End of an era: The Uranium King is Dead

Mark Steen and his daughter Ashley together

scattered the ashes of his parents, Charles Augustus “Charlie” and

Minnie Lee “M.L.” Steen at the Mi Vida mine site recently, officially

closing an important chapter in Moab’s history.

Charlie died Jan. 1, 2006, in Loveland, Colo.,

having been a victim of Alzheimer’s disease for several years. M.L.

died July 14, 1997.

Charlie was born Dec. 1, 1919 in Caddo, Tex., the

son of Charles A. and Rosalie Wilson Steen. He worked his way

through high school and college, attending first Tarleton College in

Stephenville, Tex., where he and M.L. met, and graduating from the

Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso with a degree in

geology in 1943.

Poor eyesight and a slight frame prevented him

serving in the army, and he spent the next three years as a petroleum

geologist in Peru. Returning to the U.S. he and M.L. were married.

He worked as an oilfield geologist until he was

fired, which his son Mark characterized as the best thing that could

have happened to him, because it freed him to go prospecting on his own

account.

An article in a professional journal on the young

uranium mining industry centered in the Four Corners Area piqued his

interest. His mother, Rosalie Shumaker, mortgaged her home in Houston

and contributed $1,000 to buy a small, portable drill. M.L.’s sister,

Tera Hrbacek, and her husband, Albert, loaned Charlie enough money for

a second-hand jeep. Charlie drove the jeep and a 20-foot trailer

to Dove Creek, Colo. M.L., with three small boys and an infant,

joined him shortly.

They moved to the Yellow Cat Wash area south of

Cisco on Christmas Day, 1950. After formulating his own theory about

the geology of the Lisbon Valley anticline, Charlie staked 11 mining

claims and filed them with the county recorder in Monticello on March

7, 1951. In July 1952 Charlie’s discovery of a 14-foot bed of

pitchblende was confirmed. He knew he had realized his dream and struck

it rich.

The mine shaft bottomed after passing through more

than 8 feet of primary uranium ore that ran between 0.34 and 5.0

percent uranium oxide. During its first 12 days in operation, the Mi

Vida mine only produced 114 tons of ore, but it averaged over $100 per

ton and some of it was worth more than $800 per ton. And it was almost

all profit, because mining and hauling costs were less than $20 per ton.

The articles that appeared in mining industry

magazines attracted mining companies, geologists, mining engineers,

prospectors and promoters from all points to the Colorado Plateau in

search of another Mi Vida mine. The Big Indian mining district became

the uranium magnet for most of these migrants. More millionaires were

made on the Lisbon Valley anticline than any other uranium mining area

in the United States. Charlie Steen’s assertions that he had found a

million-dollar mine ignited the Uranium Boom.

In August, 1953, Steen was quoted saying that “We

need to build a mill down here to process our ore. I will build a mill

in Moab one of these days. It will also help to serve the many small

miners in the area.” It was estimated that a mill would cost between $3

million and $5 million. After obtaining necessary permits, Uranium

Reduction Company was formed, and the mill was built and under

operation by 1956.

During their years in Moab, the Steens built their

home on the hill, now a restaurant, and the subdivision dubbed

Steenville below. They donated land for every church that wanted it.

Any deserving organization received funds from Charlie and M.L.

Charlie served four years on the Grand County School

Board during the district’s most hectic years of almost unimaginable

growth, double sessions and new schools. His donation of land made it

possible for the construction of Helen M. Knight School.

Charlie was elected to the Utah State Senate,

representing Grand, San Juan and Emery Counties. He resigned in the

fourth year in office when he moved his family to a new home he built

near Carson City, Nevada.

His fortune began leaving him during those Nevada

years, with the coming years of litigation, primarily with the Internal

Revenue Service. But Charlie never gave up. While core drilling on gold

prospects in Nevada, he was struck on the head by a piece of

metal. Even though he was wearing a hardhat, his injuries required

extensive surgery. He never fully recovered from that injury.

Having lost the home in Nevada, he moved his family

to Colorado, and for many years kept after his next big mineral

discovery.

Charlie Steen’s life story, written by his son Mark,

is being published in a two-part series, the first installment was just

published in the Canyon Legacy, the quarterly publication of the Museum

of Moab.

Steen is survived by four sons: John, Charles, Andy and Mark, and six grandchildren.