Few who lived through it would argue against the fact that the Uranium Boom of the l950’s was the lynchpin that put San Juan County on the map.
Prior to that time, San Juan County was a primitive backwater, inhabited mostly by Native Americans and the descendents of Mormon Pioneers who scratched out their daily bread from dry farms and cattle operations that were often marginal at best.
Mining for vanadium and copper and limited oil production had been part of the San Juan economy prior to the 1950’s boom, but miners had no idea of the value of uranium and routinely threw the uranium ore, often contained in copper and vanadium ores, into the waste piles along with the worthless overburden.
With the end of World War II and the emergence of the atomic age, uranium became the mineral darling of the nation and the world. Prospectors by the thousands descended on San Juan towns in the l950’s and in a few years transformed the County.
Trailer parks were everywhere. Tents were common. New motels sprouted along the highways, three new grocery stores were built in Monticello by l955. County assessed valuation jumped from a little over $1 million in the l940’s to the unfathomable sum of $132 million in l959.
The San Juan School District became the highest paying district in the State. Blanding and Monticello built libraries, recreational facilities, a hospital, sewer and water systems, roads, and schools,…while county residents had the lowest property taxes in the State. The Uranium Barons and the Oil Companies paid 94 percent of the property tax in San Juan County during those years. Life was good.
Most of the geiger-counter carrying prospectors who came to the Four Corners area and filed tens of thousands of claims across the wild, untamed, mostly roadless expanses of San Juan County went home poorer than they came.
Finding radioactive rock along the outcroppings of the shinarump formations was easy. Finding the money to build roads, drill shafts and haul that “hot” gold to the mills in Moab, Monticello or Mexican Hat was simply impossible for most of the poorly capitalized prospectors and miners. When the great graveyards of mankind’s dreams are revealed in another sphere, it is likely San Juan County will be among the leaders.
But a few found riches which were beyond belief. The most famous is Charles Steen, whose MiVida mine was in San Juan County.
Three men from Monticello, Fletch Bronson, his son Grant, and Joe Cooper were probably the second most prosperous and successful miners in the county. The fabulous Happy Jack Mine, which they acquired almost by accident, was the second richest deposit of high grade uranium ore in the nation, bested only by the MiVida.
It is a fascinating story. In 1947 these three Monticello natives, operating on a shoestring under the name of the Bronson and Cooper Mining Company, decided to find a copper mine. They had heard of copper being found in White Canyon. They drove to the area in an old jeep when there were virtually no roads in that area.
Their interest lay in two claims which had been filed for years but abandoned because of isolation and difficulty getting copper ore to the mills. Beyond the Natural Bridges, after a long search, they found the “Four Aces” and “Happy Jack” claims.
Grant Bronson told the story years later. In his own words: “These claims had been made in the l930’s. Copper ore was taken out on horses and mules. There was no drift on the Four Aces, but one of about 20 feet in length had been dug at the Happy Jack. The overburden had sloughed off and almost completely covered the opening. We decided the copper could be mined and would more than pay for the cost of the venture.
“We purchased the claims for the asking price. We built a primitive road to our claims and began our mining venture using the same equipment we had in our other mining ventures at Monument Canyon eight years earlier. Equipment was a small compressor, a jack hammer, drill rods, a wheelbarrow and shovels.
“We hauled the ore up White Canyon to the Natural Bridges road, over Elk Mountain to Blanding, then on the state road through Monticello and Moab to Crescent Junction, where we loaded it in a rail car parked on a siding. The loaded car of copper ore was sent to American Smelting and Refining Company in Salt Lake City, along with our hopes and dreams.
“Two weeks later, we received a letter telling us the ore assayed 11 percent copper, but that they would accept no more because it was radioactive. We found there was not a milling process or market for copper-uranium ore so our grand mining venture at the Happy Jack was put on hold while we tried to figure out what to do.
“Gordan Babbel had a Geiger counter, which we borrowed. We found that the drift into the Happy Jack and along the Shinarump formation for a good 200 feet was very radioactive. It was pegging the needle on the Geiger counter everywhere. So the copper mine we had purchased turned out to be a copper-uranium mine.
“The Vanadium Corporation of America had interest in mining properties in the area. Denny Viles, representing the VCA, agreed to build a sampling plant and pilot mill at the Colorado River, where the ore could be delivered. The plant was on the San Juan County side of the river opposite the ranch at Hite.
“Mr. Viles promised to pay for the uranium and would try to find a way to handle the copper. We recieved advance payment for the ore that went through the sampling plant
“It barely covered our expenses while the pilot mill was being constructed. At that time in the late 1940’s we were mining 30 tons per day and hauling it 15 miles downhill to Hite. Our agreement with the VCA was that we would be paid on the recovery of the uranium and some for the copper if they could recover it. It turned out that the recovery of yellow cake was only 30 percent of what the ore contained, which barely covered expenses.
