Over a million people flock to Moab each year to enjoy the activities the area offers, but the mine and the man that put Moab on the map have largely been forgotten.
Today canyoneering, hiking, white-water rafting, mountain biking, motorcycling, kayaking, ATV riding, base jumping, 4×4 driving, canoeing, road biking, rock climbing and most recently slacklining are the center of attention in Moab, but over 60 years ago uranium and Charlie Steen, the “Uranium King,” were the talk of the town. Let’s look at the man and uranium mine that put Moab on the map.
Steen, a geologist from Texas, was about to give up after years of unsuccessful prospecting for uranium deposits when he finally struck it rich on a claim in the Lisbon Valley, southeast of Moab, on July 6, 1952. The story goes that after breaking his last drill bit, the discouraged and nearly broke Steen ran a Geiger counter over the core samples he had just drilled and discovered that he had tapped a rich vein of uranium ore nearly 175 feet below the surface. The resulting mine he named Mi Vida would eventually surrender more than $100 million in riches and put the sleepy little town of Moab on the world map. Four short years later, Moab was dubbed “The Richest Town in the USA” by McCall’s magazine. A sign erected in Moab proclaimed the town as “The Uranium Capital of the World.”
In the wake of this huge discovery, thousands of miners, prospectors and others looking for work swarmed the region hoping to cash in on the newfound mother lode. In the 1950s Cold War era, the federal government was eagerly buying uranium for use in weapons and nuclear power plants.
With the new arrivals, Moab grew by nearly 500 percent over the next few years, bringing the population to nearly 6,000. This sudden growth resulted in construction of many homes, churches and schools. Steen donated a large amount of money, along with land, to accommodate Moab’s growth during this period.
Some accounts listed as many as two-dozen Moab millionaires in 1956, although some were merely rich on paper; their wealth quickly evaporated when their stock became worthless after the boom died. ?
Of the Moab millionaires, the Uranium King was certainly the most wealthy and colorful. He constructed a lavish home on a hill overlooking the town, complete with swimming pool, greenhouse and servants’ quarters. Steen and his wife, Minnie Lee (also known as M.L.), hosted numerous parties during the glory years, attracting corporate CEOs, politicians and celebrities. Charlie and the eccentric ways he spent his fortune became the focus of local legends. Stories said he had his original prospecting boots bronzed, and flew in his private plane to Salt Lake City each week for rumba lessons.?
By the early 1960s, the boom had largely died, only to be revived when additional uranium deposits were found just north of the Mi Vida site. This second boom lasted until the mid-1960s, and then tapered off for good. Although the uranium era had ended, it was Steen’s Mi Vida mine that made Moab a household name.
After uranium, Charlie tried his hand in politics, and invested in Arabian horses, pickle factories and other ill-fated ventures, eventually declaring bankruptcy in 1968 when the Internal Revenue Service seized his remaining assets for back taxes.
Long suffering from Alzheimer’s, Steen moved to Loveland, Colorado, where he lived with his son. Steen’s wife died in 1997, and he died in 2006 at the age of 86. Their ashes were scattered at the Mi Vida mine site.
While Charlie has passed from this world, his mark can still be found in and around Moab. The home he built still overlooks the north end of town; a plaque dedicated July 4, 2002, at the Charlie Steen Pavilion in Moab’s Swanny City Park commemorates the 50th anniversary of Steen’s famous find, and you can still see mining equipment at Mi Vida Mine. Ore car tracks and a large ore bin remain at the site, along with an electric locomotive and attached ore cars that discharged their last load of uranium ore years ago. The drive to the site traverses terrain with classic Utah sandstone formations, scenic junipers and lush cottonwoods in creek bottoms, making for a pleasant drive.
With the loss of the uranium industry, Moab thrives on a different kind of economic boom today. Tourists come from far and wide to Moab, gateway to two national parks, numerous scenic canyons and unique sandstone formations, for all sorts of outdoor activities. But next time you come to Moab for the scenery and the recreation, don’t forget the man and the mine that put Moab on the map!
Dave Helgeson and his wife, Cheri, promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the adventures of the RV lifestyle.
If You Go:
To Visit the Mine: There are no signs to Mi Vida mine, but you can find it by heading south out of Moab on Highway 191 to Steens Road. Turn left (east) on Steens Road. If you are towing an RV or dinghy you will find a wide area to drop the RV just a couple hundred yards in on Steens Road at N38 12.089 W109 22.333. If you are looking for an area to dry camp for the night, drive just over a mile farther where you will find a developed ATV trailhead at N38 11.362 W 109 21.503 complete with vault toilet. Continue traveling predominately east on Steens Road to the mine at N38 11.406 W109 15.602.
Note: Steens Road starts out paved but slowly degrades to dirt by the time you reach the mine. The road is passable in dry weather by any two-wheel drive vehicle with average clearance. The Bureau of Land Management attempted to block entry to the mine by using fill material, which others have dug away at the top to provide a place to squeeze through. If you choose to enter the mine, which we do not suggest, do so at your own risk.
Moab: To learn about all the things to see during your stay in Moab, visit discovermoab.com.
Camping: Multiple private RV parks exist throughout Moab. BLM and state and national park campgrounds are north of town. You can find a listing of parks and reviews at campgroundreviews.com/regions/Utah/Moab.html. Boondockers with appropriate rigs will find a couple of scenic campsites located along a sandstone fin just off Steens Road on the way to the mine at N38 10.564 W 109 18.952 and N38 10.461 W109 18.932. Standard BLM dispersed camping rules apply.