The Uranium Rush
The idea was to find a dead tree. Not just any dead tree, but one that had died more than 100 million years ago and fallen into a stream and been caught and sealed there in the muck, rotting and eventually petrified when mountains collapsed and sand dunes blew over and covered the forgotten river, until the tree was nothing more than a sponge for radioactive gases coming up from inside the earth.
The idea was to get back into the labyrinth of canyons where the Anasazi Indians had vanished in the fourteenth century and look for the ghost of a stream on the side of a mesa. Entombed there would be the prehistoric trees full of uranium. They lay undisturbed until the late 1940s, when the United States embarked on a massive bomb-building program to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union. The newly formed Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was paying top dollar for uranium, the atomic-age mineral that would power America to a future of mutually assured peace and cheap energy. Those who had the jackhammers and the dynamite and the luck could find the dead trees among the cliffs and mesas of the southwestern United States and make themselves a fortune.
The uranium bonanza of the 1950s—the nation’s last true mineral rush—was also the only mining boom ever created entirely by government initiative. The AEC chairman, David Lilienthal, flew around the country making speeches with a lump of coal in his palm. A chunk of uranium this size, he said, would one day be enough to keep a large city warm for an entire winter. But there were more immediate motives at work. The Soviet Union had recently exploded an atomic bomb and was working on developing a thermonuclear weapon that could level a major city in a single strike. The Korean War added to the sense of urgency. American policymakers became convinced of the need to develop a homegrown supply of uranium so the country would not be dependent on foreign sources. Mineral exploration was suddenly not just a means of private wealth but a national security imperative.
To keep the precious metal out of the wrong hands, the AEC was designated the nation’s only legal buyer of uranium. In the best traditions of the New Deal, it singlehandedly spurred the market into life in March 1951 by offering to buy highgrade uranium at more than double the previous price, and it sweetened the deal by paying a $10,000 bonus (the equivalent of about $60,000 today) to anybody who developed a productive new mine. The government also encouraged would-be prospectors by handing out guidebooks, building supply roads, constructing ore-buying mills, and making geology reports available to anybody who had the pluck and the patriotism to move to Utah or Colorado and become a uranium hunter. It would be the last time in American mining history when the novice prospector with a little luck and grit could truly compete against the big energy companies with their huge staffs, modern equipment, and ample exploration budgets.
“I saw a man once find a whole tree that was just highgrade uranium. It came off like black powder, really soft, like pepper,” recalled Jerry Anderson, who prospected with his father during the 1950s. “It was a tree about two feet in thickness, and the branches went off maybe ten feet in each direction. He blasted that thing out of there and got sixty-five hundred dollars. When the tree was depleted, that was the end of his uranium ore. There was no more.”
This federally sponsored hunt for A-bomb fuel sent an estimated 2,000 prospectors crawling over the craggy folds of the Colorado Plateau, a beautiful and isolated desert covering southeastern Utah and parts of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Among the first white men to venture there had been the geologist John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 found “a whole land of naked rock with giant forms carved on it; cathedral-shaped buttes towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance, with vast hollow domes and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead and all highly colored—buff, gray, red, brown, chocolate.” Others since Powell have compared the area to the surface of Mars or the moon.
Prospectors would spend months alone in this country, hiking the burning wastes and scanning the sandstone cliff sides for the hints that might give away a prehistoric stream. These could usually be found in the Shinarump layer, which was like a wedge of crunchy pink mortar between the Chinle and Moenkopi formations. The Salt Wash member of the Morrison formation was another potential resting place for the dead trees. Some uranium deposits lay so shallow that all a lucky miner had to do was shovel the ore into a burlap bag and load it onto a burro. The uranium itself was a rather unremarkable gray, but it was known to have wildly prismatic effects in how it stained the rocks it adjoined. “It was just as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen, the coloration was,” said Jerry Anderson. “There were purples and bright yellows and oranges, and just about any color of the earth was in that metal.”
A uranium prospector’s basic gear included merely a sharp-pointed pick, a pair of binoculars, a Jeep or a mule, a hand-held Geiger counter, and a battery-operated ultraviolet lamp, which made radioactive rocks shine with a spooky glow. To miners, that glow looked just like money. “We used to walk into our mine and shine this light in there, and it would light up just like a big neon sign, it was so full of uranium,” recalled one miner.
