My father, Charlie
Steen, has always maintained that the truth about his discovery of the
Mi Vida mine and its consequences is a much better story than the fiction
and half-truths that people insist on perpetuating. Despite the fact
that his uranium discovery is one of the most publicized and well documented
mineral discoveries in history, people canít seem to resist the impulse
to distort and rewrite history.
isnít confined to bar-room reminiscences and tales told by old miners
in rest homes. Articles about other peoples' roles in my father's discovery
and observations by individuals who never met any of the players involved
in the events of fifty years ago are now finding their way into print
in historical publications. These accounts range from hard-luck stories
about people who staked the Mi Vida ore body before my father, but couldn't
raise the money to drill where they knew a fortune was awaiting them,
to lies about grubstakers being cheated out of millions because they
couldn't prove they had financed Charlie Steenís prospecting activities.
Perhaps the most absurd
of all of these revisionist discovery stories is the one that has my
father's jeep-mounted drill breaking down two or three miles from his
intended destination; and, since he couldn't go any further, he supposedly
decided to drill for uranium where his rig had come to a halt. In this
patently false version, Utah's premier uranium mining area owes its
discovery more to mechanical failure than to human endeavor.
Although the Mi Vida
uranium mine is recognized by mining historians and members of the mineral
exploration business as one of the most important ore deposits found
during the last century, most of the new residents of the area that
felt the full impact of the Uranium Boom probably were not around when
the rags to riches saga of Charlie Steen's successful search for a fortune
in uranium touched off one of the greatest rushes in mining history.
No town on the Colorado Plateau was more changed by one man's mine than
Moab, Utah. Nothing has ever been the same 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.
Are the facts about
Charlie Steen's discovery of the Mi Vida mine actually better than the
fiction? After fifty years does anybody care to sort out the truth from
the legend? Now that Moab is dependent on tourism and mountain bikers
for its seasonal injection of economic life sustaining lucre, does anyone
want to remember the decade of 1950s when Moab was the "Uranium
Capital of the World?" Can Moabites today even imagine that people
were once drawn to the Canyonlands Country in order to make money mining
radioactive mineral deposits?
After all of these
years, should more credit or blame be assessed against the man whose
single-minded determination caused all those tons of tailings to be
placed at the entrance of a town that now wants to be rid them. Are
the tailings just an unsightly reminder of its history when Moab relied
on mining rather than its scenery? Do people really care anymore about
how my father found fame and fortune and earned his rightful place in
history, or would they prefer to believe the last thing they read or
heard from someone who wishes it had happened differently?
To me, it matters.
Here's the way I remember it.
The Early Days
My father's journey
to the fortune that he found beneath the Mi Vida claim group in San
Juan County, Utah started in Texas, where he grew up amid the wildcatters
who transformed the state.
Charlie Steen was
born in 1919. His father was an oil prospector who made and lost a small
fortune during the few years that he was married to my grandmother,
Rosalie. According to my Dad, the only two things he got from his father
were his name, Charles Augustus Steen, and a Dalmatian dog. My father
and his sister, Maxine, were raised by a succession of stepfathers during
the years when the Great Depression dampened the financial excitement
of the oil booms, but he never forgot the years when prospecting paid
Growing up dirt poor
toughened my father and strengthened his independence. Determined to
succeed, he worked his way through college with a series of odd jobs.
During the summer months, he worked for the Chicago Bridge and Iron
Company in Houston. After attending Tarleton College in Stephenville,
Texas where he met my mother, Minnie Lee Holland (who preferred to go
by her initials, M.L.), he transferred to the Texas College of Mines
and Metallurgy in El Paso and received his degree in geology in 1943.
Poor eyesight and
a slight frame prevented him from serving in the war, and he spent the
next three years working for a major oil company as a petroleum geologist
looking for possible oil structures in the jungle headwaters of the
Amazon Basin in Peru.
After returning to
this country, he married my mother and worked as a field geologist for
the Stanolind Oil Company, until he was fired for insubordination after
he argued with two of his bosses over the way they were directing his
work. Their conclusion that "he was innately rebellious against
authority" got him blackballed by the tightly managed oil companies.
