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Uranium Mining History | Center of Southwest Studies

Exhibitions Uranium Fever

Uranium Mining History - Uranium Mill
View of mill and company town of Uravan taken from a hill looking north.

Uranium Fever
Uranium Mining, Culture, Health and the Environment in the Four Corners Region

Curated by Pete Soland, Ph.D.

Welcome to “Uranium Fever: Uranium Mining, Culture, Health, and the Environment in the Four Corners Region.” This digital museum exhibit showcases images and documents from Fort Lewis College’s Center for Southwest Studies’ collections on uranium mining and uranium mill tailings removal. During the post-World War II era, government officials and industry executives harkened to a mythologized version of the country’s frontier legacy to promote a uranium boom that fueled the Cold War arms race and nuclear energy development. The onset of “uranium fever” contributed to the Four Corner region’s unique cultural identity in a meaningful way, but it also left serious questions about the uranium mining industry’s long-term effects on health and the environment, especially in regards to Native people and their lands. This exhibit seeks to provoke discussion about these topics by exploring novel approaches to the history of mining in the region.

Part I: The Turner Thesis and the Mythologized Frontier

The identity of the Four Corners region is inexorably linked with images of rugged pioneers who settled the vast, inhospitable wilderness by virtue of their sheer determination. The roots of the region’s mining industry validate that story, at least at first glance. The history of mining in the Animas begins in the 1860s, when prospectors like Charles Baker traveled southwest from the Front Range following the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush two years before. Baker and his party eventually made their way to the San Juan Mountains determined to find placer gold. Their strikes eventually drew the attention of other prospectors who discovered deposits of silver and other minerals. By the 1870s, the San Juan Mining District “served as a cradle for engineering and mining practices that revolutionized the mining industry.” The region weathered the boom-and-bust cycle familiar to mining regions generally, and the economic crises of 1893 and the Great Depression. Hard rock mining in the district declined after World War II as mineral prices stagnated and deposits were mined out.[1]

The frontier has long been regarded as a defining part of the American experience, and miners and mining camps loom large in the popular imagination of frontier history. In 1893–the same year that declining silver prices sent communities like Silverton reeling–scholar Frederick Jackson Turner affirmed the importance of the frontier at the annual American Historical Association held in Chicago during the World Columbian Exposition. Noting that the Superintendent of the 1890 Census had declared that the frontier line had effectively vanished, Jackson passionately argued that the frontier experience caused the American people to shed the trappings of civilization and rediscover their primitive racial energies. This made them more creative, independent, and vigorous than their old-world counterparts, and, for Turner, imparted Americans with their unique character and propensity for democracy.[2] The closing of the frontier, then, represented a profound challenge to national identity.

Turner’s frontier thesis was enormously influential during his lifetime and during subsequent decades, but by the 1960s historians had begun to critique Turner’s argument as mythologizing the frontier experience. One way that Turner did this was by contributing to what Ojibwe scholar Jean O’Brien calls a process of erasure[3] of North America’s indigenous people. That is to say, Turner frontier experience had no room for Native Americans as anything but obstacles for settlers to overcome. They were a part of the wilderness that White pioneers conquered and did not possess a history or a true civilization of their own.

Historians have also questioned Turner’s emphasis on settler’s self-sufficiency. While mining camps like those in the Animas Mining District during the 19th century were certainly isolated major cities, most people who ventured west gravitated to larger settlements like Denver or San Francisco. Nor were most miners independent. Rather, the mining industry was backed by Eastern money and was dominated by larger organizations. Even Charles Baker worked for S.B. Kellogg & Company.


Gold Mountain Combination Mining Company Stock Certificate
Mining operations were often backed by investors from the east coast. For example, the Gold Mountain Combination Mining Company was incorporated in New York, as revealed by this stock certificate from 1865. Depictions of Native people, such as those on the left, further illustrate how miners and popular culture viewed them as part a wilderness that required taming by miners and other frontiersmen.


