HIST 3770, Spring 2016: Nuclear West: Uranium Fever: From Boom to Bust
The Atomic Energy Commission’s demand for uranium exploded in the 1950s. This was due, in part, to President Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" speech, which encouraged the governments of the world to focus more time, effort, and resources on research for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The demand for uranium was higher than ever while the United States government explored both belligerent and peaceful uses for the atom.
This increased demand for uranium led many to try and make it big in uranium prospecting. In 1952, several individuals, such as Charles Steen and Vernon Pick, discovered large uranium deposits worth millions of dollars in the Colorado Plateau; a uranium-rich zone that covers much of the deserts of southeastern Utah, western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona. Soon, "Uranium Fever" was all over media, creating a national perception that anyone with grit, determination, and a Geiger counter could make it big, like Steen or Pick.
Thousands of amateur prospectors flocked to the Colorado Plateau, hoping to become the next uranium millionaire. Some would strike rich, but most soon discovered that uranium prospecting was more than they bargained for and left the plateau with nothing. While a small few would continue to find their fortune in the uranium mines of the Colorado Plateau through the end of the 1950s, by 1955, Uranium Fever began to become a national joke.
 “Atoms for Peace,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and Boyhood Home, accessed May 1, 2016, https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/atoms_for_peace.html.
 Taylor, Samuel, and Raymond W. Taylor. "Uranium Fever." 1970. MS 194, USU_COLL MSS, Utah State University.
Uranium prospecting gained popularity with the American public as more people made it big. “Uranium Rush” is a board game made around 1955. This board game portrayed Uranium prospecting as a fun experience searching for uranium ore in three different environs. The board game romanticizes uranium prospecting without the portraying harsh reality that it was incredibly difficult.
Uranium prospecting was also portrayed in Hollywood films, such as “Uranium Boom” and “Dig that Uranium.” “Uranium Boom” romanticizes uranium prospecting as a relatively easy endeavor; and that the real problems occurred with the wealth gained from uranium prospecting. “Dig that Uranium” has a slightly more realistic perspective on uranium prospecting. The movie portrays the the harsh legal issues that can surround property ownership, but still maintains a romantic western movie feel.
 “Uranium Rush Board Game (ca. 1955),” Atomic Toys, last modified April 17, 2009. http://orau.org/ptp/collection/atomictoys/uraniumrush.htm
 “The Uranium Rush-1949,” National Radiation Instrument Catalog. Accessed April 21, 2016. http://national-radiation-instrument-catalog.com/new_page_14.htm
Local newspapers of the Colorado Plateau encouraged and spread uranium fever with their coverage of the phenomenon. The Grand Valley Times, of Moab, Utah, dubbed the city, “The Uranium Capital of the World.” The paper egged on the Uranium Rush with romantic articles such as: “Uranium Mining is Here to Stay”, “Uranium Rivals Gold”, “No Rodeo: All the Cowboys went Uranium Mining”, and the most ominous “Uranium Demand will Continue for Many Years”.
The newspaper fought to stay positive about uranium prospecting long after it became apparent that the majority of prospectors were losing money. The paper could get away with this because the small minority of successful prospectors created enough news and economic prosperity for the region until the Atomic Energy Commission ceased purchasing Uranium in 1970s. The archives of the The Grand Valley Times hardly contain a trace of the decline of uranium prospecting. Eventually, “The Uranium Capital of the World” faded back into the desert and the great rush of the 1950s became a mere footnote in both the newspaper and the city’s history.
 "Uranium Mining Here to Stay Johnson Says." Grand Valley Times (Moab), 1950. Accessed April 21, 2016. www.digitalnewspapers.org.
 "Uranium Demand Will Continue for Many Years, Mcpherson Says." Grand Valley Times (Moab), 1952. Accessed April 21, 2016. www.digitalnewspapers.org.
 Taylor, “Uranium Fever,” 1-11.
The news stories of Charles Steen and Vernon Pick becoming millionaires, along with pop culture representations of Uranium Fever, brought thousands of individuals, and even families, to the Colorado Plateau in hopes of finding a big score. With a Geiger counter from the local convenience store and a map from the gas station, these mostly amateur prospectors began staking the land with varying degrees of success. Prospectors, like Jack Turner, were able to start mines worth millions of dollars. There were countless others, however, that were not so lucky.
 Royce, Craig Evan. Uranium Seekers: A Photo-essay Tribute to Miners. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2012. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.amazon.com/reader/1477204008?_encoding=UTF8&query=jack turner.
Most prospectors left the plateau with nothing more than the Geiger counter that they purchased. Raymond Taylor chronicled his brush with uranium prospecting in his book, Uranium Fever, written with the help of his brother, Samuel Taylor. Going to Southern Utah on a whim, Raymond asserts that he staked claims that were worth millions of dollars. However, Taylor was never able to capitalize on these claims. The Taylor account is likely more dramatic and sensationalistic than the experience of most others who went to the Colorado Plateau in search of their fortune, but the story ends like most others from the time period; he came to the plateau with nothing and left with nothing.
 Taylor, “Uranium Fever,” 1-11.
The narrative around Uranium Fever shifted in tone as the American public recognized that uranium prospecting was an ineffective way to make it big, like most get-rich-quick schemes. Songwriters and TV producers began to recognize the folly of searching for fortune in the middle of the desert. These media artifacts, created near the end of the uranium boom of the 1950s, reflect the humorous perception of uranium prospecting that had developed.
Uranium prospecting was portrayed in a humorous fashion by Elton Britt in his 1955 song entitled “Uranium Fever.” Britt caught the sentiment of the time with his lyrics, “Well, you pack up your things, you head out again, into some unknown spot where nobody's been, you reach the spot where your fortune lies, you find it's been staked by seventeen other guys[.]”
The TV show, “I Love Lucy” created an episode entitled “Lucy Hunts Uranium” which portrays Lucy inadvertently causing a small uranium rush. The episode aired on January 3, 1958. This episode marks a turning point in how uranium prospecting is portrayed in American culture, as the episode shows the realities of how hard uranium mining was and how uranium prospecting was a fool's endeavor.
 “Uranium Fever Lyrics,” Elyrics. Accessed April 21, 2016. http://www.elyrics.net/read/e/elton-britt-lyrics/uranium-fever-lyrics.html.
In the end, Uranium Fever ended as fast as it had began. Spirits had started high when amatuer prospectors, like Charles Steen, made millions. These fantastic stories, portrayed in popular media and local newspapers, led many to try their hand at uranium prospecting to no avail. People began to flock to the Colorado Plateau like it was Las Vegas, but without all the lights, entertainment, and spectacle of Sin City. Eventually, the fad ended as most amateurs discovered that prospecting was not worth the gamble. The public turned Uranium Fever into a laugh, as it was now seen as a fool’s errand. This left uranium prospecting as a humorous footnote in the history of the Nuclear West.