Longform

Fallout in the Family

Page 3 of 10

After a year, though, he was itching to get back to his claims. In April 1952 the family packed up again and headed back to Utah.

"When we left Tucson," M.L. recalled, "we had $350, because Charles had sold our trailer. And of course we had to save the money to use it for drilling. So we stopped at Bluff and spent the night there. The kids all slept inside the Jeep, and Charles and I slept on mattresses we put down on the ground. The next morning, I had pneumonia. By the time we got to Cisco, I was unconscious, and this lady we didn't know at all put me in her car and took me to a hospital in Fruita, where I spent the $350 that we got out of the trailer."

Sue Brown's mom pitched in and took care of the kids, coming over to the Steens' tarpaper shack in Cisco with beans and cornbread. She fed them and she bathed them. "They helped us without dreaming that they would be repaid," said M.L.

After M.L. recovered, Mama Rose decided to pitch in. She backed her son with some money and set up a cook tent at the Mi Vida claim. Charlie got a four-mile road scraped out to the site, scrounged a better drill and began to burrow. He was looking for a bed of yellow carnotite, which he figured would be about 200 feet down. On July 6, only five feet short of his goal, the drill rod broke. Charlie had been pulling out some strange, blackish cores from the hole, but no yellow carnotite. Frustrated, he threw one of the cores in the back of his Jeep and returned to Cisco. The next morning, he stopped at Buddy Cowger's gas station to refuel for a trip to Grand Junction. Buddy was fooling around with a Geiger counter and Charlie told him in jest to run it over the blackish core in his Jeep. The needle jumped, and the Geiger counter unleashed a flood of static. It was uraninite.

Charlie grabbed the core and tore off on foot for the shack. He ran smack into M.L.'s clothesline and nearly broke his neck. Before she could scold him for dumping the baby's diapers into the mud, Charlie started yelling, "We've hit it! We've hit it! It's a million-dollar lick!"

The strike was rich beyond even Charlie Steen's dreams. Yes, he had found a thick vein of uraninite, worth millions. He hurried out and staked more claims in the area, under the names of friends and family members. As he continued drilling, he hit a pocket of yellow carnotite, just as he had predicted. That was worth millions more.

"It was $100 million before it was over with," Charlie would later say. "And that was a lot of money in those days." It was the biggest uranium strike in U.S. history.

The rush was on.
Sleepy Moab woke up. As Charlie Steen, the Uranium King, established a big uranium mill there, other miners descended on the area and also found fortunes. Hundreds of miles away in Salt Lake City, speculators, hucksters, grifters and grafters--along with some legitimate folks--set up a market in uranium penny stocks that created a slew of paper-money millionaires. Reporters flocked to Utah to cover the boom--and the Steens were the perfect subjects. Feisty Charlie, dressed in his familiar khakis, looked like an average guy; some people compared him to TV's Mr. Peepers. His wife and four young boys--and their Dalmatian, Butch--were eminently photogenic.

Charlie and M.L. were barely past thirty, young enough to see the world and live the good life. They had the money to do anything they wanted.

"We enjoyed spendin' it, because that's what money is made for," Charlie remembered.

With the money came new friends, as well as access to the rich and famous. Charlie was flooded with requests from people they'd never heard of.

M.L. was in a state of shock.
"I had a very difficult time dealing with people," she recalled. "The first three years we had money were very hard for me. I had never been anyplace, I'd never had anything, you know? And to be able to buy more than two dresses was just--I just couldn't understand it. I knew there was enough money to do it, but I was just overcome by it. I didn't have very many friends, and I didn't want very many. There were just a few that I really liked and I wanted to be with and I had fun with, and the rest of the people I just shut off. People came like flies and, oh, I just got to the place where I hated everybody. We were never alone."

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy