A frenzied uranium boom swept up southern Utah in the 1950s. The boom had a long term impact on the health of countless miners.
On July 6, 1952, a down-on-his-luck uranium prospector named Charlie Steen made a major strike near Moab, Utah. His discovery led to a massive uranium boom on the Colorado Plateau, a boom that was to make Charlie very rich, but one that also cost many lives.
Following World War II, uranium became a crucial commodity for the US government. This radioactive ore fueled nuclear weapons, and to maintain its edge in the Cold War, the US was desperate to develop its untapped supplies on the Colorado Plateau. The Atomic Energy Commission put out a call for prospectors, which caused the first federally-sponsored mineral rush in history.
Charlie Steen, an unemployed oil geologist from Texas, was among the many fortune-hunters who descended on redrock country in a frenzied search for uranium. Unlike his fellow prospectors, Steen used oil exploration techniques to locate uranium in a formation that had previously yielded no ore. Charlie Steen’s MiVida mine was the nation's first big uranium strike and triggered further discoveries. By 1959, more than 300,000 claims were filed in Utah, and by 1962, Utah had produced 9 million tons of ore worth $25 million. The industry employed more than 8000 workers, and the sleepy town of Moab was transformed into the “Uranium Capitol of the World.”
But there were downsides. Digging uranium was hazardous, and neither the mining companies nor the government took responsibility for health safety. Miners were generally ignorant of the dangers. Many came home to their families each night covered with radioactive dust. Navajo children near Bluff regularly played in the mines, and in the Navajo town of Halchita, even homes were built on mine tailings.
The boom ended when the government stopped buying uranium in 1970, but its legacy continues. Hundreds of miners and their families succumbed to radiation, and court battles finally resulted in some compensation to victims in 1989. But cleanup of radioactive tailings continues to this day.
Image: Uranium Mining, 1956. Typical small mining operation in early days of uranium production. This sort of manual activity was soon replaced by efficient, mechanized mining. This photo was taken in 1956 near Moab, Utah. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See Raye C. Ringholz, “Utah’s Uranium Boom,” Beehive History 16, accessed; Raye C. Ringholz, “Uranium Mining in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia; Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay, “The Navajos of Utah,” Utah's Native Americans; go check out Charlie Steen’s bronzed work boots, as well as maps, historic photos, and other objects telling about the hectic years of the 1950s uranium boom at the Museum of Moab http://www.moabmuseum.org/