It was the best thing
that could have happened to him, because it freed him to go prospecting
on his own account. My mother, who had also grown up poor in Sweetwater,
Texas, but in a very strict household, was eager to share in his prospecting
adventures. Dad spent two years trying to raise enough money to drill
some oil and gas properties he believed in, but he needed at least $100,000
in order to wildcat for oil. He supported his growing family as a small-scale
building contractor in Houston, remodeling kitchens, adding bedrooms
and baths--saving money for a grubstake while he tried to interest people
in backing his oil play.
Uranium and the
Germ of an Idea
Since he couldn't
raise the money to go wildcatting for oil, he cast about for some mineral
that was in demand and that a man on a mighty slim shoestring might
prospect for with a hope of big returns. He read an article in the "Engineering
& Mining Journal" about the still-young uranium mining
industry that was centered on the Four Corners area of the Colorado
Plateau, and my father began to read everything he could find about
the rare element. Uranium had literally burst upon the world with the
detonation of three atomic bombs at the end of World War II.
CHARLIE STEEN at Big Indian with
son Mark and Butch the Dog
Prior to the development
of the atomic bomb, uranium was considered a pretty worthless element,
with few uses aside from being a costly source of radium. The discovery
of high-grade pitchblende, the primary uranium ore, in the Belgian Congo
in the 1920s made the lower-grade, yellow carnotite ores of the Colorado
Plateau uneconomic. Because these ores also contained vanadium, which
is used to harden steel, there were several periods when the need for
vanadium revived the region's small-scale mining industry. Uranium that
was separated from the vanadium and discarded during the milling process
was later used to make the first atomic bombs. With the advent of the
atomic age and the subsequent arms race with the Soviet Union, the United
States was forced to buy ninety percent of its radioactive materials
from the Belgian Congo and Canada.
The country's need
for uranium for national defense was so urgent that the government decided
it had to stimulate domestic prospecting and production through an incentive
program of guaranteed prices, discovery bonuses and development loans.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 created the Atomic Energy Commission (the
AEC), and the government initiated an extensive exploration program
to find domestic sources of uranium. The AEC encouraged individuals
and companies to increase production by more than doubling the price
per pound for high-grade uranium ore to $31 and with a $10,000 bonus
for the first man to produce 20 tons of ore assaying at least 20% uranium
in the United States.
Hundreds of government
geologists and mining engineers scoured the Western States, searching
for enough uranium ore to feed the two uranium processing plants that
were being operated under strict security and behind highly guarded
enclosures. While this resulted in an increase in uranium production,
almost all of the mines on the Colorado Plateau were located in the
Morrison Formation and were relatively small-sized, shallow, and low-grade.
In decades of searching
on the Plateau, prospectors had uncovered only three ore deposits amounting
to as much as 100,000 tons of this much lower-grade ore, and there were
scores of small mines that had been worked out and abandoned. Since
few of these smaller ore deposits held more than 10,000 tons of ore
rich enough to be mined at a profit, the outlook for a large-scale uranium
industry seemed pretty bleak. These geologic and economic conditions
discouraged most of the larger, well-established mining companies from
even looking for uranium deposits. And, while there were dozens of local
prospectors and miners in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah
who were making a living off these smaller mines, nobody was making
a fortune and no one had discovered a major ore body. Most of these
prospectors were part-time uranium seekers who had gained their practical
knowledge working in these small mines, or cowboys and sheepherders
who were just about the only people who had penetrated one of the most
desolate, unsurveyed areas left in the country.
Even though you could
stake a mining claim on public land with four claim posts and a dollar,
it cost real money to prospect and explore for ore. My grandmother,
Rosalie Shumaker, mortgaged her home in Houston and contributed a thousand
dollars to buy a small portable drill; and my mother's sister, Tera,
talked her husband into loaning my father enough money for a second-hand
jeep. By the time that my father set off on his quest for uranium in
the summer of 1950, my parents were already raising my three older brothers
and I was on the way. Dad drove the jeep and a 20 foot trailer to Dove
Creek, Colorado; and a few weeks after I was born, my mother and brothers
and I traveled with my grandmother to join my father while he searched
for the uranium that would change all of our lives.
