And sometimes you just have to say screw it all and try something totally different.
Abandoned Lands, an exploration of the Colorado Plateau, and we had crossed the Utah state line and were driving north on Highway 191 towards Moab and Arches National Park. We were leaving the lands of the Ancestral Pueblo people, and were coming into a region with a general paucity of obvious archaeological remains. It is a land of barren rock where water is scarce and survival difficult without the niceties of modern technology. It is the realm of the geologist.
The region between Moab and Monticello is a complex mix of anticlines, faults, and laccolithic intrusions. The combination of these structures has led to the formation of a variety of ore bodies, and the history of this landscape is tied mostly to the search for those ores, by ancient peoples as well as modern prospectors.
As we drove north we passed Church Rock, an outlier of Jurassic Entrada Sandstone. The Entrada accumulated in coastal sand dunes and muddy estuaries along a western sea. Conditions were quite arid at the time, as it was situated in the subtropics, much like the Sahara Desert today.
The plan was to make a sensible stop at a roadside rest area and continue on to our camp for the night at Arches National Park. But I was looking at the highway maps and geology road guides, and I found myself asking "why don't any of these guides say anything about Highway 113 and the uranium mines out in the Lisbon Valley Anticline?" Yes, sometimes we think that way. So, I got on radio and said we were turning onto Highway 113 to simply see what was there. It was serendipity...
Charlie Steen looms large in the legends of the "uranium frenzy" that gripped the Colorado-Utah borderlands in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Uranium and vanadium had been mined in the region intermittently during the early part of the century, but production was limited. It was the invention of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, along with a recession following World War II that left thousands of soldiers in the unemployment lines that led to an unprecedented migration into this barren region. It was also the first government-sponsored mining boom, as the bureaucrats promised to maintain a minimum price for uranium for at least a decade.
Charlie missed out on the draft for medical reasons, but went to work in the oil industry. By behaving just like a geologist, he got himself fired for insubordination and could not find employment anywhere in Texas. Hearing of the uranium rush, he piled his young wife and four very young sons into a surplus jeep, mortgaged his mother's home for $1,000 and headed north into the Utah Canyon Country. As a geologist, he had some ideas about where the yellow carnotite uranium ores might be found, and his ideas were viewed with amusement by his colleagues. But he sunk the last of his dollars into a drilling rig and set up on the limb of the Lisbon Valley Anticline. For months his family subsisted on poached venison stew and cereal while he drilled the 200 foot hole.
And the drill bit broke off...
He was beat. There was nothing in the hole but some kind of black coal-like material, not the bright yellow carnotite that everyone was looking for. He had samples of the black stuff in the back of the jeep when he rode into Moab for the maybe the last time.
By most accounts, Charlie Steen was generous with his new-found riches, donating to many charitable causes in the Moab area, and he apparently threw great parties. When he got frustrated with haulage costs to the government milling facilities, he built his own mill in Moab right next to the Colorado River. I suppose that it is ironic that the many millions of dollars worth of uranium that the mill produced is kind of balanced against the fact that uranium has been leaching into the Colorado River ever since, and that $300 million is being spent to haul the waste dump to a site near Cisco, one of the places that Charlie had lived in poverty.
|Does anyone think that this rock is an alien monument to Jabba the Hut?|
Miners worked for a decade or more in the mines, but eventually many of them developed lung cancer and other diseases, and they started dying. Their families suffered too. The dangers came from wives washing coveralls covered with carnotite dust, children playing on mine dumps, and swimming in uranium-saturated waters at the mine sites. The sadness came in the arbitrary nature of the fatalities. Surprisingly healthy miners watched their children die in some instances.
Without maps or notes, we passed up the Mi Vida (it was tucked away in a side canyon), but saw plenty of evidence of other mining ventures. The anticline was the result of salt bodies rising and piercing the overlying rocks (the salt formed in estuaries and bays that came to be cut off from the western ocean in Pennsylvanian time). Thirty million years ago, the intrusions of the magma that formed the large laccolithic intrusions of the La Sal Mountains and Abajo Mountains provided the hydrothermal fluids that formed ore bodies along fault systems in the anticline folds. The ores included the uranium, but copper was also a major component.
POSTSCRIPT: Check out Andrew Alden's excellent new post on uranium geology for some details on the mineralization process: http://geology.about.com/od/mineral_resources/a/uraniumnuts.htm