Even little old ladies could get into the game. Edna Ekker did. The elderly matriarch of a Utah ranching family, she had as a young girl accepted a piggyback ride from the bank robber Butch Cassidy, who had stopped by to hide a bag of money in the Ekkers’ fruit cellar. Her family gave up raising horses for uranium hunting in the 1950s. It turned out to be a significantly easier way to make money. “It was really shallow work where we were,” she recalled in 1970. “When [the uranium] got underground so far we had to have timbering, we moved out and went to another deposit.” These shallow diggings, small enough to be worked by one or two people, were known as “dog hole” mines.
Claims were staked on public land under the Mining Act of 1872, which allowed anybody to mine a plot 600 feet by 1,500 feet without any restrictions, fees, or rents, provided the claim was adequately marked and at least a hundred dollars’ worth of improvements were made each year. Uranium hunters usually marked their turf by building cairns and writing their names on paper that they sealed inside tin cans at the site until the claims could be properly registered at the courthouse. They liked to give their mines fanciful Wild West names: Dry Valley, Bulls Eye, Black Hat, Whirlwind, Hideout, Royal Flush, S.O.B., Payday.
The miner then had to raise enough cash to hire a bulldozer to come plow him a road to the mine site. Any kind of dirt track would do, and the uranium roads were an awful kind of art in themselves. They were blasted into cliffsides, routed through arroyos and up makeshift dugways, and carved into precipitous slopes at terrifying gradients. “Some of the ecologists today would be very unhappy with me if they saw some of the roads we built,” said Carl Appelin, a former AEC official, in 1970. Many truckers lost their lives in spillovers. One unfortunate road builder on the remote White Rim Road was on his bulldozer when it tipped over and pinned his arm to the ground just after a supply truck left. Nobody would be back for another three days; the heat and thirst surely would have killed him had he not fished out his pocketknife and sawed off his own arm.
After a prospector had his road built, it was a matter of getting at the fossilized trees, and the strategy here did not substantially differ from the blast-and-tunnel methods perfected in the coal mines of West Virginia. Pneumatic jackhammers and dynamite charges were used to bore tunnels into walls. The waste debris was shoveled out by hired “muckers,” often local Navajo Indians, who loaded the blasted-out rock into mine-track cars or wheelbarrows.
The native sandstone was usually strong enough to tolerate the intrusion of a mine tunnel, but the passages sometimes had to be braced with timbers. Every morning a brave point man would walk through the tunnels to tap the ceilings with a long rod, listening for the hollowness that portended a cave-in. Once the prospectors were inside the cliff, it often took intuition to find the trees. Geiger counters were not of much use inside a mine; there were clicks everywhere. Prospectors bragged about their ability to “smell” the uranium inside a mountain.
“It’s a little different from other mining because it’s dried vegetation, animal life, trees,” said a long-time ore mucker named Oren Zufelt, who spent hundreds of hours chasing uranium traces through dark mesa tunnels. “One time we followed a vein of ore down what looked like a little creek and some timber had fallen in it. We came to a place where [the vein] went off a cliff and dropped about eighteen feet into a pond. We worked down into the rocks and followed that vein up around the rocks, and there was this dinosaur. He had jumped into this mud and got stuck, died, and made uranium. It was just like he’d fallen in there yesterday.”
The more well-to-do prospectors searched with helicopters or airplanes. Jerry Anderson’s father rigged up an ultrasensitive scintillation counter that hung from the tail of his light aircraft as he cruised through canyons and past mesas, hoping for a tick on the meter. His sons were instructed to mark any spot that registered by bombing it with bags of powdered lime. They would hike in later to examine it up close, and they often used a bulldozer to scrape themselves a ragged airstrip.
Charlie A. Steen, the skinny son of a Texas oil prospector, had a theory about these formations that others thought was foolish. He believed the same methods used to find subterranean oil deposits could be used to find uranium. He spent almost no time looking for the easy money in the Morrison Salt Wash and Shinarump formations on the canyon walls, and he didn’t even own a Geiger counter. The key for Steen was the anticline, a slope some distance behind a spot where a small amount of uranium had already been found. He believed that that first trace could be the petrified whiff of a large deposit hiding underneath the clay. He might have to go down 200 feet to find it, he figured. Others drilled horizontally into cliffs; Steen would bore straight down into the soil.
Armed with a $300-a-month grubstake, he began to focus his attention on the Lisbon Valley, about 30 miles south of Moab, Utah. The AEC had found low-grade uranium in an outcropping on the west side of the valley, but it was judged too high in lime content to make any exploitation profitable. Steen staked out a dozen claims on the valley floor and gave them wistful Spanish names to remind him of better days in South America: Mi Corazon (“my heart”), Linda Mujer (“pretty woman”), Te Quiero (“I love you”), and Mi Vida (“my life”).
