URANIUM MINING IN UTAH
Uranium miner near Moab, 1918
Uranium, 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 glass.
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
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
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
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 atomic years.
See: Raye C. Ringholz, Uranium Frenzy, Boom and Bust on the Colorado
Plateau (1989), and Raymond W. Taylor and Samuel W. Taylor, Uranium
Fever, or No talk Under $1 Million (1970).
Raye C. Ringholz