June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
U-Boom on the Colorado Plateau
Gold is where you find it, goes the old prospectors’ saw. But uranium, according to at least some members of that grizzled and vanishing breed, is where you dream you’ll find it, where your bones and your hunches tell you it hides—no matter what some government geologist or petroleum industry big shot thinks. Finding gold may be equal parts luck and science, but locating uranium is an art that asks you to close your eyes and picture the earth as an immense layer cake that has been dropped, fractured, folded, and upended: in a few of those layers you will find traces of something very sweet.
That, at least, is a paraphrase of how Howard Balsley and Cecil Thompson saw it last year from Moab, Utah. They were in a position to know. Balsley, age ninety-three, who once sent radium to Madame Curie, was the acknowledged grandfather of all uranium seekers and finders; and Thompson, a robust man of eighty-eight, was with Balsley one of the few successful survivors of the greatest mining rush in American history—two of the few who took more money out of the earth of the Colorado Plateau than they put in.
It is still not mythically comfortable to accept the fact that the biggest bonanza of them all was not the Mother Lode or Cripple Creek or the Klondike, and was not in nineteenth-century gold, but that uranium was the metal and that the rush took place in the twentieth century on the 120,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico share ownership of a multilayered uplift of mostly sedimentary rock that in times past was the bottom of an ancient sea. That here, in perhaps the most remote and beautifully desolate region of the nation, more man-hours were spent hunting uranium than were spent seeking all other metals since man first crafted himself a pick and shovel, according to an Atomic Energy Commission estimate.
The Atomic Energy Commission was certainly the best qualified body to make that estimate. Probably the only body qualified to do so, for this most curious of all mineral rushes was distinguished chiefly by the fact that it was promoted by the federal government, supported by the federal government, and controlled by the federal government through the AEC. Yet even though the control was absolute and the operations largely secret, there was a gentle paternalism about it. If it was by the government, it was at least for the people; through a sliding scale of subsidy and guaranteed price supports, the average American was invited to participate.
In 1948 the AEC offered to pay a minimum of three dollars per ton of uranium ore, with generous premiums and development allowances, until 1962; to pay an initial-production bonus of between fifteen and thirty-five thousand dollars for the first five tons of uranium oxide until the year 1957; and to guarantee purchase of at least one thousand tons of ore a year from every miner until the year 1962. The actual formula was more detailed and provided an incentive for finding richer ores—the ultimate carrot being a bonus of ten thousand dollars for the first twenty tons of 20 per cent high grade.
Uranium and gold have existed billions of years in the earth. Not surprisingly, of the two, gold early struck man’s fancy. It was rare and true, incorruptible, constant in its color, a loner metal, malleable in the hands of an artisan. Uranium was in most every way its opposite, capricious and atomically unstable, the ultimate mixer that never occurs pure in nature, a vagabond element that some think welled up from deep in the earth, soluble and liquid-borne, seeping into Jurassic and Triassic host rock in half a rainbow’s colors.
The German scientist Martin Klaproth first identified the element in 1789, naming it after the planet Uranus, discovered a few years before. A mere curiosity, it was thought useless and not present in the United States. More than a century passed before its radioactive properties were discovered jointly by the Curies and Henri Becquerel in France. Even then it was a companion element, radium, that engaged the attention of those pioneers in the study of radioactivity, and it was radium that for a limited time spurred mining and financial speculation.
In the early 1880’s a strange, soft, bright yellow ore was first puzzled over on the heavily mineralized Colorado Plateau. It took twenty years, however, for carnotite (as it became known, after the French physicist Carnot) to gain any value, and then only for the small amounts of radium—one part for every 3,000,000 parts of bothersome uranium—it contained. A decade’s traffic in the ore with France brought rewards (albeit slim ones) to Howard Balsley and the other pioneer miners in the Uravan mineral belt of Colorado and Utah— until richer finds of the first wonder “yum” (the word prospectors used to lump uranium, radium, vanadium, thorium, and other radioactive metals) were shipped out of the Belgian Congo.
The status of “baggage” element was to dog uranium through another small mining boom on the Colorado Plateau. In the 1920’s vanadium, also found in carnotite, became an item of export because of the great tensile strength it lent to steel, and the veterans of the radium hunt prospered in a region that always had been shortchanged in deposits of gold and silver. But then a richer strike, this time in the Peruvian Andes, stilled the picks of those who pecked away at the small surface outcrops of American carnotite.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
But for all the high costs and bureaucratic snarls, the surviving veterans of the great boom have not dealt themselves out of the game. Hope attends them as they meet to sell each other claims and swap lies. The price of uranium is still high at over thirty dollars a pound, and all are agreed that far more uranium reposes under the Colorado Plateau than was ever taken out. And knowing where it is remains an art poorly practiced by corporation geologists who are either just fresh out of college or do not understand the complex geology of the Colorado Plateau. What you have to do is close your eyes and dream what that giant, scrambled layer cake looks like down below, file on a few claims over some rich filling, and then “sell it in the ground.”