Regardless of the problems with Turner’s thesis, its popular appeal is illustrated by the nostalgia for the frontier experiences that permeated the post-World War II uranium boom. The federal government, mining companies, and the media recalled a mythologized past in pamphlets, songs, and on film in a way that encouraged everyday people to pick up a Geiger counter and seek their fortune in the Four Corners region. Like Turner’s version of western history, contemporary accounts of the uranium boom ignored the experience of Native people, exaggerated the role of the rugged individual, and downplayed the importance of institutions and financiers headquartered on the east coast.


[1] Eric Twitty, Basins of Silver: The Story of Silverton, Colorado’s Las Animas Mining District (Lake City, CO: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2008): pp. 1–5, 319, 339-40.

[2] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Conference for the American Historical Association, July 12, 1893.

[3] Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).


 

Part II: Origins of Uranium Mining in the Four Corners

Uranium mining in the Four Corners region grew from existing vanadium mining operations. Companies like the U.S. Vanadium Corporation (a subsidiary of Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation) and the Vanadium Corporation of America scoured the area for carnotite deposits, extracting vanadium that would then be used to improve steel alloy. The industry was especially valuable to the U.S. government, which used the vanadium to strengthen, among other things, the hulls of battleships during and after World War I.[1] Yellow cake uranium was originally produced as a byproduct of vanadium and industry executives viewed it as something of a nuisance with little value beyond a minuscule market as a coloring agent for ceramics. The establishment of the Manhattan Project–the U.S. government’s program for building a nuclear bomb–changed that. Agents for the Union Mines Development Corporation (a front company for the top-secret Manhattan Project) traveled to the Four Corners hoping to find a reliable domestic source for uranium. This led them to the Navajo reservation, which was home to carnotite deposits rich in both vanadium and uranium.[2]


VCA Vice President Denny Viles speaks with Navajo miners
VCA Vice President Denny Viles (second from right) speaks with Navajo miners


The Navajo people’s history with mining was a problematic one. Gold prospecting had played at least some role in the Long Walk when U.S. Army forces under the command of Colonel Kit Carson forced more than 9,000 Navajo off of their land and resettled them at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. As a result, the Tribe restricted mining on its lands and was unwelcoming to outsiders who came to the reservation to prospect for valuable minerals. The onset of World War II nevertheless helped change this, as the Navajo agreed to allow vanadium mining as part of their patriotic contribution to the war effort.[3]


Navajo Miner
Navajo miner at VCA’s Monument #2 mine


Under the supervision of VCA Vice President Denny Viles, the company began mining vanadium on Navajo land in December of 1941 and uranium in November 1942, but because of the top-secret nature of the work, the Navajos were only told about the vanadium side of the operations. As part of the agreement with the Tribe, the VCA exclusively hired Navajos to work in the mines. Their pay was much greater than most other jobs available to them at the time, but they worked in primitive conditions and officials did not disclose the health risks posed by their exposure to high levels of radon and other hazards. Furthermore, the tribe only received payment for the vanadium extracted from their lands, not the uranium.[4]


[1] Center for Southwest Studies, M005, RG 3.3, William Chenoweth “Historical Review of Carnotite Mining & Processing in Southwestern Colorado,” (Washington: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1993) p. 11.

[2] Judy Pasternak, Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajo (New York: Free Press, 2010), pp. 3, 6-7, 28-30

[3] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[4] Ibid. 44-45.


 

Part III: The Post-World War II The Uranium Boom

Following Allied victory in Europe and Japan the United States government turned their attention to a new conflict that loomed on the horizon: the Cold War. As the U.S. entered into what officials saw as a bi-polar power struggle with the Soviet Union, government authorities prioritized uranium mining both for the country’s growing nuclear arsenal and for developing nuclear energy. Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9816, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on December 31, 1946. The establishment of the AEC transferred the procurement of uranium for nuclear energy development from the military to a civilian agency for the first time. Among the new organization’s first orders of business was signing contracts with the VCA and the U.S. Vanadium Corporation to purchase uranium from those companies’ respective mills in the Four Corners area.[1]


Post-World War II Uranium Boom: Government Materials

The use of cartoons demonstrates the AEC's goal of reaching a popular audience and belies the risks inherent in uranium prospecting and mining.


