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Oregon’s 20th-century “gold rush”: The quest for uranium

As the Cold War spun up, federal government guarantees sent thousands of Geiger Counter-packing prospectors in Army surplus Jeeps scrambling across Oregon's Outback, hoping to make their fortunes mining “A-metal.”

The February 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics was way ahead of the uranium boom with this cover art showing two prospectors checking out ore samples. (Image: modernmechanix.com)

When people talk about mining in Oregon, they’re usually thinking of gold — something the Beaver State still has plenty of, hidden away in high-country streambeds and quartzite ore deposits.

But there’s another precious metal out there in Oregon’s outback, and it’s one that inspired a bigger “gold rush” than even the big one of 1849: Uranium.

The heart of the uranium mining story is centered on the dry states of the Southwest — Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. But the southeast quarter of Oregon was uranium country, too, back in the decade and a half following the Second World War.

Uranium: The heaviest metal

Uranium is one of the heaviest naturally-occurring element on Planet Earth — except for some traces of plutonium, everything heavier is a man-made element. It comes in several different flavors, only one of which is the radioactive uranium 238 that’s used to make nuclear bombs and reactors.

Uranium had been used for other things before the atomic age came along, but for the most part, it had been a waste product — part of the tailings generated by refining carnotite ore for radium and vanadium. But when the U.S. government started spinning up its production of nukes for Cold War chest-thumping purposes, things suddenly got very crazy in uranium country.

The cover of Collier’s Magazine in October 1953 sported this humorous painting of the growing uranium rush up in Canada. (Image: National Radiation Instrument Catalog)

Starting around 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission started building roads into promising uranium regions, and announced guarantees of a minimum of $50 per ton on ore that exceeded 0.3 percent uranium. They also offered $10,000 cash bonuses for prospectors who found big deposits of the stuff, and offered to analyze the samples for free.

The result was a massive, government-sponsored mining rush. All over the arid West, this federal intervention got local residents and out-of-town prospectors alike very excited indeed.

The dryer parts of Oregon were no exception. Deposits of uranium had been found there, near the Steens Mountain, in the late 1940s. Now, remembering that, local residents found themselves joined by hordes of prospectors from out of the area, all of them crawling all over the arid desert in four-wheel-drive rigs looking for “A-metal,” as they called it (the “A” stood for “Atomic”) — flashing Geiger counters at every possible outcropping and staking claims when the gadgets beeped.

Mining on Main Street

An article from Mechanix Illustrated, January 1954, about the then-just-getting-started uranium rush. (Image: modernmechanix.com)

One enterprising fellow, Earl Sheridan, set the tone for Uranium Mania in the Beaver State on the streets of his home city of Klamath Falls. A descendant of city founder George Nurse, he believed that he had inherited the mineral rights to the entire town. So he staked out a claim, pitched a tent, loaded his shotgun and stood guard there to defend it … in the middle of Main Street. He stayed there on guard through a bout of appendicitis, but quit the scene after his lawyer found out that Nurse had in fact deeded over mineral rights to the city.

In a sense, Oregon’s backcountry was a real uranium “tease.” There was plenty of uranium out there in Oregon, so prospectors’ Geiger counters were kept in a relatively constant state of excitement; but only two deposits would turn out to be commercially viable: the White King Mine and the Lucky Lass Mine. They were both close by each other in the Fremont National Forest, near Lakeview.

Soon the two deposits were being exploited with giant open-pit mines, and Lakeview got a brand-new uranium processing mill in 1958.

It wasn’t long, however, before the federal government realized that it now had enough uranium to blow the world up several times over or provide it with centuries of electric power, and enough was enough. The feds pulled the plug on the AEC’s heavily subsidized program, and uranium mines all over the arid West were abandoned.

The aftermath

It could have been worse, though. In other states, it was. Because Oregon was on the periphery of the uranium-mining boom, it missed out on most of the worst effects of uranium mining, such as were experienced by more southerly states.

An advertisement from a 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics for Geiger counters. (Image: modernmechanix.com)

The problem was, uranium ore was nasty stuff, and often contained radium to boot. Miners who tried to save some money by refining it themselves would expose themselves to sometimes deadly levels of both alpha and gamma radiation. Miners who worked in underground mines would spend the entire workday inhaling radioactive dust — sometimes they’d have competitions at the end of the day, breathing on the Geiger counter and betting on whose exhalations would raise the needle highest. For most of them, death from lung cancer was not more than a decade or two away after that kind of exposure. Oregon had just one underground operation, part of the White King mine.

Nor did Oregon sacrifice any priceless relics of its ancient past on the altar of uranium profits, as did Utah. In July 1955, a geologist there found an almost complete skeleton of a juvenile stegosaurus — but the petrification of the bones had occurred with uranium-rich minerals. Into the processing mill the priceless 150-million-year-old artifact went, yielding for its happy finder a few hundred dollars’ worth of uranium. A similar fate befell a massive log of petrified wood, 100 feet long and 4 feet in diameter.

Oregon didn’t exactly get off scot-free, though. Today, both the White King and the Lucky Lass are Superfund cleanup sites.

In recent years, proposals have been floated for a resumption of uranium mining in Eastern Oregon, under the auspices of major mining companies that would presumably follow better practices. Unlike the situation in the 1950s, though, there has been considerable resistance to these plans. Hundreds of tons of high-grade “yellowcake” ore remains out there in the Oregon high desert, and mining it could yield plenty of good-paying jobs — but a substantial percentage of the population is no longer convinced it’s worth the risk.

(Sources: Allen, Cain. “Uranium miners,” Oregon History Project, ohs.org; Ringholz, Raye. Uranium Frenzy. Logan, Utah: USU Press, 2002; Seff, Philip and Nancy. Petrified Lightning. Raleigh, N.C.: Contemporary, 1996; Portland Morning Oregonian, 03 Jul 1956)