From the Boom to the Boomers: Another view of the Uranium Boom Days of the 1950s and how Life has changed, Part 2…by Irene Thill

From The Zephyr archives, in 2004 Irene Thill shared her memories of Moab of half a century ago and into the Uranium Boom. A year later, she ‘wrapped things up’ with this last installment. Irene died in 2008—I wonder what she’d think of the last nine years as Moab continues to morph into something…different  JS

It’s difficult to know where to start on this last article. Shall I go nostalgic, personal, factual, wishful or all four? Perhaps a bit of each.

Nostalgic, of course, can only be memories I harbor within my heart. Memories of a personal nature – good friends, social activities, work experiences, my children growing from babyhood to adulthood. Myself getting twenty years closer to senior citizen status. I think my fondest memories are of outdoor adventures. Scenic drives up the Colorado River past White’s Ranch with its fort like entrance, across the old swinging bridge on the cut-off to Grand Junction; the picnic, after a good romp in the sand that permanently dyed my little boy’s white shorts red; the hikes that took us to see the historical artwork of ancient inhabitants and their caves with caches of tiny corncobs, which we marveled at and left behind for others to see.

One year, we built a patio in back of our house on Center Street with the natural flagstones generously provided by Mother Nature. There are jillions of them all over the area. We took the road down the river, across the sand and grazing grounds following Cane Creek, terminating at the Hole ‘N the Rock. We loaded the truck so heavily it broke an axle. We were closer to the Hole ‘N the Rock than town, so we took turns carrying our four year old son. It was dark and as we passed grazing cattle, they turned their ghostly white faces to watch as we trudged past. We must have forded the creek ten times. Our feet became so heavy with mud from mixing with dirt on the road, it felt like they weighed a ton each before we got to the highway. Our son said, “Daddy, you are a good trail boss.” Robert Redd came along, recognized Vic with his thumb in the air and kindly took us home.

Another time, I saw a perfect stone leaning against another. I worked it loose, pulled it forward and a beautiful green and white snake reared up into the air. I’m deathly afraid of snakes so I released the stone. I crushed the snake and some fingers and felt sorry for both of us. When the patio was finally finished, I told everyone it was built by blood, sweat and “fears”.

My sister’s family and ours made it a yearly tradition to spend the Fourth of July in Telluride, Colorado. That homely yet beautiful little town put on a great celebration, ending with spectacular fireworks against the high mountains that surround it. One such outing stands out never to be forgotten. We drove into town, parked the cars and began the exploration of streets and stores. The shops were quaint with displays out of the past such as Mrs. Pinkerton’s feminine elixir, Bag Balm, and asafetida. My gramma put a bag of that stuff around my neck when I was little to keep away snotty noses and croup. The penny candy section was a kid’s paradise. A dime bought each one a day’s supply.

The highlight of this day occurred at the main intersection in town. A regal drunk dressed in top hat and tails was directing traffic. He would doff his hat, bow and wave the cars through in one direction, stagger around and direct them the opposite way. Once he bowed too low and fell on his face. With great dignity, he picked himself up, dusted off his hat and continued his efforts. I was never quite sure whether it was a staged act, but whatever, it was highly entertaining. Our kids sat on the curb mesmerized for an hour.

The Boom and the advent of tourism opened the world to the Four Corner’s area. Mesa Verde, with its well preserved remnants of a lost civilization was always awesome. Now I read about how the rich and famous have discovered wonderful little Telluride and turned it into a sophisticated playground, so exclusive, no clown would dare show himself in the face of such glamour. That is a loss to a simple lifestyle and down-home humor. I don’t know how La Sal, Uravan and other rural towns have fared from our present Hell-bent society for self-indulgence, but I did read recently where delightful little Bluff has also been “discovered”.

On a personal level, the fall-out from the Boom days has deeply affected my family as I know it has others. I was treated and cured of thyroid cancer. Ironically, radiation caused it and radiation cured it. Today, my oncologist is keeping close tabs on a condition he calls sleeping multiple myeloma. If it ever wakes up, I am a goner. It’s a malignant condition of the bone marrow, but at my age I don’t fret about it, even though I will fight when the time arrives. My husband died of bone cancer, indirectly. He stood on the loads of uranium he hauled and probed the ore with a Geiger counter for all the years he hauled the stuff. When the cancer metastasized to the pancreas, he died in 1982 at age 62. He never had a chance to retire from driving his beloved trucks and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Strangely, I never got mad at the radiation that killed him. I got mad at him for leaving me to face the aging process alone. We had such ambitious plans to travel the country and visit every museum we could find. I still wheel my little wagon up and down the Interstate between Ashton, Idaho and Tucson, Arizona on a regular basis. Recently, my granddaughter underwent treatment for thyroid cancer. All three of my children have heart and blood conditions. I don’t know if any of these conditions can be traced to uranium and/or its by-products, but it seems highly suspect to me. There are many of my old Moab acquaintances whose demise was directly attributable to the Uranium Industry. Some families received a government pay-off. Some are still in litigation and some will never receive restitution.

Now, I’m going to tread in an area of hear-say. Some individuals will come down on me like a ton of bricks. I’m not noted for backing off but I am also honest enough to say these observations are from friends and relatives still living in the area. It concerns high costs, low wages, and loss of agriculture. It seems that both partners, in a wedded or unwedded state, must work two jobs each to keep body and soul alive, as we old-timers say. Rent, food, utilities, childcare, transportation costs, and medical care are so pricey, the blue collars are robbing Peter to pay Paul, as we also say. Even so, they are going deeper in debt every day. The real victims here are the children. Latch-key kids receive minimum supervision, and those raised by care-givers whose standards may not conform to the parents’ standards, result in confusion and chaos.

Developers have caused real estate values to increase alarmingly. This, in turn has escalated taxes unreasonably high for those whose ancestral homes are in jeopardy of being lost to modern day ideas of living standards. Ancestors, who fought arid conditions and the unsettled remoteness, of the present owners, are being forced to give up lands they cherish to this behemoth called progress.

Progress is fine. It’s great. BUT, what is going to happen when there is no more land to grow crops or water to flush toilets and ward off dehydration? The most visible reality of the aftermath is the heap of debris from Atlas Mill on the banks of the Colorado River at Mob. For over thirty years there has been a constant harangue over what needs to be done about this pile of toxic waste. Studies on the problem have been continuous since Atlas closed. This week in the Salt Lake Tribune, there was yet another article about new studies and recommendations.

I have a nephew, also raised in Moab and still has strong family ties there, who is a diagnostic engineer and micro-biologist on toxic wastes. He is called to assess such dumps all over the United States and foreign countries. He recently returned from a job in the Marshall Islands. He is presently in Arizona and says his heart’s desire is to come home and retire on the Moab clean-up, which once it gets underway is expected to take ten years. In the meantime, the leaching process into the river and the ground, goes on, and on, and on, ad infinitum. The powers-that-be obviously hope the whole mess will quietly go away and the generations-to-come will take it for granted the poisons have become non-existent. All the fish and creatures that once inhabited its waters and shores will be extinct, plants and crops will be contaminated, and people drinking the water will be at a loss to pinpoint unusual medical conditions.

So much for retirement plans and dreams. I wish I had tears to shed, not over what was, or what is, but over what will be. Sadly, I don’t.


Former Moabite Irene Thill died in 2008 at the age of 88.




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