In order to follow the history of the exploration and development of
the Big Indian mining district it is necessary to understand a few things
about the geology of the uranium ore deposits that were found after
Charlie Steen discovered the Mi Vida mine. The most important thing
to remember is that none of the ore deposits discovered during the next
four years were exposed on the surface. Although the ore bearing host
rocks in the Moss Back member of the Chinle formation did outcrop in
a few places along the face of the escarpment overlooking the Big Indian
Wash, all of the uranium that was found after 1952 was discovered by
exploration drilling. My fatherís discovery proved that someone could
walk over $100 million worth of uranium ore without knowing what lay
beneath their feet unless they were willing to risk money on wildcat
drilling in the search for totally hidden ore deposits.
Although the Big Indian mining district was developed from the single
drill hole Charlie Steen had drilled through 14 feet of high-grade uranium
ore on July 6, 1952, none of the other mines in the district were brought
into production on the basis of one drill hole. After the Mi Vida mine
proved the existence of uranium ore in the Chinle formation, drilling
became the chief guide to finding more ore in the district. Any drill
hole that encountered good mineralization of minable thickness required
additional drilling to block out the ore body. Remarkably, every hole
in good ore was later developed into an ore body. Because there were
no low-grade halos surrounding the ore bodies, a drill hole could miss
penetrating a high-grade deposit by a few feet without finding any trace
of uranium. Perhaps the best example of this is the original discovery
drill hole on the Mi Vida claim. If my father hadnít insisted on pushing
the bulldozer road as far down dip as possible before he set up his
drilling rig, he probably would have missed the Mi Vida ore deposit.
Once the mine was blocked out, it was found that the discovery drill
hole was located near the outer edge of the ore body. If Charlie Steen
had drilled another 18 feet back towards the rim, he would not have
cored through the 14 feet of high-grade uranium ore that started the
Big Boom at the Big Indian.
After the hole came in on the Mi Vida claim, more than 2.2 million
feet of drilling was completed in over 3,000 drill holes spaced between
200 and 500 feet apart during the next twelve years of exploration activity.
Drilling reached an all time high in 1956, when more than 647,000 feet
were drilled. This exploration drilling delineated a mineralized belt
on the southwestern flank of the Lisbon Valley anticline that was approximately
eleven miles long and between one-half and one mile wide. A five-mile
long portion of the south central part of the anticline had been removed
by erosion, leaving about six miles of the mineralized belt to the northwest
and about five miles to the southeast. This belt of uranium mineralization
follows the same trend my father reasoned existed when he was first
drawn to the area. It confirmed his geologic theory that the uranium
deposits in this district were structurally controlled by the anticline.
As the Lisbon Valley anticline is plunging at the north end, the ore-bearing
host rocks in the Moss Back member of the Chinle formation are found
at greater depths to the northwest of the crest of the anticline where
the Mi Vida and Big Buck claim groups were located.
All the larger ore deposits were tabular and mostly rectangular in
shape with an irregular outline. The smaller ore deposits were more
rounded in shape, but also tended to be elongated along the flank of
the anticline. At the north end of the ore belt, the mines were developed
in a cluster of nearly coalesced, large ore deposits that produced more
than 30 million pounds of uranium oxide. A dozen smaller deposits that
contained over 4 million pounds of uranium oxide were scattered between
the northern portion and the central portion of the mineralized belt
where the large Mi Vida and Big Buck ore deposits were developed. The
cluster of Moss Back hosted ore deposits in this central portion of
the belt produced over 22 million pounds of uranium oxide. Another 1.5
million pounds of uranium oxide was taken from a number of widely scattered,
smaller deposits in the Moss Back member of the Chinle formation at
the south end of the belt.
The uranium deposits ranged in size from 500 to 1,500,000 tons of ore,
and in thickness from a few feet to 45 feet with an average of about
6 feet. When my father had first examined the Lisbon Valley anticline,
he figured that any uranium concentrated down dip from the low-grade
rim outcrops would be found in thicker deposits on this part of the
structure. And the thickest ore horizon was found in the Mi Vida and
Big Buck mines, where the thickness varied from 10 to 45 feet. Ore grades
averaged 0.37 percent uranium oxide, making the Big Indian mining district
the highest grade of all of the large uranium districts discovered during
the next ten years of exploration on the Colorado Plateau.
