Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Trans-Uranic Express: The First Uranium Boom and Lessons For Today's Investor

 Two earlier lessons. The first lesson is a line often attributed to Mark Twain (but probably not his):

A mine is a hole in the ground.
The discoverer of it is a natural liar.
The hole in the ground and the liar combine 
and issue shares and trap fools.
—Detroit Free Press, 1881

That is the first instance of the "hole in the ground, liar" formulation that Quote Investigator has found.

The second lesson was encapsulated in a great little book published eighty-five years ago:

...Words like "uranium", "rare earths", etc. seem to be magic to
 those unsuspecting who are often fleeced...
Gerald M. Loeb
The Battle for Investment Survival
Simon & Schuster, 1935

And the reason for this trip back in time? The stock of major uranium miner Cameco (CCJ) has quietly doubled in the last six months and while  gentle reader may not have noticed as they went about their life, the denizens of the pink sheets and the Vancouver stock touts most assuredly have

The coming madness has precedent, from American  Heritage magazine, June/July 1981:

U-Boom on the Colorado Plateau
Gold is where you find it, goes the old prospectors’ saw. But uranium, according to at least some members of that grizzled and vanishing breed, is where you dream you’ll find it, where your bones and your hunches tell you it hides—no matter what some government geologist or petroleum industry big shot thinks. Finding gold may be equal parts luck and science, but locating uranium is an art that asks you to close your eyes and picture the earth as an immense layer cake that has been dropped, fractured, folded, and upended: in a few of those layers you will find traces of something very sweet.
That, at least, is a paraphrase of how Howard Balsley and Cecil Thompson saw it last year from Moab, Utah. They were in a position to know. Balsley, age ninety-three, who once sent radium to Madame Curie, was the acknowledged grandfather of all uranium seekers and finders; and Thompson, a robust man of eighty-eight, was with Balsley one of the few successful survivors of the greatest mining rush in American history—two of the few who took more money out of the earth of the Colorado Plateau than they put in.

It is still not mythically comfortable to accept the fact that the biggest bonanza of them all was not the Mother Lode or Cripple Creek or the Klondike, and was not in nineteenth-century gold, but that uranium was the metal and that the rush took place in the twentieth century on the 120,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico share ownership of a multilayered uplift of mostly sedimentary rock that in times past was the bottom of an ancient sea. That here, in perhaps the most remote and beautifully desolate region of the nation, more man-hours were spent hunting uranium than were spent seeking all other metals since man first crafted himself a pick and shovel, according to an Atomic Energy Commission estimate.

The Atomic Energy Commission was certainly the best qualified body to make that estimate. Probably the only body qualified to do so, for this most curious of all mineral rushes was distinguished chiefly by the fact that it was promoted by the federal government, supported by the federal government, and controlled by the federal government through the AEC. Yet even though the control was absolute and the operations largely secret, there was a gentle paternalism about it. If it was by the government, it was at least for the people; through a sliding scale of subsidy and guaranteed price supports, the average American was invited to participate.

In 1948 the AEC offered to pay a minimum of three dollars per ton of uranium ore, with generous premiums and development allowances, until 1962; to pay an initial-production bonus of between fifteen and thirty-five thousand dollars for the first five tons of uranium oxide until the year 1957; and to guarantee purchase of at least one thousand tons of ore a year from every miner until the year 1962. The actual formula was more detailed and provided an incentive for finding richer ores—the ultimate carrot being a bonus of ten thousand dollars for the first twenty tons of 20 per cent high grade.

Uranium and gold have existed billions of years in the earth. Not surprisingly, of the two, gold early struck man’s fancy. It was rare and true, incorruptible, constant in its color, a loner metal, malleable in the hands of an artisan. Uranium was in most every way its opposite, capricious and atomically unstable, the ultimate mixer that never occurs pure in nature, a vagabond element that some think welled up from deep in the earth, soluble and liquid-borne, seeping into Jurassic and Triassic host rock in half a rainbow’s colors.

The German scientist Martin Klaproth first identified the element in 1789, naming it after the planet Uranus, discovered a few years before. A mere curiosity, it was thought useless and not present in the United States. More than a century passed before its radioactive properties were discovered jointly by the Curies and Henri Becquerel in France. Even then it was a companion element, radium, that engaged the attention of those pioneers in the study of radioactivity, and it was radium that for a limited time spurred mining and financial speculation.

In the early 1880’s a strange, soft, bright yellow ore was first puzzled over on the heavily mineralized Colorado Plateau. It took twenty years, however, for carnotite (as it became known, after the French physicist Carnot) to gain any value, and then only for the small amounts of radium—one part for every 3,000,000 parts of bothersome uranium—it contained. A decade’s traffic in the ore with France brought rewards (albeit slim ones) to Howard Balsley and the other pioneer miners in the Uravan mineral belt of Colorado and Utah— until richer finds of the first wonder “yum” (the word prospectors used to lump uranium, radium, vanadium, thorium, and other radioactive metals) were shipped out of the Belgian Congo.