In what was “the first and only mineral rush to be triggered by the U.S. government,” the AEC worked with the VCA and the U.S. Vanadium Corporation to encourage everyday people to head to the Southwest and seek their fortunes as prospects.[2] Both companies and the government derived clear benefit from publicizing uranium mining. Seemingly overnight, an army of independent prospectors swarmed the Colorado Plateau, speeding the discovery of uranium in the region. Neither the government, the VCA, nor the U.S. Vanadium Corporation had to pay them salaries or provide them with equipment. If and when they did make a find, most were ill situated to make a profit by getting the minerals out of the ground, and so they often sold their claims to one of the larger companies. If they struck out, their misfortune was theirs and theirs alone.


Uranium Mining Maps


Some, like Charles Steen and Vernon Pick, did strike it rich. Steen’s Mi Vida mine in Southeastern Utah was one of the first big success stories of the period and inspired numerous others to try their hand at prospecting. It is nevertheless worth noting that although Steen was certainly independent, he was also a trained geologist. Speculation on uranium stocks contributed the market’s inherent riskiness. Without sufficient oversight or regulation the uranium stocks bubbled and, in 1954, burst, leaving many ordinary people who invested in the market in dire straights. [3]


Post World War II Boom: Industry Publications


As was the case in the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century, one of the best ways to make money off of the uranium boom was by selling equipment to prospectors. A secondary industry devoted to marketing Geiger counters and other supplies thrived in the late 1940s and 1950s, as is evident by looking at the myriad advertisements placed in trade magazines.


[1] Chenoweth “Historical Review of Carnotite Mining & Processing in Southwestern Colorado” p. 16.

[2] Raye C. Ringholz, Uranium Fever: Boom and Bust on the Colorado Plateau (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press): p. 11.

[3] Ibid. pp. 59-60, 67-68, 179–193.


Part IV: The Uranium Boom in the Media

One fascinating consequence of the uranium boom was its impact on popular culture. The excitement surrounding the uranium boom was amplified in the media and authors, songwriters, and filmmakers romanticized the nation’s obsession with uranium mining by invoking nostalgia for the frontier experience of the previous century. As was the case with gold strikes of yesteryear, however, most people who heard of the rush in the media were too late to make a profitable strike of their own. The uranium rush even led to a new genre of music dubbed “uranium rock” that both glamorized and satirized the boom.


Uranium Boom In the Media



Doris Day performs “Tic Tic Tic” in the 1949 Warner Bros. musical My Dream is Yours


Warren Smith’s 1958 song “Uranium Rock” offers a straightforward example
of the novelty genre inspired by the uranium boom


Elton Britt’s “Uranium Fever” gives a satirized account of the uranium boom.
Britt’s lyrics focus on the busts, rather than the booms, associated with prospecting

Elton Britt’s “Uranium Fever”

[Verse 1]

Well I don’t know but I’ve been told
Uranium ore is worth more than gold
I sold my Cad’ bought me a Jeep
I got that bug and I can’t sleep.

[Chorus]

Uranium fever has done and got me down
Uranium fever it’s spreadin’ all around
With a Geiger counter in my hand
(I’ma going out to stake me some government land)
Uranium fever has done and got me down

[Verse 2]

Well I had a talk with the A.E.C.
And they brought out some maps that look good to me
And one showed me a spot that he said he knowed
So I straddled my Jeep and headed down the road
I reckon I drove about a hundred miles
Down a bumpy road out through the wiles
When all of a sudden I bounced to a stop
At the foot of a mountain didn’t have no top

[Verse 3]

