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It didn’t work so great. Many hours of tedious, dangerous treetop hopping later, they had nothing to show for it. So they switched to prospecting the old-fashioned way, or rather the new-old-fashioned way, with a Jeep, using the Nucleometer like a regular Geiger counter.
They were doing that when rumors reached their ears of Tracy’s big strike.
Nobody admitted it — the prospectors said they were put onto the scent when a friend told them he’d seen pickup trucks leaving the Fremont National Forest with their beds full of rocks — but it seems most likely they used the Super Cub to figure out where the mining action was taking place. It wasn’t the kind of activity that one could do by stealth and by night.
However they figured it out, figure it out they did, and prospecting out from the marked claims of the White King group with the help of their overpowered Nucleometer, they soon homed in on a spot that was so hot, the Nucleometer actually couldn’t measure it -- there was no sensitivity setting low enough to keep the needle from simply pegging at the high end.
As quickly as possible, they staked and filed a discovery claim and four claims around it, dubbing it the Lucky Lass Mine. And they weren’t a moment too soon; other prospectors were already arriving. The word, it seemed, was out.
“Talk about excitement!” Clair Smith wrote, in correspondence with author Ruby El Hult. “The next day the discovery … was in the newspapers, on the radio and TV all across the nation. People came from all over, some from 1,000 miles or more away.”
“The first week after the discovery we estimated 2,000 cars drove by in front of the open cut,” he added. “Of the ore dug and piled by the side of the road, two or three tons must have been carried off piece by piece as souvenirs by sightseers. Our little town (Lakeview) looked like Gold Rush days, with street hawkers on corners selling Geiger counters and scintillators.”
Over that crazy summer of 1955, nearly 10,000 claims were staked in the Fremont National Forest by hopeful prospectors, most of them based on marginal readings from the cheap Geiger counters like the ones hawked on the streets of Lakeview. The area teemed with Army surplus Jeeps and battered pickup trucks. And one or two of them may even have panned out; but, a decade later, only two of them remained in operation: The White King and the Lucky Lass.
No uranium-mining story has a really happy ending. Few of the prospectors and miners who were involved in the industry realized how dangerous uranium ore really was.
But Oregon got off comparatively unscathed, at least by comparison with other Western states.
The White King and the Lucky Lass were open-pit mines, so Lakeview was spared the trauma of losing a generation of underground uranium miners to a pandemic of lung cancer a dozen years later. (The White King did have one underground mine, but most of the work was done in the big pit.)
After the uranium market declined to the point of the mines no longer being profitable, both were closed, and the pits filled with water to form White King Pond and Lucky Lass Pond (13 acres and five acres, respectively). Left behind were mountainous heaps of radioactive tailings.
Both sites were added to the government’s Superfund cleanup program in 2001. Today, the hottest of the tailings have been hauled away and more-or-less-safely buried in a “disposal cell” area nearby, protected by a heavy layer of compacted soil topped with rock. The remaining tailings are buried on site, and the whole area presents the appearance of a peaceful meadowland -- although access is restricted due to the lingering radioactivity.