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Moab Historic Happenings July 2003

Charlie Steen’s Uranium Discovery - July 6, 1952
by Jeff Richards

Fifty-one years ago, on July 6, 1952, a geologist from Texas named Charles Steen, down on his luck and about to give up after two years of fruitless searching for uranium deposits in the area, finally struck it rich at his Mi Vida claim in Lisbon Valley southeast of Moab. After breaking his last drill bit, or so the story goes, the frustrated and penniless Steen ran a Geiger counter over the core samples and found that he’d hit a vein of uranium-rich ore at 173 feet. The Mi Vida mine alone would ultimately be worth more than $100 million, and it put Moab on the map. By the end of 1956, Moab was dubbed “The Richest Town in the USA” in a national magazine article. A sign in town proudly proclaimed Moab as “The Uranium Capital of the World.”

In the wake of Steen’s discovery, thousands of prospectors, miners, laborers, and others descended on the area, hoping to cash in on the mother lode. Uranium was highly sought after by the federal government, primarily for use in Cold-War era atomic weapons and in nuclear power plants.

Moab, which had between 1,000 and 1,300 people between 1950 and 1952, more than quadrupled in population over the next few years, and by the end of 1956 the city’s population was nearly 6,000, just slightly smaller than it is today. By some accounts, the town had as many as two dozen millionaires in 1956, although some were merely “paper millionaires” whose wealth evaporated when their stock became worthless after the boom died down a few years later.

Of these millionaires, Charlie Steen himself was certainly the richest and most flamboyant. He built a lavish house with a swimming pool on top of a hill overlooking Moab. Steen and his wife Minnie Lee (M.L.) hosted many parties at their home over the years, attracting corporate types, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities. Stories about Steen and the eccentric ways he spent his money remain the stuff of local legend.

By the early 1960s, the boom had died out, only to resurface when additional uranium deposits were located just north of the Mi Vida site. This second boom lasted until the mid-1960s, then tapered off. However, just as uranium died out, mining operations began in 1965 in one of the largest potash deposits in the world (on the Colorado River between Moab and Dead Horse Point), and work continues there today.

Mining has long been important to Moab, which lies within a unique geological formation called the Paradox Salt Basin. This basin has various accumulations of valuable minerals relatively near the surface. Uranium was mined in the nearby La Sal mountains as early as the 19th century. The famous scientist Marie Curie, who discovered the element radium in uranium ore in 1898, visited the Moab area herself in 1899 and inspected a uranium processing plant that French scientists had set up near the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado.

Other valuable materials mined in the Moab area over the years include vanadium (used in steel processing), lead, gold, copper, silver, along with helium, natural gas, and oil. Mining towns such as Castleton sprung up all over the La Sals and the Utah-Colorado border during the first three decades of the 1900s, only to become ghost towns in the years thereafter.

But it was Steen’s Mi Vida strike that made Moab a nationwide household name. This is a distinction that Moab still enjoys, although the uranium era has long since ended. Today, Moab’s economy thrives on a boom of a different kind—that of tourism. Visitors come to Moab to sightsee and go mountain biking, river rafting, four-wheeling, and do many other outdoor activities.

Steen, now in his eighties and reportedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s, lives in Colorado with his son. Although much of his fortune is either gone or tied up in various legal squabbles, Charlie Steen still owns a lot of property around Moab, including his famous home on the hill. The house later became the Mi Vida Restaurant, and then changed its name to the Sunset Grill in 1995. John and Laurie Clayton have owned and operated the restaurant business since 1993. The Sunset Grill’s printed menus enlighten restaurant patrons about the building’s illustrious history.
From the restaurant, diners today can see a spectacular view of the entire Moab valley, including Steen’s old uranium mill with its tailings pile on the banks of the Colorado River. The rags-to-riches-to-rags story behind that pile of dirt and the abandoned buildings around it provides a poignant and lasting reminder that whatever goes up must eventually come down.

Last year, on July 4, 2002, a special plaque was unveiled at the Charlie Steen Pavilion in Moab’s Swanny City Park, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Steen’s famous find.

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