By the time that the Mi Vida mine began production, Dad had already
insulated his original claim block with more claims, but he was concerned
that the Atomic Energy Commission (the AEC) would withdraw the area
from public entry. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, all fissionable
materials were reserved to the United States government. There was even
some question if new mining claims could be located to claim uranium
Charlie Steen knew that if other prospectors located enough claims
in the district that the AEC would not be able to withdraw his claims
from private exploitation. If this seems far-fetched, just recall that
this was during the Cold War. The uranium ore found in the Mi Vida mine
was considered to be of great strategic importance in the atomic arms
race with the Soviet Union. For several years, the ore produced at the
Mi Vida mine was the largest single source of uranium in the United
States. All of that uranium went into atomic weapons, which were vital
to the defense of the country. My father encouraged every friend and
fellow prospector he knew to get in on the ground floor before the AEC
withdrew the area from mineral entry.
Dad always told me that if he had discovered the Mi Vida mine while
he was working as a geologist for a mining company, it would have been
the high point of his professional career. Because he was prospecting
on his own account, the discovery completely changed Charles A. Steenís
life. If he had been working for a mining company, none of what subsequently
happened at the Big Indian would have occurred. A mining company would
have kept the news of a discovery secret while it blanket staked the
entire district. As it happened, more than 2 miles of the north end
and about 5 miles of the south end of the mineralized belt remained
open until the first months of 1953.
In the frenzied rush to the Big Indian that followed the realization
that something extraordinary was happening south of La Sal, Utah, a
handful of venturesome individuals seized the opportunity to strike
it rich. As a result of the ensuing stampede of claim stakers, most
of the ore deposits on the north end of the Lisbon Valley anticline
ended up being staked by more than one locator. And, after the prospectors
sold their claims, grabbed their millions and left the district to the
mining companies that were better able to exploit these deeper ore bodies,
most of these uranium deposits were mined by several companies.
About four months after the Mi Vida mine began to bury the AECís ore
buying station at Thompson in uranium ore, my father realized that he
had to do something to quicken the pace of exploration on his claims.
The only drilling rig available was a core rig that seemed to take an
eternity to reach the ore horizon when it had to drill through the full
thickness of the Wingate and Chinle formation. When his then partners,
Bob Barrett and Dan OíLaurie, resisted his plans to buy a modern Mayhew
rotary drilling rig, Charlie Steen hit on the idea of raising money
by selling an interest in some of the claims he hadnít contributed to
After forming a company he named Big Indian Mines, Dad conveyed six
of his claims to this new entity and headed down to Texas to raise enough
money to explore these properties. When he came back he brought along
his brother-in-law, Albert Hrbacek (pronounced Herrbacheck) and a brand
new Mayhew rotary rig. My father and uncle (who was an experienced oil
well driller) formed a partnership they called Moab Drilling Company.
This Mayhew drilling rig completely revolutionized the way uranium was
explored for on the Colorado Plateau. Rotary rigs could drill deeper
than 1,000 feet in less time than a core rig could drill 100 feet. Before
the Boom tapered off, Moab Drilling Company was operating five Mayhew
rigs around the clock. Its crews were able to drill a 25,000-foot contract
in 30 days. The price per foot fell from $20 to $4 once the rotary rigs
took over. Other companies followed Charlie Steenís example, and at
one time all but 4 of the 21 drilling rigs active in the Big Indian
district were Mayhew rotaries. Charlie Mayhew became a multimillionaire
and a good friend of Charlie Steen. And thousands of strange-sounding,
whiskey-drinking, hard-working, harder-partying roughnecks from Oklahoma
and Texas joined the invasion of outsiders who made the Uranium Boom
the biggest rush for riches since the Klondike Stampede.
Dan Hayes and Charlie Steen were good friends by the time the Mi Vida
mine began producing in December of 1952. Hayes was a native of southeastern
Utah and very familiar with the prospects and mines of the region. In
the spring of 1948, while exploring the Lisbon Valley area, Hayes discovered
the sparsely mineralized uranium outcrops in the Cutler formation that
later caught my Dadís attention. Dan Hayes and two partners staked nearly
a mile and half of claims along the rim, and began mining limited quantities
of low-grade ore. Needing money to develop his claims, Hayes turned
to Donald T. Adams, a Monticello, Utah lawyer he had known for years.
