a radioactive element, was first mined in the western
United States in 1871 by Dr. Richard Pierce, who shipped
200 pounds of pitchblende to London from the Central
City Mining District near Denver, Colorado. The ore
was researched for fabrication of steel alloys, chemical
experimentation and as pigments for dyes, inks and stained
In 1898 Pierre and Marie Curie and G. Bemont isolated
the "miracle element" radium from pitchblende.
That same year, uranium, vanadium and radium were found
to exist in carnotite, a mineral containing colorful
red and yellow ores that had been used as body paint
by early Navajo and Ute Indians on the Colorado Plateau.
The discovery triggered a small prospecting boom in
southeastern Utah, and radium mines in Grand and San
Juan counties became a major source of ore for the Curies.
Prior to World War I, radium mining dwindled but a new
bonanza was identified in the tailings dumps of the
mines. When it was determined that the discarded vanadium
added to molten steel would greatly increase the tensile
strength and elasticity of the metal, Utah's vanadium
industry flourished. One of the dominant figures in
the resultant boom was Howard Balsley of Moab, who sold
carnotite ores to Vitro Chemical Corporation of Pittsburgh
for medicaments and luminous paint.
It wasn't until twenty-five years later, as a result
of the atomic age and subsequent arms race of the Cold
War, that uranium, previously considered a waste product
of the vanadium mines, came into demand as a key element
for nuclear weaponry. In the beginning, almost 90 percent
of the United States' uranium supply was imported from
the Belgian Congo and Canada. But scanty amounts being
filtered from abandoned radium and vanadium dumps on
the Colorado Plateau gave promise of an untapped domestic
source. The Manhattan Project of the U.S. Corps of Engineers,
charged with development of an atom bomb to end the
war, instituted a covert program to mine uranium from
the vanadium dumps and sent geologists to scour the
region in search of new lodes.
With the end of World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission
replaced the Manhattan Project and launched the first
federally-sponsored mineral rush in history. The AEC
constructed roads into the back country, promised $10,000
bonuses for new lodes of high-grade ore, guaranteed
minimum prices and paid up to $50 per ton on 0.3 percent
ore, constructed mills, helped with haulage expenses
and posted geologic data on promising areas tracked
by federal geologists using airborne scinillometers
and other sophisticated radiation detection instruments.
The Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona
and New Mexico meet, suddenly teemed with prospectors
in the greatest ore search since the gold fever days
of the previous century. Amateurs and experts, alike,
followed AEC guidelines and used radiation detectors
called Geiger counters to test promising sandstone formations
for uranium deposits. Concentrating on exposed outcroppings
along canyon rims, they searched primarily for the grayish
Salt Wash member of the Morrison formation. When a likely
claim was located, they used diamond drills to core
test holes to determine if mineable ore was present.
In 1952 Charles Augustus Steen, an unemployed oil geologist
from Texas, effectively proved there was significant
uranium ore on the Colorado Plateau. Settling his wife
and four young sons in a tarpaper shack near Cisco,
he took off alone to seek the precious mineral. Unable
to afford a geiger counter, he took a broken down drill
rig into the back-country, ignored standard uranium-seeking
technology, and used oil exploration geology to locate
the Mi Vida mine in the Shinarump conglomerate of an
area the AEC had deemed barren of ore. What had been
ridiculed as "Steen's Folly" resulted in the
nation's first big uranium strike in the Big Indian
Wash of Lisbon Valley southeast of Moab.
Steen's find triggered more. Vernon Pick claimed the
Delta Mine northwest of Hanksville, later selling it
to international financier Floyd Odlum for nine million
dollars and an airplane. Pratt Seegmiller staked the
lucrative Freedom and Prospector claims near Marysvale.
Joe Cooper and Fletcher Bronson discovered uranium in
their played-out Happy Jack copper mine near Monticello
and netted over $25 million. Between 1946 and 1959,
309,380 claims were filed in four Utah counties. A center
of activity, the once sleepy farming town of Moab became
known as "The Uranium Capitol of the World."
By 1955 there were approximately 800 mines producing
high-trade ore on the Colorado Plateau. Utah alone had
produced approximately nine million tons of ore valued
at $25 million by the end of 1962. But then the industry
almost came to a standstill. The AEC, now holding ample
reserves, announced an eight-year limited program, and
finally completely stopped buying uranium in 1970. Private
industry triggered a brief second boom when nuclear
power plants came on line in the mid-70s, but foreign
competition, federal regulations and nuclear fears virtually
put an end to domestic uranium mining.
During the uranium heyday, the federal government built
several buying stations and a number of milling and
reduction centers on the Colorado Plateau. Utah's AEC
milling facilities were in Salt lake City, Monticello,
LaSal, Blanding, and Mexican Hat. In 1957 Steen opened
the Uranium Reduction Company, the nation's first large
independent uranium mill, in Moab. Sold to Floyd Odlum's
Atlas Corporation in 1962, the facility shut down in
1984. The federal mills were sold to private industry
and finally disbanded.
Uranium excitement was not limited to the redrock desert.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Salt lake City became known
as the "Wall Street of Uranium Stocks." Triggered
by a promoter named Jay Walters, Jr., a mania for buying
penny stocks to finance developing uranium mines swept
the country. The first offering was sold in 1953; by
the end of 1954, eighty-one uranium firms were listed
with the Utah Securities Commission. Housewives, schoolteachers,
auto mechanics and insurance executives stood in line
to buy certificates to finance large corporations such
as Uranium Corporation of America, Standard Uranium,
Federal, and Lisbon, and scores of false claims that
didn't have a whiff of ore.
Utah's fabled uranium boom was not without tragedy.
From the Manhattan Project days, health scientists warned
that radiation in the mines was a danger to miners.
Medical literature dating as early as the sixteenth
century documented cancer deaths claiming a high percentage
of radium miners in the Erz Mountains of Germany and
Czechoslovakia. But neither the AEC, state governments,
nor the mining companies would take responsibility to
regulate ventilation and safety practices. It was not
until hundreds of uranium miners in Utah, Colorado,
Arizona and new Mexico had succumbed to lung cancer
that safe levels of radiation were finally imposed.
And not until 1989, after years of furtive court battles,
that the United States Congress passed legislation to
financially compensate radiation victims.
Although uranium mining in Utah and other western states
has ceased, experts indicate that there is still substantial
ore deep underground. Should demand for nuclear power
revive and the market become viable, the Colorado Plateau
may once again teem with the mines and mills of the
Raye C. Ringholz