By this time he and his wife and their four children had spent all their savings and were living on corn bread and beans in a stove-heated shack in the forlorn railroad village of Cisco, Utah. Time and money were running out. He could no longer afford new boots, and his toes stuck out the ends.
What happened next became a piece of minor Utah folklore. In July 1952 Charlie took a diamond-drill derrick to his Lisbon Valley claims and managed to dig out some multicolored core samples down to 197 feet. Then, on July 27, the drill bit broke off the pipe and got lodged in the hole. His core samples were worthless. There was the usual deep red clay and some grayish rock that looked like frozen tar, but none of the canary-yellow carnotite he was seeking. He tossed the pieces into the back of his Jeep and drove the hundred miles back to Cisco in a bleak frame of mind. Before going home to tell his family they would henceforth be out of the uranium business, he stopped at a service station whose owner, Buddy Cowger, like nearly everybody else in the state, had a “Lucky Strike” Geiger counter. Cowger was inspecting some rocks his sons had found that day. Almost as a joke, Steen put his last samples under the counter. The reddish sandstone showed nothing, but the gray cores sent the meter’s needle all the way to the edge. The unimpressive rock turned out to be uraninite, which is a form of pitchblende, an ore rich in uranium. Charlie had tapped into the top of a huge vein of it. He whooped all the way to the tarpaper shack about his “million-dollar lick.”
The Mi Vida mine would eventually produce a hundred million dollars’ worth of high-grade ore. Steen built a space-age mansion atop a mesa on the north edge of Moab and named it Mi Vida after his mine. He bronzed his worn-out boots and bought a Colorado bank that had refused to lend him $250 when he was poor. He was written up in Newsweek , Time , Business Week , and Woman’s Home Companion , bringing more luster to the uranium effort than the AEC ever bargained for.
Steen used to complain he had to spend more time hunting grubstakes than uranium. Now he seemed to be occupied primarily with hunting headlines. “One of the things that kept him busy was seeking publicity,” recalled his onetime partner Dan O’Laurie, who was squeezed out of Steen’s Utex Exploration Company early on. “He liked publicity, good or bad. It didn’t make any difference, just as long as it was publicity. That was the nature of the man.”
Another high-profile symbol of the times was Vernon Pick, an affable Minnesota electrician who claimed to have wandered into a field of exposed yellow carnotite in a desolate patch of desert near a towering pinnacle called Factory Butte. Almost out of food and nearly delirious from drinking contaminated water, he built a raft of driftwood and floated his way down Utah’s Muddy River to report his claim. Critics later maintained that a pair of colluding AEC agents had tipped him off to where the ore could be found, but the charge was never proved. It almost didn’t matter. The nation read about a simple man who sold his mine, which he had named the Hidden Splendor, for nine million dollars and a used airplane. Steen and Pick gave the AEC priceless publicity. It seemed America’s future was again in the West, and buried underground.
The irony was that uranium mining was actually an old business in the Southwest. For centuries the Navajo and Ute Indians had used carnotite to make colorful war paint. Gold miners in Colorado had found pitchblende that stuck to their equipment like a kind of tar. They considered it a nuisance, but chemists had found it rich in uranium and used it to make dyes, ceramic inks, and stainedglass windows. It would later be used to make a garish orange glaze for the Fiesta Ware line of dinnerware. In 1898 Pierre and Marie Curie, working with a sample of Colorado ore, discovered the radioactive nature of pitchblende, and they subsequently isolated radium, which was used as an agent in fighting cancer. Several American uranium mines were opened after the turn of the century, but the market collapsed in the early 1920s, when vast reserves were discovered in the Belgian Congo. It took the threat of global war to revive the demand for domestic uranium and transform the primitive Colorado Plateau.
Moab, previously a sleepy Mormon-dominated cattle town, ballooned with would-be miners, ex-GIs, promoters, speculators, suppliers, prostitutes, and assorted ne’er-dowells. Grubstakes could be secured at the local auto-repair garages. Drugstores and sporting-goods shops sold Geiger counters. Corporations were formed over pitchers of beer at the 66 Club, one of the town’s few legal bars, where, the Western memoirist Edward Abbey wrote, “the smokedense air crackled with radioactivity and the smell of honest miners’ sweat.”
“The community was absolutely wild,” recalled Sam Taylor, the editor of the Moab Times-Independent . “No motel rooms, people living in tents and trailers and just sleeping in sleeping bags along ditch banks and under trees.” Charlie Steen helped fuel the boom in 1956 by opening along the banks of the Colorado River a huge uranium mill that at its peak employed nearly 300 workers and 60 truckers, who hauled in the ore from all points on the plateau.