“In the early l950’s, the Atomic Energy Commission became very interested in the potential of the Shinarump formation and the copper-uranium ore it contained. The VCA closed their pilot mill at Hite and we began hauling our ore to Monticello. We received the market price per pound for the uranium, plus the hauling and development allowance established by law. Under the new regulations, we finally began to realize some profit from our labors.
“Early on, we began a program of blocking out the ore body at the Happy Jack. We constructed parallel drifts into the ore, spaced 100 feet apart with crosscuts every 100 feet. We began using rail cars and an air trammer. We were able to blend our high grade ore with our low grade ores in such a way that we had no waste dump. We were able to ship everything we mined.
“In l955, the AEC constructed a sampling plant in White Canyon a mile below the Happy Jack. When we were able to deliver our ore to the sampling plant, we resumed... blocking out the mine.
“The ore-bearing member averaged eight feet in thickness. The back was good. We could make eight by eight tunnels with little timbering or roof bolting. By the middle of l957 we had 433,000 tons of high-grade ore blocked out that had an average grade of 0.34 uranium.”
When the word got out of the massive size and quality of the Happy Jack ore bodies, the Bronsons and Joe Cooper had a steady stream of suitors trying to buy the mine. The three men began to receive offers that they could hardly fathom. All three had been “dirt poor” all their lives. They had sunk everything they owned into their mining ventures and could have lost the Happy Jack many times, for lack of funding, before its real value was realized.
In l959 the mine was sold to a joint venture of the Texas Corporation and the New Jersey Zinc Corporation. The new company was known as Texas Zinc Minerals. This company built a uranium mill near Mexican Hat at Halchita. Most of the uranium ore taken from the Happy Jack mine was trucked to Mexican Hat to process.
The sale price of the Happy Jack exceeded $20 million. In 2009 dollars, that is well over $100 million. For three hard rock miners and their families, who had gambled and lost so many times in the mining industry, the Happy Jack was truly the pot of gold at the end of the San Juan Rainbow.
With that kind of money, Fletch, Grant and Joe could have gone anywhere and done anything. However, they all stayed in Monticello for the rest of their lives. They built beautiful homes for the times, but nothing that would raise eyebrows today. Joe hired E. J. Sonderegger to build his dream home at the corner of First West and Second South in Monticello. Just as the home was being completed, Joe tragically died of a heart attack.
The Bronson’s have both passed away. Fletch had a horse fall on him when he was in his 90’s. Grant, and his wife, Colleen were involved in a car crash two years ago and both succumbed to their injuries. All three men and their families left behind a rich legacy for Monticello and San Juan County.
Grant was especially generous in his support of worthy causes in the Monticello area. He purchased the Grand Piano for the Community Concert Association. He was an avid supporter of the Blue Mountain Ski Area, both personally and financially. He gave generously to the building of Monticello’s indoor swimming pool, along with many other philanthropic endeavors.
Texas Gulf Minerals eventually made the Happy Jack into an open pit mine and took out thousands of tons of ore. They employed large numbers of men. Most of them lived in a trailer village near the mine. Once a week, many of them came to Blanding and Monticello for groceries, mail and other necessities.
I remember well loading groceries into cars during the early 1960s. They were covered with red dust if the trip had been dry and red mud if it had rained or snowed. The road to the Happy Jack was mostly dirt in those days and getting there took a heavy toll on men and machines.
The price of uranium fell to rock bottom levels and the industry suffered an agonizing death on the Colorado Plateau in the l970’s. The Happy Jack added to its already considerable legend when, after being shuttered for years, Milt Nielson of Monticello took a lease, found another rich vein and made another fortune shipping ore at rock bottom prices.
I have visited the Happy Jack many times over the last 50 years. The uranium boom of my youth and the mesmerizing stories of that fabulous mine are some of my most vivid memories. I never drive up the narrow road south off SR 95 and come around the corner and gaze out over the ruins of that legendary mine without the ghosts of my youth jumping from the shafts to play games with my mind. Going back to that great stillness later in life with only the rustling of a tumbleweed, or the chattering of cricket is surreal.
My most recent visit (two years ago) found the Happy Jack reoccupied and fenced, with a locked front gate. Several new structures were being built and there were many pieces of expensive, heavy equipment in view.
Maybe the Happy Jack has more to give. Maybe there is more to add to its fabled past. Maybe it will continue to fire the imaginations of future generations of San Juaners. Only time will tell. But if I were a betting man, I would not count that grand old Glory Hole out yet.