The status of “baggage” element was to dog uranium through another small mining boom on the Colorado Plateau. In the 1920’s vanadium, also found in carnotite, became an item of export because of the great tensile strength it lent to steel, and the veterans of the radium hunt prospered in a region that always had been shortchanged in deposits of gold and silver. But then a richer strike, this time in the Peruvian Andes, stilled the picks of those who pecked away at the small surface outcrops of American carnotite.

Uranium was never totally useless. Navahos and Utes and their Indian ancestors had long used the secondary uranium ores for war paint and pictographs. Howard Balsley recalls shipping carloads of it in 1934 to the Vitro Chemical Corporation, then based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For nine years the firm used his ore to give its ceramics twenty-six different shades of red, green, brown, and yellow. The demand was limited, however.

Uranium’s time did not come until the late 1930’s, when an international team of theoretical physicists saw the likelihood of creating a sustained chain reaction with atomic fission and realized its possible awesome consequences. The world would never be the same. Neither would life on the Colorado Plateau, where there developed a sudden and urgent need for “mineral X,” which was shipped to the hub of all Western uranium activity, the operations office of the AEC’s Division of Raw Materials, in Grand Junction, Colorado. Some disagreement remains about whether the Manhattan Project used domestic uranium or that imported from a rival, the famous Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo, to build the bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945. But miners who sold carnotite to the government and watched the big mounds of yellow tailings (the old “waste heaps” of the vanadium boom) disappear at United States Vanadium Company’s Uravan mill still insist it was all home-grown.

Be that as it may, even after the war, conventional wisdom held that the United States was deficient in uranium reserves.

And so the postwar uranium hunt progressed slowly for four years—even after the government offered its attractive package of guarantee, subsidy, and bonus to the multitudes. Discoveries were largely confined to exposed outcrops in the 140,000,000-year-old Morrison formation of the recent Jurassic Age. But the removal in 1951 of David Lilienthal, who, as head of the AEC, had resisted the pressure of Western mining interests and congressmen to step up the search for domestic uranium, resulted in a marked increase in the number of prospectors clambering over the slick rock plateau armed with Geiger counters and scintillation counters. The sanguine veterans of the hunt believed it was just a matter of time before someone hit it really big.

Mining bonanzas traditionally became associated with a single seeker. The great uranium rush of the 1950’s had such a man to match its many arid mountains in Charles Augustus Steen, a fellow who exceeded any pulp writer’s capacity for invention—the gritty embodiment of every poor man’s dream to shed his rags for riches, the obstinate loner who suffered the world’s mockery to do it his way.

Steen came out of Texas with a degree in geology, a jeep and a house trailer, a wife and three young sons and another child on the way. He also brought a reputation as a maverick, having been fired from his job as a petroleum geologist (“innately rebellious against authority”) and blackballed in the oil industry. Charlie bought himself a secondhand drill rig for nine hundred dollars, or nine-tenths of his grubstake, and proceeded to file on some claims in Big Indian Wash, some forty miles south of Moab, Utah. It was likely looking ground only to Charlie. Atomic Energy Commission geologists had been through and dismissed it, as had some seasoned prospectors who found Steen’s geologic theories ludicrous, if not demented.

Fortune exacted steep dues from Steen. First his drill rig broke down. He was dead broke. He sold his trailer and moved into a one-room tar-paper shack without plumbing or electricity in Cisco, Utah. His wife contracted pneumonia, he had to beg milk for his infant son, his mother sold her house to give him another stake. Finally he wrote letters that raised enough money for him to buy another rusted, rickety diamond drill. Four years of privation in all, made worse by the carpings of those who thought an able-bodied family man should be providing for his own—even if that meant working for somebody else.

It all turned around in July, 1952, when Charlie struck a dirty gray ore at seventy-five feet on the Big Indian Wash. The core sample was fourteen feet thick and interesting, but definitely not the carnotite he had expected to find at about two hundred and fifty feet. Charlie resumed drilling but soon lost his drill bit at the bottom of the hole. To fish it out he would have to go to Grand Junction, Colorado, for the right tool. So he threw some of the gray rock in the back of his jeep and headed for a gas station in Cisco where he could fill his tank on credit.

The proprietor was a “Sunday prospector” who happened to be checking some of his ore with a Geiger counter when Charlie pulled in. “Aw, hell, that’s nothing,” Charlie boasted, half in fun. “Just try what I’ve got.” When the gray ore was fetched from the jeep and put under the counter, the needle leaped against the peg, the counter chattered crazily. It took Charlie Steen an instant to realize he had tapped a thick vein of uraninite. Then he turned and ran home to holler the news to his long-suffering wife: “We’ve hit it big! We’re rich!”

Steen had hit it biggest, hit it richest. The high grade ore brought up through his famous Mi Vida mine brought him a hundred million dollars in a matter of months.....