Once at the mill, the raw ore was pounded into sand by a series of steel plates, roasted, and then mixed with sulfuric acid or sodium chlorate to leach out the uranium-containing portion. The resulting solution was run through an ion exchanger—a device like a conventional water softener- to remove the yellowish residue of uranium oxide, known as “yellowcake” in the industry and as “baby shit” in the vernacular of mill employees.
“It is impossible to calculate the number of local people who indirectly benefited from the immense amount of activity in the area,” noted F. J. Hahne in a paper for the London-based Uranium Institute. “The population of Moab, at the center of the uranium area, increased from 1,200 to about 4,600, which must class it as one of the most spectacular boom towns of the nation.” In 1955 Life reported the assertion of AEC officials that “more man-hours have been spent in the quest for uranium than were spent seeking all the other metals in history.” The get-rich-quick spirit so infected the popular culture that it found its way onto a popular board game of the day, Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life. One square of the board read: “Discover uranium! Collect $240,000.” Another popular game, Uranium Rush, included a battery-powered toy Geiger counter that could be made to buzz whenever a player found the mineral.
Among the new émigrés to Utah were mine promoters who acted as middlemen linking prospectors to risk capitalists in Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York. The risk capitalists were eager to buy any claims at all, so long as they were near Moab. The ghostly moonscape had suddenly become some of the most sought-after real estate in the country. Jerry Anderson’s cattle-ranching father, who hunted for uranium in his spare time, was besieged with calls. “At one time I think he had on his desk offers from well over a hundred people who would buy anything he could stake with any count at all,” said Anderson. “If it just flickered the needle on the Geiger counter, that’s all.” Some prospectors abused the naivete of the promoters by salting worthless claims with hot rocks and then passing off the property as the next Mi Vida.
Some promoters abused the naiveté of everybody else. All the hype over uranium created an explosive market for penny stocks in Salt Lake City. A promoter named Jay Walters drove into Utah in 1953, purchased a few inexpensive claims near Moab, and sold shares of his brand-new Uranium Oil and Trading Company for one cent each over the counter of a downtown Salt Lake City coffee shop. The stock appreciated more than 500 percent within the month, and Utah’s welldeserved reputation for financial rectitude was on its way out the window. Liberal state securities laws allowed new uranium companies to sell shares to state residents without making any filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, and any unproven company that put uranium in the title was bound to sell shares. “It was a madness. Grocers gave uranium stock tips along with loaves of bread,” wrote the historian Raye Ringholz in her 1989 book Uranium Frenzy . The number of traders in Salt Lake City went from 20 to 112 within a year. By 1955, however, no Mi Vida-sized strikes had materialized to justify the inflated prices. Stocks finally plummeted, leaving buyers with file folders full of worthless certificates. Many of the companies quietly disbanded.
At roughly the same time, the AEC reached its goal of stockpiling enough uranium to bomb the Soviet Union completely flat, should the need arise. The favorable orepurchasing policies were extended to 1966, however, with an eye toward serving nuclear-power plants. The dream of atoms as the energy of the future was taking longer to come true than scientists had counted on, and the AEC hoped to extend its role as the sole keeper of the nation’s uranium until private atomic-power companies could grow strong enough to buy the mineral themselves. New finds of uranium in the Gas Hills, west of Casper, Wyoming, created boomtowns full of trailers and tract houses in the 1970s, but it became nearly impossible for small-time prospectors to cash in. Most of the shallow deposits had already been found and exploited. Deep-drilling equipment was needed to get at what was left, and well-established companies like Phillips Petroleum, Union Carbide, Kerr-McGee, and Getty Oil were largely dominating the game. It looked as if uranium had an industrialized, unexciting future, sure and steady.
But by then miners were starting to die. The harmful effects of radioactivity hadn’t been fully appreciated by the locals in the early days. The wife of a carnotite broker named Howard Balsley used to sew chunks of high-grade uranium ore inside strips of deerskin for arthritis sufferers to press against their sore spots. “Everyone around here used to have a piece of uranium in a jar of water and drank that to cure their ailments,” she later recalled.
Decaying radium, which is usually found near uranium, gives off elements known as radon daughters that cling to dust particles and lodge in the lungs. At its peak the uranium industry had employed about 6,000 miners, most of them Mormons and Navajos, who had essentially been breathing a steady stream of radiation all day long. “When you blew your nose, it was yellow dust,” remembered Ben Jones, a Navajo miner. The cumulative effect was like lying under an X-ray machine for six months straight, one doctor said.
