GIANTS OF SAN JUAN by Buckley Jensen
Charlie Steen was an enigma. He came into San Juan in the l950’s, dirt poor, lived in a tar-paper shack with his wife and four little boys and discovered the fabled Mi-Vida Uranium Mine in the Big Indian area of Lisbon Valley 25 miles north of Monticello in San Juan County.
He became the richest man in Utah almost overnight. He commanded the ears of presidents and kings. After enjoying his perch as one of the kingpins of the mining industry world-wide, he made the painful journey back to his roots of poverty and anonymity. He died in humble circumstances, far from the riches, fame and accolades he had earned.
His fascinating story lives on. In north Moab, just east of Highway 191 high on a cliff hundreds of feet above the valley floor, sits a mansion. Two million tourists and travelers annually crane their necks skyward to view its unlikely setting. Like the man who once lived there, it is today a symbol of the excesses of the “get rich quick” fever which swept the Colorado Plateau during the uranium boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Today it is still owned by the Steen Family. It is a restaurant with a stunning view of the Moab Valley. In the stories told around town, around campfires, and in the ghostly remnants of abandoned mineshafts, the legend of Charlie Steen lives on.
The story begins in l952 when, after years of futility, Charlie hit pay dirt. He named his mine the Mi Vida -“My Life”. Steen’s strike became one of the most publicized discoveries in the history of mining. This fact was mostly a function of timing. After the detonation of bombs over Japan, which ended World War II in the Pacific, uranium was much in demand. High grade ore was scarce.
Charlie and his wife M. L. (Minnie Lee) and their four young boys lived in abject poverty before the strike. For a time they lived in Dove Creek, CO. There he was referred to as the “Crackpot Geologist” because he looked for ore with a beat up drill rig. Charlie was looking for “deep uranium” when everyone knew that uranium was found from outcroppings in the Morrison formation and that a geiger counter was the tool of choice.
Charlie knew the greatest concentrations of uranium ore lay on the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners area. He was a college-educated geologist and prospected with a philosophy that mystified most others. But in the end, it was a geiger counter that signaled the news of his find.
The story goes that he drilled some cores and threw them in the back of his jeep. On the way home he stopped for gas. Another prospector with a geiger counter was standing there when Charlie drove up and all of a sudden his geiger counter started to roar like a hive of angry bees.
“It nearly broke that machine,” Charlie later recounted. He raced home to tell his wife that they were rich. The first thing they did, as folklore recalls, was drive to Grand Junction in their patched up jeep to buy shoes for their boys.
Steen loved the press. With his Texas drawl and his love for the limelight, wherever he went the press went with him. The “rags to riches prospector” captivated America and launched one of the greatest mineral explorations in American history.
Thousands of men, down on their luck, came to southeast Utah and the Four Corners area with the dream of find their own “MiVida’s.” Very few did, but the search was one of the most colorful and exciting eras in the history of the West.
Charlie was offered $5 million and then $10 million for his mine. He turned both offers down and everyone thought he was crazy. Two years and $130 million later, everyone knew he was super rich. The Mi-Vida was ultimately valued at $500 million in an era when a dollar was worth many times what it is today. It provided much of the highest grade ore ever taken from a mine in the Four Corners.
Charlie was 5’10” and weighed less than 130 pounds. But he flung himself into his business like there was no tomorrow. Six months after he discovered Mi-Vida, he was in Washington assuring Congress that if they would let him build his own mill, he would ask for no federal funding. The country needed what Charlie had to offer. The permits came in record time and the uranium mill Charlie built in Moab was the only major atomic facility ever built with private money.
Mr. Steen loved his new lifestyle. Two years after the discovery, he went to Churchhill Downs to the races and shared mint juleps with an assortment of oil millionaires. He had his own plane and was famous for going places on a whim,. He would fly his laundry to Grand Junction or fly to Salt Lake for tulip bulbs.
Once he flew to Grand Junction for a one-hour meeting and returned 38 days later. He decided to take an impulsive air trip. He outfitted his flight crew with new clothes and their trip covered most of the U. S. and several foreign countries.
Charlie’s trademarks were a dalmatian dog, “Butch” and a long red Lincoln. When asked once what all his money had brought him, he replied, “Well, I eat a damned sight better.”
Charlie was, by nature, a generous man. Having more millions than he knew what to do with, his community parties have become the stuff of legends. Charlie would invite the whole town, indeed the entire area to a party. Traffic snarls and parking problems were the order of the evening.
They were nights to remember. Nothing was too good for Charlie’s friends. He would import caterers from cities far away. He would hire the best entertainment money could buy and the parties would go late into the night.
