settlement of Hanksville, an aloof stranger who made few friends. That didn’t bother him much, because most of the time he drove his panel truck as far into the rumpled wasteland as he could, before setting out alone on foot, stalked by cougars, harried by rattlesnakes, always thirsty, to pass his scintillator over rock that seemed worthy from his cursory study. Near the end of June, on a cliff above the Muddy River, exhausted and sick from drinking bad water, he found a rich outcrop of carnotite.
Unproved charges were made that Pick had been tipped off by AEC geologists. As an added inducement to the mobilization of the nation’s prospectors, the AEC sent its own pilots out “rim-flying”—skimming over the plateau’s red mesas and darting up its narrow canyons to pick up gamma radiation with airborne counters. These readings went into the creation of anomaly maps, which were given away every month to the seekers. Strict regulations forbade any AEC employee from profiting from any ore sites he might find. Such rectitude was a lot to expect from men drawing civil servants’ salaries, while the grubby prospectors they served stood to make a fortune. Old-timers still talk of those who could not resist temptation. But gentlemen all, names are never given.
A more serious charge against Pick was a lawsuit filed by a Hanksville man and his son who claimed to be Pick’s partners and said they had been cheated out of a promised half-interest in the Delta. Their evidence was flimsy, however, and the case never came to trial. Luck stayed with Pick when, after taking about a million dollars out of his mine, he sold it for $9,000,000 plus an airplane to entrepreneur Floyd Odium of the Atlas Corporation. Odium realized only about $2,000,000 from the mine he renamed the Hidden Splendor before closing it down.