Adams bought out Hayesí partners and advanced money to develop the Big
Buck claim group in partnership with his cousin, Joe Adams, and Eddie
Saul. Hayes and his new partners were unable to interest the AEC in
drilling their property, and they were doing just enough work to maintain
their claims when Charlie Steen appeared on the scene.
Don Adams was an honest attorney and an upright family man; and Dan
Hayes was a practical, amiable man whose word was his bond. Hayes watched
the developments at the Mi Vida mine, and Adams handled the legal affairs
of the partnership in Monticello. Charlie Steen couldnít have asked
for better neighbors.
On June 24, 1953, Adams and Hayes leased the two Big Buck claims closest
to the Mi Vida mine to Wilfred Brunke, an experience uranium mine operator.
My father welcomed Brunke back to the Big Indian. He recalled that Brunke
had bulldozed the four miles of rough road onto his claims last summer.
Charlie Steen enjoyed reminding Wilfred Brunke that Brunke had repeatedly
warned him during every opportunity along every mile of bulldozing that
there was no uranium back of the rim and he was throwing good money
With Dadís approval, Brunke began driving a 150-foot decline headed
back towards the rim from the Mi Vida claim. Brunke blasted into ore
bearing Moss Back at the bottom of the decline, and the Big Buck became
the second mine in production on the anticline. Although uranium ore
had been encountered at the bottom of the Brunke decline, nobody knew
how far the ore would extend in any direction. The only plan was to
mine until they ran out of ore. This was the same old-fashioned method
that uranium miners had been using since the early radium days. But
things were about to change.
For some time, Charlie Steen had wanted to get into a mining deal with
his old partner, Bill McCormick. Together they approached Hayes and
Adams about buying the Big Buck claim group. Although my father was
optimistic about the possibility that the Mi Vida ore body extended
onto his neighborsí property; he had no way of knowing how much ore
could be found under the Big Bucks. It was a calculated gamble, but
the odds looked very good.
Two years earlier, $10,000 would have bought the Big Bucks; a year
earlier $50,000 would have been enough; now Adams and Hayes wanted $2
million. No uranium mine on the Colorado Plateau had ever sold for that
much money. Bill McCormick deferred the decision to Charlie Steen. This
time my father was able to stake his old partner; and on December 1,
1953 (Dadís thirty-fourth birthday) the Big Bucks were optioned for
$50,000. Under the terms of the option, the sellers were to receive
$450,000 on August 1, 1954, and $500,000 per year for three years. The
deal gave the two partners eight months to raise the first big payment.
It was structured so that the buyers would have enough time to prove
up an ore body. Both the sellers and the buyers were on the same track.
Casting about for a method to make that first big payment and raise
enough money to explore the Big Buck claim group, Charlie Steen and
Bill McCormick landed a big deal within a few days. It involved the
formation of a new corporation called the Standard Uranium Corporation.
Ralph and Ray Bowman introduced Joseph W. Frazer, a New York City automobile
company executive and financier, to my father and Bill McCormick. The
Bowman brothers were Salt Lake City promoters who had approached my
father about forming a public company to cash in on the growing interest
in uranium company stocks. Frazer took them and the deal back to New
York and arrangements were quickly made to raise money through a public
offering. Fred Gearhart, a prominent investment banker, agreed to underwrite
the project. Within a month, Dad and Bill McCormick had the $50,000
option money back in the bank and Moab Drilling Company had a contract
for the exploratory drilling. A day later, the Mayhew rotary was set
up and drilling away a day later; and Charlie Mayhew got an urgent telephone
call placing an order for another rotary rig. By the time that the paper
work for the public offering was in place, 69 holes had been completed
and over 200,000 tons of 0.37 percent uranium oxide ore worth more than
$6 million had been blocked out.
