Emery County: Looking Back
Editor's Note: Emery County's long and varied history is the source of fierce pride for many and as the county and its people look forward to what may seem like an uncertain future, it is perhaps appropriate to look back at where we have been. In the first of a three part series, key moments of Emery County's history will be explored.
Emery County has a rich and varied past. There have been many activities and endeavors that have come and gone. One of these is the mining activities on Temple Mountain and the surrounding areas.
Among the first operators of a mine on Temple Mountain were Oscar Beebe, J.R. Browning and A.L. Olsen. They filed a mining claim on the third day of November in 1903 on a mining claim known as Orinoco. These mining claims had to be "proved up" on a yearly basis. Beebe is reported to have found uranium deposits while in the area herding sheep. Joseph Swasey also discovered uranium in the Temple Mountain area around the same time. On Nov. 15, 1918 a notice of intention to suspend the performance of annual assessment work on the mining claims was filed. The first permit was for the removal of lode, vein or deposit bearing silver, gold and other precious metals.
Many tales have been told of mining operations and the people involved in this mining. The Swasey family comes to mind with the mention of uranium mining in the early days. Royal Swasey was an avid letter writer and many of his letters went to his sweetheart Miss Eva Larsen. These letters told of the surveying work that he was doing and the road he was working on in the Temple Mountain area. Oscar Beebe asked Royal to work at his mine on Temple Mountain and Royal agreed. This was at North Temple Wash on Nov. 21, 1912.
Mark H. William's book Utah's Scenic San Rafael 2001 describes it in this way, "Uranium mining assumed economic importance when Madame Marie Curie discovered radium. She became famous for her research into radioactivity, and was the first women to win the Nobel Prize. Madame Curie and her husband Pierre who taught physics at the University of Paris, teamed up to conduct research on radioactive substances. They found that the uranium ore contained much more radioactivity than could be explained solely by the uranium content. The Curies began a search for the source of the radioactivity and discovered two highly radioactive elements, "radium" and "polonium." The Curies won the 1903 Nobel prize for physics for their discovery. Madame Curie sent men all over the world seeking uranium so she could extract radium from it which is used in the treatment of cancer and other diseases. Beautiful carnotite uranium was found in the base of Wingate Sandstone on Temple Mountain. This high-grade ore was mined with metal spoons with long handles. A lower grade form of ore was found in the Chinle formation just below the Wingate formation.
"Only the high-grade ore was of any value as the uranium content had to average 10 percent. This ore would yield 200 pounds to the ton for which Madame Curie paid $10 per pound or $2,000 per ton. It was the richest of the mineral that was ever shipped. Several sources including old newspaper articles say Madame Curie visited Temple Mountain during the initial uranium boom. There is a rock house still left in the area where Madame Curie stayed," said Williams.
Monte Swasey in an interview with Kathleen Truman of the Emery County Historical Preservation Commission said, "Granddad Swasey and old Wyatt Bryan had a road out the Ferron down to Temple Mountain and what they called the Cowboy Mine and that was back in 1900. Madame Curie was doing a bunch of experiments with radium. They couldn't ship anything to Madame Curie that was under 2 percent. In 1906 Madame Curie came clear over from France and came out to the Temple Mountain Mine and stayed with them for a week to 10 days just to see where all the ore was coming from.
"Dad (Royal) said when they were mining the ore there would be a seam they would follow and they would follow it along and then before too long it would open up into a big room where they would dig in there with sacks and shovels, the ore was so soft. They could just shovel it into sacks and load them into the wheelbarrow. They would wheel it out and then they would load it onto the wagon. When they got a wagon load of it they would freight it across the desert into Green River. They would store it in a warehouse until they had enough for a train car load. The car load would then be shipped back East and loaded on a boat to be shipped to France.
"Japanese people moved in on the north side of Temple Mountain and drilled little holes going back in. It almost looks like a cathedral there," said Swasey.
The uranium boom in Emery County was two fold, the initial Madame Curie era and the beginning of the atomic age. Swasey said, "When the radium boom started Byron Howard from over to Huntington came by down to Dads asking about Temple Mountain, questions like who it belonged to. They hadn't proved up on it or done anything with it since they were shipping ore to France. So he, (Howard) hauled away their dump ore they had thrown away and made $40,000 on it. Also the first dinosaur from this area came from Temple Mountain and went back to the Smithsonian Institute," said Swasey.
In the book, "A History of Emery County" Edward A. Geary describes the second boom, "The Atomic Energy Commission sought to develop domestic uranium supplies by instituting purchasing and bonus programs intended to stimulate exploration and development. The Temple Mountain and the Tidwell Draw areas of Emery County had produced uranium during the radium boom early in the twentieth century. By 1949 several old mines were being reopened at Temple Mountain. Most of them were eventually controlled by Consolidated Mining Company. Consolidated drilled 36 inch shafts to the deeper ore beds, lowered disassembled mining equipment through the shafts, then reassembled it in the ore zone. Shipments from Temple Mountain reached 100 tons per day by early 1950."
The demand for uranium led to 910 claims being filed in the year 1949. Owen McClenahan of Castle Dale was one of these prospectors, he describes the period as, "Men by the thousands flocked into these erosional wastelands in old jalopy automobiles and army surplus jeeps. Here they would camp and then proceed by foot in all directions climbing steep slopes until they reached the mineralized sandstones. There the ones without Geiger counters would take samples to be checked later. Those with the counters would follow mineralized areas until they had a reading from their counters which was a loud response of amplified clicking reminding one of a rattlesnake showing its annoyance to man.
"As a rule one of the worst things that could happen to a prospector would be to find just enough to raise his hopes, his dreams and encourage his irresponsibility to raise money in any devious way he could. Many men lost everything they owned, including their wife and family," said McClenahan.
Deposits were discovered that only yielded a few tons and other larger deposits were found in the Muddy Creek drainage in the southern part of the Swell.
Geary said, "The town of Green River received a substantial economic boost from the uranium boom, serving as a staging and supply point for prospectors and for Temple Mountain, Muddy Creek and Tidwell Draw mines. Union Carbide Corporation erected an ore sampling and concentrating plant on the east side of the Green River which remained in operation until 1961. A number of residents found employment in the diggings or with their own claims. The town's first newspaper in more that 30 years also made its appearance during this time, The Green River Journal began publication on July 21, 1955. Jim Hurst made a profitable business flying prospectors and mining officials from Green River to landing strips scraped out of the sagebrush at numerous locations. With the end of the boom however miners and prospectors and those providing services to them moved on with little lasting benefit to the community."
The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining's Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program has begun the closure of abandoned uranium mines in the San Rafael Swell. The Temple Mountain Project would close approximately 140 uranium mines in the historically significant area.
Emery County's long history has many cycles of boom or bust. Many ideas, many attempts at economic prosperity. Some lasting and some here for a fleeting time. An important lesson to be learned in the history of Emery County is that its history must be preserved. It must be talked about and recorded for those coming here in the future. The heritage of this county if lost would not be easy to restore. Truman said, "All of the documents, pictures, letters and diaries anything containing the history of our county should be preserved. If you have old documents or pictures and do not know what to do with them, donate them to the Emery County Archives or let the archives make copies of them and return them to you. Many tales are documented through an old letter or a journal entry. It dates events and records that they really did happen and it isn't just folk lore. Emery County is rich in tradition and history, it is up to us as individuals and as a county to preserve these events long past as a reminder of who we are as a people," said Truman.
(Next Week: The creation of water canals by pioneers of Emery County was a key point in the history of the area.)