Charlie Steen was face of 1950s uranium boom
In March of 1952, things looked bleak for Charlie Steen’s dream of finding a rich uranium deposit in the Utah desert.
He was essentially broke. He and his family were living in a tarpaper shack in Cisco, Utah, and his wife, M.L., was suffering from pneumonia.
Steen owned 12 mining claims in Utah, in the Big Indian District near Moab. And he’d spent the better part of two years begging money for grubstakes, purchasing a small truck-mounted drilling rig to search for uranium deposits.
He searched deeper and in different geologic formations than virtually everyone else — whether government geologist or independent prospector. And he was ridiculed for his theories on where uranium could be found.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Four Corners region was crawling with independent prospectors, Geiger counters in hand, searching for uranium deposits.
Beginning in 1948, the recently formed Atomic Energy Commission guaranteed uranium prices and offered other incentives to prospectors as it sought a viable source of domestic uranium for nuclear weapons.
The prospectors sought uranium near the surface, primarily in the Morrison geologic formation.
Steen was convinced that large deposits of uranium lay deeper, at the bottom of anticlines in the Chinle formation.
After two years of hauling M.L. and their four sons around southeastern Utah, often living off little more than rabbit or venison, Steen had temporarily tried something different. The family had moved to Tucson, Arizona, and Steen, a college-educated geologist from Texas, earned a living as a carpenter.
But, as spring approached in 1952, M.L. encouraged Charlie to give uranium one more shot. They sold their trailer in Arizona and headed back to Utah, camping along the way. It was near Mexican Hat, Utah, that M.L. caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, and led to her hospitalization in Grand Junction.
Charlie spent almost all his remaining funds on her medical bills and wondered how he would continue.
A friend named Bill McCormick helped him acquire another rig that could drill deeper than Steen’s small rig. He also provided money to bulldoze a road to his claims.
Steen’s mother, Rosalie Shumaker, sold her possessions in Houston and moved to Cisco to help care for the family and provide financial support.
The family struggled on while Charlie continued to drill, hauling up core samples, looking for the elusive yellow carnotite that signaled uranium. Instead, all he found was dark gray material.
One day in early July, Steen stopped his Jeep at the only gas station at Cisco before heading to Grand Junction. Owner Buddy Cowger was also a uranium prospector, and he happened to have a Geiger counter.
On a whim, Steen told Buddy to aim the Geiger counter at the dark gray core samples in his Jeep.
Buddy did so, and the device chattered like it had found the core of an atom bomb.
Surprised, Steen realized he had recovered a different type of uranium material — uraninite, or pitchblende — which had not previously been found in the Four Corners.
Additionally, he had proved that his theory on where to find uranium was correct.
The claim where the material was found he had named Mi Vida, Spanish for My Life.
Over the next 30 years, more than $500 million worth of uranium ore was mined from the Big Indian district by people following Steen’s lead.
The Steens went from barely surviving to being fabulously rich. Charlie rejected offers to buy his claims for $5 million. In a few years, he earned much more than that.
In October of 1952, Steen formed the Utex Exploration Co. with several people he had once worked for in Texas. The company raised funds to mine Mi Vida and nearby claims.
The following year, he and McCormick bought neighboring claims and created a separate company, Standard Uranium Co., with assistance from several New York financiers.
Steen also formed a drilling company with his brother-in-law. Another company was created to build a uranium mill in Moab, the first mill in the region constructed without government financial support.
Charlie, an avid pilot, began to fly around the West, often on little more than a whim — to Salt Lake City, Grand Junction and elsewhere.
He and M.L. built a spectacular home on top of a hill overlooking Moab, which they also called Mi Vida.
They held lavish parties at the house, which attracted state and local politicos. Even movie stars, such as Henry Fonda, occasionally stopped by when they were filming a picture nearby.
Charlie dipped his toe in politics, serving a term as a Utah state senator from 1959 to 1969.
But problems developed. There were disputes with Steen’s original partners in Utex, and it cost Steen several million dollars to buy them out.
And despite his personal reluctance, the Moab mill was eventually sold to Atlas Minerals Corp.
By 1962, the Steens had sold their interest in the Mi Vida mine and other claims, as well as the mill. They left Moab and moved to Reno, Nevada.
A seven-year battle with the IRS, ending in 1975, left them broke once more. The Steens lost their Reno mansion and most other property.
The post-war uranium boom began to decline in 1960. The Atomic Energy Commission found it had more than enough uranium on hand.
By the 1970s, there was a developing uranium market for nuclear electric plants, which would ebb and flow over the next 40 years.
Charlie Steen died in 2006. The Steens’ house in Moab is now home to the Sunset Grill restaurant.
The mill has been closed, and its tailings are being moved. Recreation long ago replaced uranium as the economic driver in Moab.
Information for this column came from the Museum of Moab’s Canyon Legacy magazine, Winter 2016 edition, which includes articles by his son, Mark Steen, and others. Also, from “Charlie Steen’s Mi Vida,” by Maxine Newell. And the National Mining Hall of Fame’s page on Charlie Steen, mininghalloffame.org/inductee/steen.