In New York the public was being primed for the first uranium company
to be fully registered with the SEC. Frazer and Gearhart enlisted John
A. Roosevelt (FDRís son), Newton Brozan and Aaron Holman (prominent
New York attorneys) and Lucian H. Cullen (a Texas oilman) to be officers
and directors of the new company along with William R. McCormick and
Charles A. Steen (country boys). All of these men exercised options
to purchase stock in the company for a penny a share prior to the public
offering. Joseph Frazer picked up 500,000 shares, and Dad and Bill McCormick
divided 750,000 shares. Some people thought it was a good sign when
Frazer disclosed that he had laid off 2,000 of his shares on his butler
who lived with the Frazer family. After all, a stock promoter wouldnít
risk losing a good butler over a bum investment steer.
When Fred Gearheartís investment company offered the public 1,430,000
shares of Standard Uranium at $1.25 in May, the price hit $3 and the
issue was sold out within hours. The proceeds from this sale were used
to make that $450,000 payment to Adams and Hayes and to open up the
Big Buck ore body with a 2,250-foot adit.
Standard Uranium was probably the most successful uranium company that
raised its capital from the public during the 1950s. It was the exception
not the rule. Most of the stock promotions that followed during the
Uranium Boom didnít have half the chance of developing an ore body like
the Big Buck. Although things proceeded as planned at the mine, my father
and Bill McCormick began to question the expenses being generated by
the company offices in New York. I recall some discussion about one
of the New York secretaries being paid more than a geologist was making
out at the mine. Dad believed that most of the money spent in New York
was being wasted and that it should be going into exploration and development.
Things were resolved in February 1955. Charlie Steen bought 400,000
shares of Joseph Frazerís remaining Standard Uranium holdings for more
than enough money for Frazer to keep a butler around the brownstone;
moved the head office from 40 Wall Street, New York, New York to Center
Street, Moab, Utah; and helped vote Bill McCormick in as president of
the company. Of the New Yorkers, only Brozan and Holman were asked to
stay on with the company. The Mi Vida ore body did extend on to the
Big Buck claims, and another ore body was later found on the southern
end of the claim group. Standard Uranium made more than enough money
to meet its obligations to Dan Hayes and Don Adams and to make a profit
of over $1 million a year for over 10 years from one of the best run
mines on the Colorado Plateau.
In March of 1955, Big Indian Mines merged with Standard Uranium in
a transaction that was valued at more than $1.3 million for the closely-held
company. This was done in order to give those shareholders in Texas
an interest in an operating company, because production from Big Indian
minesí claims was delayed while financing plans for a mill was completed.
One of the largest buyers of Standard Uranium shares on the American
Stock Exchange was a famous financier named Floyd Odlum. He was planning
to conquer the uranium mining industry and he wanted to buy the most
famous uranium mine in America. Odlum was determined to control the
production of the Big Indian mining district. His pockets were deep
enough to buy almost any mine he wanted except one in particular. That
particular uranium mine was still owned by the prospector-geologist
who had discovered it.
The first claims located by anyone outside of Charlie Steenís close
circle of friends and associates were the ones staked by the mine cookís
son. He asked my Dad if he would show him how to stake a claim, and
my father took him to the north end of his claim block and helped the
eager young man locate the first of the six mining claims he staked.
A year later these claims were optioned and drilled by E. L. Cord and
his associates. Cord was one of the most interesting of the outsiders
who saw an opportunity for real money in San Juan County. E. L.Cord
was the financier responsible for the stylish Auburn and Cord automobiles;
he had made money on Wall Street; in real estate; with cattle ranches;
and he had been involved in silver mining in Nevada. The cook and her
son were no match for the shrewd financier. They sold out for $500,000
without retaining a royalty that would have paid them another $1 million.
Nonetheless, it was probably the best payday any mine cook ever had.
The next mine brought into production was managed by one of the most
incredible characters who ever owned a radioactive hole in the ground.
