The Time Of The Great Fever

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As the boom moved forward in the 1950’s, it spilled off the Colorado Plateau into Nevada, California, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Indeed, the most substantial source of uranium in the United States was uncovered at Ambrosia Lake, New Mexico, and benefited a woman whose life was in almost all respects contrary to Charlie Steen’s, yet no less flamboyant or bizarre. Stella Dysart was a recklessly energetic promoter whose peddling of stock in oil companies that rarely drilled more than a few shallow dusters had gotten her run out of Utah by that state’s Securities Commission and sixteen months behind bars in a Los Angeles jail—with a probationary requirement that she not “engage in investment transactions” in California for another fifteen years. When she left California in 1948, seventy years old and still harried by the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission, it seemed the end of the trail for her.

Stella made her way to Ambrosia Lake, a dry lake not far from Grants. Perfect oil country, or so it had always seemed to Stella, who during the 1920’s and 1930’s had purchased 3,000 acres of her own and 3,080 additional checkerboarded acres that belonged to her Landowners Family—the investors she had seduced with her promises of oil. In 1951 the determined wildcatter drilled 2,749 dry feet into the faulted dome. Nothing. Dry.

But Charlie Steen’s find had shown that uranium can turn up in what appears to be oil country. That plus other uranium discoveries in the Grants area beneath the Morrison formation led young Louis B. Lothmann of Houston to approach Stella Dysart about leasing land to his Mid-Continent Exploration Company. The old wildcatter had a fondness for the young man, and she agreed. On March 17, 1955, at 292 feet, the drill bit into an incredibly rich lode of black coffinite.

It took a few years to get mining and milling going in a healthy way, and almost three for Stella Dysart to start receiving the 17.5 per cent royalty checks that made her one of the wealthiest women in the West. With riches came respectability—climaxed with her induction into the New Mexico Hall of Fame shortly before her death at eighty-eight.

Ironically the Ambrosia Lake find signaled the climax to the boom, and the ordinary man’s phantom dream of riches was to evaporate shortly. In 1948 there had been only two uranium mills refining ore into “yellow cake” concentrate that was trucked in fifty-fivegallon drums to the AEC facility in Grand Junction, there to await further reduction into uranium oxide. In 1954 there were eight such mills reducing ore from nearly a thousand mines, most of them shipping fewer than ten tons of ore a day. But by January of 1957 there were twelve mills operating and eight more on the drawing boards; domestic production increased from 1,450 tons of uranium oxide in 1954 (the first year for which the security-conscious AEC released figures) to 7,584 tons for the year 1957.

Even though still importing more than half its uranium from abroad, the United States was clearly not a have-not nation after all, and its nuclear defense fears had been allayed. In the autumn of 1957 the director of the AEC’s Raw Materials Division, Jesse Johnson, announced that the nation had “arrived at the point where it is no longer in the interest of the government to increase production of uranium concentrate.” The following November the AEC announced that no uranium concentrate would be purchased from ore reserves not already developed. For the prospector and small-time developer the party was over, the bar was closed, and the exit door was brightly lit.

True, domestic production continued to climb, but the producers now were large corporations such as Kerr-McGee, Homestake Mining, and Anaconda, which had entered the field during the rush and had the political muscle to hold onto contracts. Also true was that the uranium “glut” proved temporary, and in the mid-sixties a second boom visited the Colorado Plateau when the AEC relaxed its absolute control over uranium and the fissionable metal could be sold privately to fuel the fledgling nuclear power industry at home and abroad. It has been an ongoing boom of a different color, however, this time without supports, guarantees, or subsidies, and requiring far more money than that for grub, a jeep, and a Geiger counter. Surface deposits have been depleted, and the cost for drilling has gone up from $2 or $3 a foot to anywhere between $225 and $250 a foot today. With the veins now down two or three thousand feet, that is a lot of capital to gamble on finding workable ore—especially when the chances are something like one in forty. Exxon and General Electric and Union Carbide might be able to come up with that kind of money, but certainly not the small one- or two-man operations, the socalled poor-boy mines.

Other troubles beset the small operators, including more stringent mining safety laws and soaring shipping costs. Worse for those few veteran uranauts who still gather to grouse over coffee in Moab’s cafés are the costs these days of even holding a claim, let alone mining it. The ultimate villain to these sagebrush rebels is the Bureau of Land Management, which lately has taken to strictly enforcing the provision under the Mining Law of 1872 that requires every unpatented claim holder to do one hundred dollars worth of assessment work a year to hold his claim.