My father, Charlie Steen, has always maintained that the truth about his discovery of the Mi Vida mine and its consequences is a much better story than the fiction and half-truths that people insist on perpetuating. Despite the fact that his uranium discovery is one of the most publicized and well documented mineral discoveries in history, people can’t seem to resist the impulse to distort and rewrite history.
Unfortunately, this isn’t confined to bar-room reminiscences and tales told by old miners in rest homes. Articles about other peoples’ roles in my father’s discovery and observations by individuals who never met any of the players involved in the events of fifty years ago are now finding their way into print in historical publications. These accounts range from hard-luck stories about people who staked the Mi Vida ore body before my father, but couldn’t raise the money to drill where they knew a fortune was awaiting them, to lies about grubstakers being cheated out of millions because they couldn’t prove they had financed Charlie Steen’s prospecting activities.
Perhaps the most absurd of all of these revisionist discovery stories is the one that has my father’s jeep-mounted drill breaking down two or three miles from his intended destination; and, since he couldn’t go any further, he supposedly decided to drill for uranium where his rig had come to a halt. In this patently false version, Utah’s premier uranium mining area owes its discovery more to mechanical failure than to human endeavor.
Although the Mi Vida uranium mine is recognized by mining historians and members of the mineral exploration business as one of the most important ore deposits found during the last century, most of the new residents of the area that felt the full impact of the Uranium Boom probably were not around when the rags to riches saga of Charlie Steen’s successful search for a fortune in uranium touched off one of the greatest rushes in mining history. No town on the Colorado Plateau was more changed by one man’s mine than Moab, Utah. Nothing has ever been the same as it was before Charlie Steen drilled into the Mi Vida uranium ore deposit and unlocked the location of over one-billion dollars worth of one of the most sought-after minerals in history.
Are the facts about Charlie Steen’s discovery of the Mi Vida mine actually better than the fiction? After fifty years does anybody care to sort out the truth from the legend? Now that Moab is dependent on tourism and mountain bikers for its seasonal injection of economic life sustaining lucre, does anyone want to remember the decade of 1950s when Moab was the “Uranium Capital of the World?” Can Moabites today even imagine that people were once drawn to the Canyonlands Country in order to make money mining radioactive mineral deposits?
After all of these years, should more credit or blame be assessed against the man whose single-minded determination caused all those tons of tailings to be placed at the entrance of a town that now wants to be rid them. Are the tailings just an unsightly reminder of its history when Moab relied on mining rather than its scenery? Do people really care anymore about how my father found fame and fortune and earned his rightful place in history, or would they prefer to believe the last thing they read or heard from someone who wishes it had happened differently?
To me, it matters. Here’s the way I remember it.
The Early Days
My father’s journey to the fortune that he found beneath the Mi Vida claim group in San Juan County, Utah started in Texas, where he grew up amid the wildcatters who transformed the state.
Charlie Steen was born in 1919. His father was an oil prospector who made and lost a small fortune during the few years that he was married to my grandmother, Rosalie. According to my Dad, the only two things he got from his father were his name, Charles Augustus Steen, and a Dalmatian dog. My father and his sister, Maxine, were raised by a succession of stepfathers during the years when the Great Depression dampened the financial excitement of the oil booms, but he never forgot the years when prospecting paid the way.
Growing up dirt poor toughened my father and strengthened his independence. Determined to succeed, he worked his way through college with a series of odd jobs. During the summer months, he worked for the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company in Houston. After attending Tarleton College in Stephenville, Texas where he met my mother, Minnie Lee Holland (who preferred to go by her initials, M.L.), he transferred to the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso and received his degree in geology in 1943.
Poor eyesight and a slight frame prevented him from serving in the war, and he spent the next three years working for a major oil company as a petroleum geologist looking for possible oil structures in the jungle headwaters of the Amazon Basin in Peru.
For the original source of this article, click here: http://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com/oldzephyr/feb-march2002/steen-part1.htm