Mark Steen remembers… “My Old Man:” The Uranium King…Part 2 – The author debunks a few tall tales and tells what really happened in 1952 – by Mark Steen (Canyon Country Zephyr – April/May 2002)

At the beginning of my first article in The Zephyr about my father, Charlie Steen, and his discovery of the Mi Vida mine and its consequences, I wrote that people couldn’t seem to resist the impulse to distort and rewrite the history of Moab’s most famous prospector. I pointed out that falsehoods about my father’s uranium discovery and his role in the Uranium Boom were now finding their way into print in historical publications.

Potato Chips & Bananas

Two good bad examples of people distorting the truth or concocting half-truths about my father’s role in changing the course of the uranium industry clearly illustrate this point. In Utah’s official centennial history, Utah: The Right Placeby Dr. Thomas G. Alexander, the author has my Dad feeding his family on “potato chips and bananas” while he searched for uranium “with a Geiger counter under one arm and a bundle of Geological Surveys under the other.”

Aside from the well-known fact that my father couldn’t afford a Geiger counter and the lack of printed geological information about the Big Indian area prior to the Uranium Boom, Dr. Alexander, who has three university degrees in history, actually seems to think that six people could live for more than two years on potato chips and bananas! I wonder what level of sobriety the old timer who spun that yarn was in when that tale was told?

Charlie & Butch and the company plane.

How many people really believe that a prospector, much less a family with four young and hungry sons, could have sustained themselves on a diet of potato chips and bananas? A thoughtful, careful author might have also asked himself just how many grocery stores in Cisco carried bananas in their fresh produce section in 1951. In a book that purports to be Utah’s definitive history, the Steens’ diet has been transformed from venison and beans into a snack food and a tropical fruit that would have been considered an exotic rarity in the forlorn town of Cisco, Utah.

The Infamous Tax Bill

Perhaps the most egregious, recent example of a historical publication distorting the truth about the consequences of the discovery of the Mi Vida mine is the latest issue of Blue Mountain Shadows: The Magazine of San Juan County History. Dr. Gary L. Shumway was the Guest Editor of this issue and a previous issue that focused on uranium mining in San Juan County.

Dr. Shumway should be imminently qualified to edit a historical publication devoted to uranium mining, since he is a member of the extended Shumway family who were engaged in prospecting and mining uranium for six decades. Dr. Shumway received his Masters Degree in history from Brigham Young University and his Doctorate in history from the University of California. The subject of his Masters Thesis was “The Development of the Uranium Industry in San Juan County, Utah” and the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation was “A History of the Uranium Industry on the Colorado Plateau.”

In the latest issue of Blue Mountain Shadows that Dr. Shumway edited is an article of reminiscences by John Black, a uranium miner who worked with the Shumways for many years in various mines in San Juan County. In Mr. Black’s rambling recollections is the observation that “Charlie Steen had mined his mines in Lisbon Valley, the Mi Vida, and he had beat the state out of millions and millions of dollars by not paying those taxes out as the ore was shipped. He also walked away and left the tax bill.

These observations go far beyond being inaccurate. And people will probably believe them, because they are in a publication that has a professional historian as Guest Editor. Well, history isn’t history unless it is the truth. And historians owe it to their readers and their subjects to be careful with the truth.

And now… The Truth

This is what really happened. My father and his partners owned and operated the Mi Vida mine from 1951 until 1962, when the mine and their interests in the Uranium Reduction Company mill in Moab were sold to Atlas Minerals in a $23 million transaction. At that time, if any taxes were owed to San Juan County or the State of Utah, Atlas Minerals paid them out of escrow prior to the purchase.

Atlas continued to mine ore from some of the claims my father had originally staked in 1951 and 1952 for another twenty years. It was Atlas Minerals that got into the dispute with San Juan County and the State of Utah during the mid-1970’s about taxes and walked away—not Charlie Steen.

So if you prefer to believe the last thing you heard from someone who wishes it had happened differently, don’t bother the old miner at the end of the bar; just pick up a copy of some historical publication and read his faulty recollections. It will save you the money you would otherwise waste buying him drinks, and you will have a permanent record of another patently false account of someone’s version of Charlie Steen’s career. Having set the record straight, I’ll now resume the history of my father’s discovery that I grew up with and believe to be the truth.

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