‘Uranium King’ Charlie Steen started out in Cisco tar-paper shack

The Cisco skyline. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Western Colorado.

Second in a two-part series on the history of Cisco, Utah.

Growing up in Cisco, Utah, was good.

So says George Seely, now a Grand Junction resident, who moved to Cisco with his parents as a young child in 1944. His father was the signal maintainer for the railroad, and when they first moved to Cisco they lived in an outfit car — a boxcar fitted up like a trailer house. After moving to Cisco, George’s sister Sue was born. Now Sue Brown, she also lives in Grand Junction.

George said when his family lived in Cisco the school built in 1898 was closed. Several Cisco moms approached Helen Knight, superintendent of schools for Grand County, to convince her to reopen the school for the 15 school-age kids in Cisco. Knight told the women that if they could find a teacher who was willing to live in Cisco she would reopen the school.

They found a teacher, Edwina McFarland, and the school, which originally had opened in December 1898 and closed in 1934, was reopened in 1944. In the 1950s the school was moved to Thompson.

Because the school only went to the eighth grade, high school students attended boarding schools to complete their high school education.

Sheep and cattle ranching were among the industries that had kept Cisco alive. Cowboys and sheepmen frequently visited Cisco and for the most part were respectful of the residents.

However, once in a while a problem would arise. One such time was when Don Loveridge, a cowpuncher, came to town with his pack string and, in his haste to get something for his parched throat, didn’t properly secure his mules. The mules made their way into the Seely yard and ate the tops of trees George’s mother had planted. George said he will never forget the sight of his mother, Carolyn Beebe Seely, running in the yard, her housedress flapping in the breeze, as she went after the mules with her broom. Then after she had the mules under control, she went flying down the street to Capansky’s, a local “beer joint,” to find Don. The matter ultimately was solved peaceably.

In addition to George and Sue’s mother chasing mules out of her yard, Carolyn Beebe Seely served on the Grand County School Board for 12 years, was the Justice of the Peace, ran a Red Cross First Aid station from their home, and regularly tested the Cisco drinking water to ensure it was safe for drinking.

George said that in addition to Capansky’s, other buildings he remembers are a cinderblock garage and service station, and auto repair shop built by Marilyn Cowger’s father, Bud.

The Cisco Mercantile, or “the store,” carried just about everything and was owned by Mattie and Bill Cowger, who were known in Cisco as “Mom and Pop Cowger.”  They also had a hotel and two or three houses behind and south of the store they rented out.

On the south side of the road was a string of shotgun shacks — workers’ houses — east of the Seely residence. Across the tracks were more little houses. Cisco’s domestic water was brought on the train.

In the 1950s Cisco had its own famous resident, “Uranium King” Charlie Steen, a Texas geologist who had come to Colorado and Utah to prospect for uranium.

Marilyn remembers the day in July 1952 that Steen found he had struck it rich in his Mi Vida mine near Moab, the first big uranium discovery in that area.

Steen and his family were living in a rented tar-paper shack in Cisco a short distance from Marilyn’s father’s garage.

Steen didn’t own a Geiger counter, but Marilyn’s parents did, so he brought his cores to Cowger’s garage to check his ore.

One day Steen brought in three core plugs. When the Geiger counter was run over the samples, the reading went out of sight. Steen knew he had hit pay dirt.

Marilyn said Steen went running out of the garage headed for home, whooping it up all the way.

In his excitement, he forgot about the clothesline and ran into it, knocking him to the ground. Steen jumped right back up and continued on his way to tell his wife and four sons they had struck it rich.

Cisco had been able to survive in the 1880s by moving the town nearer the new railroad. But when diesels replaced steam engines, the railroad no longer needed section hands and their housing was abandoned.

Then, when Interstate 70 bypassed the town, Cisco could not survive without the tourist trade, and a piece of Americana was lost.

Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.


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