A Grubstake, a
Dream, and a Theory
Charlie Steen began
his search by studying the geology of the uranium deposits of the area.
He couldn't afford to buy a Geiger counter, but Dad figured that unless
he used his education and training as a geologist, he had no better
chance than the other prospectors who spent their time walking the rim
rocks looking for uranium outcroppings on the surface. Because most
of the readily accessible uranium deposits that outcropped were already
staked by the time Dad arrived on the scene, he began to look for the
geologic conditions that would cause uranium to collect and concentrate
in certain favorable locations where it could be discovered with a drilling
During the time we
lived near Dove Creek, my father became friends with Bob Barrett, a
slightly prosperous pinto bean farmer who had a pretty strong case of
uranium fever. He also became well acquainted with William R. McCormick,
the owner of the Dove Creek Mercantile Store. Bill McCormick's honest,
generous nature was combined with a very shrewd business sense, but
he had a weakness for uranium prospectors and a fondness for the mining
The Steens lived on
rice, beans, oatmeal, rabbit stew and venison from the deer that my
father shot regardless of the season while he prospected and examined
other people's properties for McCormick and Barrett.
On Christmas Day,
we moved to the Yellow Cat Wash area south of Cisco, where Dad staked
some claims and drilled out a small uranium deposit on the promise of
an interest in anything he found from a mining engineer who later reneged
on his agreement. Somehow my parents managed to get by with small advances
from my grandmother and loans from friends that didn't average $70 a
Early in 1951, Bill
McCormick introduced Dad to Dan Hayes and Donald Adams, two local prospectors
and mine owners who had been involved in uranium mining for many years.
Hayes and Adams owned the 14 Big Buck claims that had been staked in
1948 to cover a meager exposure of oxidized uranium in the Cutler Formation
on the southwestern flank of the faulted Lisbon Valley anticline in
the Big Indian mining district of San Juan County, Utah. The Morrison
Formation had been eroded off this upthrown portion of the anticline,
and there were only three small uranium mines located in the entire
district. These mines had produced a little more than 2,000 tons of
low-grade uranium ore from host rocks in the Cutler Formation. The nearest
producing uranium mine was more than twenty miles away from the Big
Buck claim group.
All of the AEC and
company geologists who had examined the area had written off the Big
Indian mining district as an important potential source of uranium by
the time Charles Augustus Steen was attracted to the area. There were
simply too many better places to explore for uranium on the Colorado
Plateau than a mining district that was missing the most important host
rocks (the Morrison Formation) to waste much time or any money on the
Big Indian mining district.
After examining the
geology of the uranium bearing formation that Hayes and Adams had exposed
with four short mine adits and bulldozer cuts along the rim, my father
hiked above the Big Buck mine and began his geologic reconnaissance.
As he walked and climbed over the rock formations, he began to formulate
a theory that the lower grade exposures of uranium in the Cutler Formation
would be enriched or concentrated down dip from the outcrops along the
escarpment overlooking Big Indian Wash. The terrain was very rugged
and without a single road into the country behind the Big Buck claims.
Dad noticed that the
crest of the Lisbon Valley anticline was situated just about the same
spot where he had hiked in above the rim, and he figured that any uranium
that was concentrated down dip would be found in thicker deposits on
this part of the anticlinal structure. He also saw that a large section
of the upper rock formations had been removed by erosion, and knew that
he would not have to drill through more than three hundred feet of the
Wingate sandstone in order to prove his geologic theory.
After spending less
than a day examining the rock formations and considering the geology
of the area, Dad decided to stake the ground back of the Big Buck claims.
Because of the rough nature of the ground and the fact that there were
areas with hundreds of feet of air between the places where my father
was marking the boundaries of his claims it was very slow going. Working
alone, using his Brunton compass and pacing off the 600 by 1500 foot
claims, Dad didn't encounter any signs that the ground had ever been
staked by anyone else.
After this ground
became some of the most valuable land in the county, there were several
extensive title searches completed for legal reasons, and they didn't
disclose any prior locations. At the end of several weeks, Charlie Steen
had staked 11 mining claims: the Mi Vida, Linda Mujer, Mi Amorcita,
Mi Alma, Bacardi, Te Quiero, Fundadoro, Pisco, Besame Mucho, Mi Corozan,
and the Mujer Sin Verguenza. Another claim, the Ann, was staked later.