Well I took my Geiger and I started to climb
Right up to the top where I thought I’d find
A hunk of rock that’d make it click
Just like I’d read about Vernon Pick
On the second day I made the top
And I’m telling you Steve I was ready to stop
The only clicking that I heard that day
Was the bones in my back that’d gone astray

[Verse 4]

Well you pack up your things you head out again
To some unknown spot where nobodies been
You reach the spot where your fortune lies
You find it’s been staked by seventeen other guys
Well I ain’t kiddin’ I ain’t gonna quit
That bugs done caught me and I’ve been bit
So with a Geiger counter and a pick in my hand
I’ll keep right on staking that government land


 

Part V: Questions About Health, the Environment, and the Legacy of Uranium Mining

The closure of the Durango Uranium Mill, which began operations in 1943 as part of the Manhattan project and later catered to the post-War boom, brings into sharp focus the complex legacy of uranium mining in the Colorado. French Social Theorist Michel Callon’s Actor Network Theory offers a new way of understanding debates about the tailings left behind after the mill closed that reveals a great deal about the nature of technology and democracy. Callon asserts that government organizations–like the AEC–are prone to overvaluing technical knowledge and dismissing the thoughts, concerns, and experiences of citizens. In so doing, experts retard their understanding of how technology functions outside of a controlled environment. When citizens are given a chance to speak up (or take the initiative themselves) “questions that were thought to have been settled definitively are reopened. Arguments multiply and the project constantly overflows the smooth framework outlined by its promoters.”[1] Callon argues that these “overflows,” however contentious, are indicative a healthy democracy. Furthermore, experts stand to gain a great deal from these debates as they learn valuable lessons about how their theories and projects preform when they interact with the innumerable variables that occur outside of the lab.


Government and Community Response to Health and Environmental Hazards in the Durango Area


Such “overflows” occurred in Durango as the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to find a solution to the problems posed by the tailings left after the Durango Uranium Mill shut down. While focused mainly on the immediate health hazards related to high levels of radon, community members and organizations posed questions about the impact on flora and fauna, as well as the economic effects that the various proposed actions would have on the community. These, in turn, opened up further discussions about the cost of cleanup and the short-term loss of revenue to businesses versus the economic benefit of new jobs created by the cleanup project and the costs that not properly addressing the tailings might have on tourism.

Another area of concern that scientists and experts did not consider was the value that residents placed on structures related to uranium mining as part of their longstanding identity as a mining community. A public debate unfolded in the press about the benefits and detriments of demolishing the smelter smokestack that was part of the milling operation. One editorial, which argued in favor of keeping the stack, claimed that demolition would amount to a ‘“thumbing of the nose’ to the early day pioneers.” This concern with the effect of cleanup projects on Durango’s patrimony illustrate both the enduring relevance of Turner’s thesis (however mythologized) and the democratization of what was may have been a top-down process.


Uranium Mining’s Complicated Legacy in Popular Memory


The experience of the Navajos living on the reservation stands in stark contrast with those of Durango residents. Not only were the DinĂ© not given the same opportunities to discuss the problems and potential solutions to uranium mining, vital information was kept from the community from the start and government agents and industrial executives showed little interest in educating Tribal leaders after operations ceased. In so doing, authorities eschewed democracy for technocracy and treated the Navajo less as citizens and more as a colonized people. This meant that important questions about the Navajo’s health, social and economic justice, and the Tribe’s concern about preserving its history and environment were not addressed. The consequences have been dire on all fronts, with high rates of lung cancer caused by exposure to radon gas and other carcinogens left behind by the uranium mining industry. Not knowing the risks, some even used the tailings left behind to make cement, with which they constructed their homes. This lack of willingness to engage with the Navajo in the same way that they engaged with the residents of Durango–along with experts’ lack of concern with the value that the DinĂ© placed on their historical and environmental legacy–speaks to the ongoing process of “erasure” that dismisses native culture and values as somehow less than those of other American citizens.


The Health and Environmental Impact of Uranium Mining on the Navajo


[1] Michel Callon et. al., Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy


 

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