How Uranium Fever Shaped the 1950s Southwest


In the years that followed World War II, there was a surprising new version of the Gold Rush – this time, instead of gold, many in the US was gripped by “uranium fever.” An estimated ten thousand people headed to the Southwest attempting to make their fortunes in prospecting radioactive material. While the heyday of uranium mining was short, spanning just twelve years, its effects on the people of the Southwest can still be seen in the modern day.

The Beginnings of Uranium Fever

A radioactive chemical element, uranium was desirable for many reasons in the US following World War II. The end of the war had seen the advent of chemical weaponry, with the US dropping two nuclear bombs on the Japanese mainland. The first of these, codenamed “Little Boy,” was a uranium-based device, which was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. As a result of its usage in the war, uranium became highly sought after to help in the production of chemical weapons during the height of the Cold War. Government agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) used uranium in their research, developing more advanced chemical weapons as tensions between the US and Russia increased.

Uranium was also pursued for its important role in powering nuclear power plants. Natural uranium, which contains both uranium-238 and uranium-235, is the only organically occurring element which can sustain a chain reaction (otherwise known as a fissionable fuel). The heat produced through these chain reactions is used to create steam that turns turbines and generates electrical power in a nuclear plant. In addition, uranium could be used to power nuclear submarines. As a result, the desire for uranium in the post-WWII landscape was high, leading to several unintended consequences as prospectors flocked to chance their luck in mining the valuable resource.

The Rags-to-Riches Uranium Miners

While many of the prospectors who came to states like Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico in search of uranium wealth were disappointed, the stories of the lucky few motivated many miners to keep trying. The greatest of these fabled men was Charlie Steen. The so-called “King of Uranium,” Steen had been an oil geologist before leaving the oil business to search for uranium in 1949. His geology background gave him more insight where uranium might be found, and Steen theorized that uranium may be found deeper within the Earth than most prospectors had ventured to dig. Packing up his wife and four sons, the Steens roamed virtually penniless through southeastern Utah in search of uranium, eventually taking up a tarpaper shack near Cisco, Utah.

Initially discouraged by his lack of success, Steen nearly gave up on his uranium venture, but was encouraged to persevere. This persistence eventually paid off when Steen found a large deposit of uraninite (otherwise known as pitchblende) in the Colorado Plateau. Although pitchblende was well known for being rich in uranium, it was not thought to exist in the Plateau prior to Steen’s discovery. Steen’s find skyrocketed his meager wealth, and he was at one point thought to have made over $130 million USD. Steen went on to manage one of the most successful uranium mines of the 1950s, which he nicknamed “mi vida” – Spanish for “my life.”

Charles Steen and his family. Reprinted from Historic Adventures on the Colorado Plateau by Robert Silbernagel courtesy of the Museum of Moab (pg. 123, The History Press, 2018).
Charles Steen and his family. Reprinted from Historic Adventures on the Colorado Plateau by Robert Silbernagel courtesy of the Museum of Moab (pg. 123, The History Press, 2018).

Steen was not the only success story out of the quest for uranium; take, for example, Vernon Pick. Pick, who had been travelling to California from Minnesota, took a detour to Grand Junction, Colorado to pick up mining supplies after hearing of the uranium boom. He discovered a mine while prospecting in Utah, which he subsequently sold for $9 million USD. Although Pick was never as successful as Steen, he was another success story which prospective miners could look to for hope in their own ventures. As for Steen, he continued to monopolize the uranium industry until its collapse in 1960, at which point he lost his fortune due to the declining demand for uranium and heavy federal taxes.

From Boom Town to Ghost Town, and Other Challenges

The uranium bonanza had effects beyond individual success, however. Towns that had previously been relatively unknown saw sudden population surges due to an influx of prospectors. Areas like Moab, Utah, near where Steen had prospected saw a population increase of over 5,000 individuals. As a result, tiny towns began bursting at the seams, without a good means to support such a number of people. To accommodate those who could not live in the towns, mining camps began to spring up outside of towns, as more people flooded into the Southwest. After uranium mining began to decline, however, many of these towns returned to their original smaller populations, or were abandoned altogether. Cisco, Utah, for example, is now an American ghost town, despite being where Steen and his family lived when they struck uranium gold.

The fervor for uranium also did not recognize the dangers of such radioactive materials, the effects of which were not common knowledge at the time. As a result, many workers were exposed to high levels of radiation, which later resulted in lung cancer from years spent breathing in radon gas. Other forms of cancer were also common. Today, the government has paid reparations to many afflicted by their time spent mining for uranium, and nearly half the of the 50 present and former uranium milling sites have been designated as “superfund” sites. These sites are now the property of the US Environmental Protection Agency, who is responsible for properly cleaning and disposing of the hazardous material.

The Decline of Uranium Mining

By the end of the 1950s, the uranium industry was beginning to wane, as the AEC found that they had more than enough uranium for their experimental purposes. Without this governmental demand for the radioactive material, uranium prices began to drop, and many mines were forced to close their doors. Formerly rich prospectors like Steen found themselves without an industry to profit from, leading further to the abandonment of mining sites and towns.

Despite the lack of government support, uranium mining remained for the purpose of fueling nuclear electrical plants for several decades, but has mostly ceased to exist since the 1980s. As the increased dangers of uranium were discovered throughout the 60s and 70s, many states passed bans on the mining of uranium, which are still enforced today. While a handful of states still take part in mining operations, the golden age of uranium has long since passed, leaving only its legacy of ghost towns and legendary success stories behind.

If you’d like to learn more about the mining endeavors on the Colorado Plateau, check out our new book Historic Adventures on the Colorado Plateau.