Merritt K. Ruddockís wealthy family had gotten stuck with some worthless
copper and uranium claims after a foreclosure on another deal. The first
that the Ruddocks knew that their Small Fry claims way out in southeastern
Utah might have some value was when the AEC contacted them about drilling
their property. This was in the early part of 1953. The 26 Small Fry
claims had been located to cover an outcrop of low-grade uranium mineralization
in the Cutler formation similar to the Big Bucks. After a considerable
tonnage of ore in the Moss Back was located by the AEC, Merritt Ruddock
came out to investigate the familyís good fortune. He weighed 240 pounds;
stood six feet, eight inches; spoke with a Harvard accent; and he said
things like "most unsavory" and "how deplorable"
and "fruitful collaboration." Although he dressed in tweeds
and was seen using silk handkerchiefs rather than his sleeve, Ruddock
managed very well indeed. By the early summer of 1954, the Ruddocksí
Cal Uranium Companyís 280-foot shaft had reached an ore body and started
shipping ore. However, most of the ore deposit was actually covered
by the Mamie claim that my father had staked in 1952, and now belonged
to Big Indian Mines. But Merritt K. Ruddock hadnít just been watching
things happen around the Small Frys. He had already staked the claims
on the north end that were later sold by the Ruddock familyís Almar
Minerals to Floyd Odlumís Hidden Splendor Mining Company in a $10 million
transaction in 1955. None of the locals at the Wagon Wheel Bar who made
snide remarks about the displaced gentleman ever came close to that
A few days after the Mi Vida mine began hoisting the first of its high-grade
uranium ore to the surface in December 1952, William T. Hudson came
down from Casper, Wyoming to see what his $5,000 investment in Utex
Exploration Company had brought him. Bill Hudson became the most enthusiastic
and energetic of all of the original Utex insiders. Hudson leased several
claims from Bob Barrett near the Mi Vida claim group with money he borrowed
from his brothers. These claims, the Bobtail, Bobcat, and Skunkovich,
were placed into a company Hudson named the Little Beaver Mining Company.
They were later brought into production by the Homestake Mining Company.
Hudsonís brother, Thomas C. Hudson, was a successful oil wildcatter
from Oklahoma and he sensed that he was onto something big. Hudson contacted
a trusted friend named Frank Richardson in Ouray, Colorado and informed
him of what was happening in the Big Indian area. Frank Richardson was
a hard rock miner who had not been able to work underground because
of an eye injury from a mining accident. But he sure knew how to stake
a mining claim. Richardson was in San Juan County by March of 1953,
staking the first of 150 claims on the north end. Hudson and several
associates grubstaked Richardson and raised enough money to explore
the ground that Richardson located. T. C. Hudson formed the La Sal Mining
and Development Company to hold 59 claims situated west of the Cal Uranium
holdings owned by the Ruddock family. T. C. Hudson owned 50 percent
of the stock with Frank Richardson holding 30 percent. The other 20
percent was divided between Hudsonís partners from Oklahoma and his
brother, Bill Hudson.
Hudson followed my fatherís lead and purchased one of Charlie Mayhewís
rotary rigs. He brought his teenaged sons out from Oklahoma to work
on the rig, and commenced drilling for uranium. All four of the first
holes they drilled hit very high-grade uranium ore at a depth of approximately
500 feet. When they moved their rig over to the other claims called
the North Alice claim group, they hit even more uranium. Hudson and
Richardson and their partners eventually sold out to the Homestake Mining
Company, who operated the La Sal and North Alice mines for more than
a decade. Hudson took his winnings back to Oklahoma and successfully
invested in numerous businesses. Frank Richardson was a true prospector
to the end of his life; and a prospector never quits prospecting. Richardson
used a good portion of his uranium money pursuing his goal of finding
a fortune in gold and silver ore in the Red Mountain district between
Ouray and Silverton, Colorado. Hudson and Richardson were outstanding
examples of the type of men who seized the opportunity presented them
when Charlie Steen announced that his million-dollar drill hole had
come in on the Mi Vida claim.
Of course, there were other people and more deals than anyone can remember.
Millions were gambled on goat pasture, and tens of millions were spent
acquiring and developing the prospects that became mines on the Lisbon
Valley anticline. An entire region was opened up because of the Uranium
Boom that was ignited at the Mi Vida mine.
In 1954, my Dad stood on a prominent ridge high above the bustling
Mi Vida and Big Buck mines and waved an arm around the horizon, west
towards the canyonlands of the Colorado River, north to the La Sal mountains,
east to the Paradox Basin, and south towards the Abajo mountains. There
were literally thousands of prospectors, geologists, mining engineers,
surveyors, miners, drillers and truckers working in what had been one
of the most remote areas in America.
Nothing has ever been as it was before Charlie Steen drilled into the
Mi Vida uranium ore deposit and unlocked the location of over one billion
dollars worth of one of the most sought-after minerals in history.