Most of these mining claims were named after Spanish expressions contained
in popular songs that Dad had heard in Peru. The Mi Vida claim literally
means "My Life" in Spanish, but it actually means much more
when it is used in the context of expressing oneís feelings towards
a woman. Never was a mining claim more aptly named than the Mi Vida.
Charlie Steen filed
his claims with the County Recorder in Monticello on March 7, 1951.
Now that he had located his prospect, Dad had to convince someone to
back his belief that uranium could be found beneath his claims, because
the ore horizon was at least 200 feet below the surface and his portable
drill could barely penetrate 50 feet. His theory was ridiculed and criticized
by AEC geologists who were familiar with the country, and company geologists
figured that they knew more about uranium ore deposits than some newcomer
from Texas. The fact all the experts unanimously agreed on, that the
Big Indian country was worthless, only stiffened my father's determination
to prove them all wrong.
Dead Broke and
The Dream on Hold (for a moment)
By this time the Steens
were dead broke, so we moved to Tucson, where Dad worked as a carpenter
and scraped together a small grubstake for another shot at prospecting.
All the time he was in Arizona, Dad knew that he had to do his assessment
work on his Big Indian claims or lose them by default. With my mother's
encouragement, Dad turned down a job offer to work as a petroleum geologist,
sold the trailer for $375, piled everything we owned on top of the jeep
and headed back to Cisco, where we moved into a $15 a month tarpaper
Bill McCormick came
through with a beat-up, second-hand drilling rig and enough money to
bulldoze four miles of rough road into the heart of the Mi Vida claim.
Rosalie Shumaker sold her furniture for $1700 and came to Utah with
a friend named Douglas Hoot to help her son find his fortune. Dad set
the drill up as far down dip as possible and began drilling on July
3, 1952. After three days of drilling, at a depth of 73 feet, they started
bringing up a grayish-black core that resembled coal. Dad and Hoot drilled
through 14 feet of this unusual formation and my father set it aside
to examine later. Three weeks later, on July 27, the drill bit suddenly
broke off the drill stem at a depth of 197 feet---only three feet short
of my father's goal. No yellow carnotite had been encountered.
THE FUTURE: Charlie & M.I.
plan their hillside home about Moab, barely a year after their Discovery.
Just about beaten
from frustration, Dad drove the 100 miles to Cisco with the intention
of going directly on to Grand Junction to get some tools to fish out
the broken bit. He remembered to bring along several samples of the
grayish-black core, and when he got to Cisco he drove straight to Buddy
Cowger's service station to gas up on credit. Buddy was also a prospector
and a good friend. Like practically every uranium prospector on the
Colorado Plateau except for Charlie Steen, Buddy owned a Geiger counter;
and he was examining some samples when Dad pulled up. Impatient to be
on his way, my father said, "Hell, I've got some stuff that'll
do better than yours." When my Dad placed a piece of the grayish-black
core next to the Geiger counter the needle leaped out of sight and the
counter went crazy.
In a flash Charlie
Steen realized that he had cored through 14 feet of pitchblende, one
of the primary ores of uranium. Until July 6, 1952, nobody had ever
found pitchblende on the Colorado Plateau, and my Dad had only seen
specimens in museums, but he knew that the hole had finally come in
for the Steen family. Dad whirled around and started running towards
the shack where Mom was waiting for news from the Big Indian. After
hitting her clothesline, he burst in the shack yelling: "We've
hit it! Weíve hit it! It's a million dollar lick!" My father grabbed
my mother and together they celebrated the discovery of the Mi Vida
mine without knowing how profoundly their lives were about to change.
In the next installments
of this series, I'll relate the history of the Mi Vida mineís development,
the formation of Utex Exploration Company and Standard Uranium, the
exploration and exploitation of the Big Indian mining district, the
disputes, the claim jumpers, the million dollar lawsuits and the struggle
to construct the Uranium Reduction Company mill in boomtown Moab, the
"Uranium Capital of the World." MS