There is evidence the AEC knew of the dangers and did not aggressively pursue safer mine conditions. Duncan Holaday, a radiation expert with the U.S. Public Health Service, warned in a 1952 report (and repeatedly thereafter) that air samples taken from Colorado Plateau mines contained potentially deadly amounts of radon gas. The AEC reacted by insisting that states had the responsibility for regulating mines, and bureaucratic inaction carried the day. “There is no doubt that we are faced with a problem which, if not handled properly, could be made public,” said an internal AEC report issued in reaction to Holaday’s study. Such a leak “could adversely affect uranium production in this country and abroad.”
By 1966 an estimated 97 uranium miners had died of lung cancer. It was becoming clear there was more to fear from the mines than just cave-ins. (By contrast, about 300 coal miners died in accidents every year and hundreds more of lung disease.) The U.S. Department of Labor changed its standards in 1968 to require mines to maintain air quality with a fixed limit on radon. Mining companies were forced either to drill air holes from above or to blow radioactive dust out with electric fans.
For miners already dying from cancer, it was too little too late. In 1990 President George Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides $100,000 “compassionate payments” to uranium miners diagnosed with cancer or other respiratory ailments linked to their time in the mines. Part of the rationale for the law was that the prospecting had been done in the name of national security. Miners had heeded the AEC’s call to build up the American arsenal, so it was only proper that the federal government should pay for their job-related illnesses.
The American uranium industry was dealt a near-fatal blow in 1979, when a partial meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant in Pennsylvania. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) subsequently adopted stricter construction guidelines for new plants, effectively freezing the number of U.S. nuclear-power stations at 103. Global peace, too, has been a disaster for the uranium industry. The breakup of the Soviet Union curtailed the government’s need for weapons-grade uranium to the point where old bombs are actually being disassembled for bargain-basement uranium for power companies. The government officially ended its nearly halfcentury-old role in the uranium business in July 1998, when it announced it was selling its United States Uranium Enrichment Corporation.
Currently, the only active uranium mining in the country is being done in parts of Texas and in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. The mineral is extracted by the in situ method: A water-based solution is squirted into a drilled hole, and the uranium comes floating up to the surface. But the only buyers, the utility companies, pay a mere $10 a pound for yellowcake, about what it cost in 1951. Vast unsold reserves in Canada, Russia, and the Congo virtually ensure that uranium mining will not be a profitable venture any time soon. The miners of the 1950s did their jobs all too well; oversupply killed the business. “We’ve seen the bottom of the market several times, and then we see a new bottom,” said Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
“When you look at the boom and bust we’ve gone through, I think it was more downside than upside,” said Sam Taylor, who still edits the Moab newspaper. “When it all collapsed in the early 1980s, the incidence of alcoholism and unemployment and domestic abuse skyrocketed. We lost two thousand jobs. People were turning their house keys in to the bank, and saying, T can’t do it. Sorry.'”
Charlie Steen’s space-age mansion on the hill is now a restaurant. The mill he built on the edge of the Colorado River shut down in 1984, and the NRC is still trying to decide how best to contain the radioactive wastes that it may be leaking into the river. Hundreds of abandoned mineshafts pockmark the backcountry, and the rangers at Canyonlands and Arches National Parks warn visitors to avoid them. Moab itself has shifted its economy to tourism with impressive results. The 993 miles of access roads blasted into the slickrock by the AEC are now the delight of four-wheeldrive owners and mountain bikers, who can venture deep into the otherworldly landscape of sandstone spires and fragrant juniper.
One of the most striking uranium roads is the Shafer Trail, which zigzags nearly 1,500 feet from the top of a giant mesa in a series of precipitous switchbacks. It was built in 1953 by six young men from Moab trying to reach an enticing claim. They raised $50,000 from their friends, jackhammered and dynamited their way down the cliff, and built another road halfway up another cliff to the rich Shinarump to find nothing. “Nobody ever got a pound of ore out of there,” recalled Bob Mohler, the only living member of the road crew, with a laugh, but the Shafer Trail is today the most visited man-made attraction in Canyonlands National Park, aside from pre-Columbian Anasazi petroglyphs.
Nick Murphy, who led the construction team and who died in 1996—of Parkinson’s disease, not cancer—never had any regrets about his days hunting for the miracle mineral. “It has actually been progress,” he told an interviewer in 1970. “I can’t look at it any other way, because I do think it’s the future of your whole damn world if you want to put it that way. It is your next energy source. It is progress. It has got to be.”