Utah’s Governor, J. Bracken Lee, and his wife Margaret came often. Dan Valentine, columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune and his wife, Elaine were frequent guests at Steen Hill.
Dan once asked Charlie for some uranium. Charlie had an entire load trucked to Salt Lake and dumped in Dan’s driveway on Christmas Eve. The pile was topped with a large red bow. Dan was not pleased when he could not get out of his driveway on Christmas day, but he was pleased with the check he got from the University of Utah, who purchased the load of high-grade ore.
Steen imported Lola Montez and her entire troupe of Spanish dancers. Henry Fonda, Frankie Gorshin, Dorothy Malone and many other Hollywood celebrities attended parties while they were in the area filming movies.
To this day, old timers say with a mix of nostalgia and sadness things like, “Yeah, I went to one of Steen’s parties… don’t make parties like that anymore… Old Charlie put on one hell of a party… Man, them wus the good ol’ days”.
Steen won election to the Utah State Senate. It is said he became disenchanted with Utah because he could not get them to change their liquor-by-the-drink laws. However, those who knew him best say that was not the main reason. He moved mostly for family reasons.
He worried that his four sons were gaining “rich boy” status, and could not live normal lives in Moab. Shortly after the move to Reno, he shipped his sons to military schools in Texas, which was a crushing blow to M.L. but a blessing for the boys.
Money is the great divider. Despite Charlie’s attempts to be just “one of the boys” in Moab, the family was essentially left on a high lonely pedestal in their fortress above Moab. In Reno, where millionaires are commonplace, Charlie blended in better.
The mansion on the hill was basically dark until 1974, when Steen son Andy converted the home to a business. Besides a restaurant, Andy opened a Museum of American Mining, which was an excellent display of mining paraphernalia, photographs and mineral exhibits. Charlie and M. L. visited the museum often and chatted with guests.
The museum was eventually dismantled, but the Mi Vida restaurant is still a great place to eat. If you have to wait for a table it is a beautiful way to watch the sun set and the twinkling lights of Moab come alive, as the ghosts of history play games around the mansion on the hill.
Like most other things in life, the crazy uranium boom died a slow agonizing death. Three mile Island, Chernoble, and other disasters gradually destroyed what was left of uranium mining on the Colorado Plateau.
Charlie sold his interest in the Mi Vida and the Moab Mill and turned his attention to other activities in Nevada. He and M. L. built a million dollar mansion on the shores of Lake Washoe, near Reno, complete with a half dozen household employees.
But his post Mi Vida investments did not go nearly as well as his uranium bonanza. Charlie had become addicted to the high life. Ever the optimist, he was always sure that the next big strike was just around the corner.
In l968 the IRS raided his gleaming new office complex in Reno and impounded everything, even his son Mark’s pet monkey.
Even though he had paid over $30 million in taxes to the IRS and had called Uncle Sam his silent partner through his uranium days in Moab, he received little consideration. The IRS said he owed $4 million in taxes. Steen’s attorney’s claimed the sum was $482,000, which he could have paid to save his investments.
The Steens fought the IRS for seven long years in court. In 1975, Charlie threw in the towel. They gave up their Reno mansion and faced an uncertain future. From total poverty to unbelievable riches and back again. Full circle. Deja vue.
In 1992, the City of Moab and Grand County hosted a three-day “Discovery Days” Celebration marking the 40 year anniversary of the Mi Vida uranium strike. Charles and M.L. Steen were guests of honor. Many former Mi Vida miners, UTEX employees and boomtown residents returned to Moab for the event marking the historic July 4, l952 Mi Vida uranium strike.
Minnie Lee Steen preceded her husband in death. Charlie passed away in humble circumstances with one of his sons at his bedside. The ubiquitous publicity frenzy that surrounded Charlie in life was notably absent in death.
Because of Charlie and many others who gave their lives to the uranium industry, huge discoveries have been made which will bless this region and the nation for generations to come. The potash reserves near Moab, the huge copper deposits in Lisbon Valley, the gas and oil wealth that has kept San Juan afloat for decades were partly or directly a result of those thousands of men who flooded this area with their geiger counters, drilling rigs, picks and shovels and dreams during the great uranium boom of the l950’s.
In the late l950’s San Juan County had the second highest assessed valuation of any County in Utah at $132 million. This was second only to Salt Lake County. Counties like Weber, Utah, Davis and other Wasatch Front counties with 50 times as many people were far behind San Juan.
Why? The biggest single reason was the enormous value of the Mi Vida, the Happy Jack, and a few other rich mines in San Juan, along with the oil finds that were being made in the Aneth Oil Field in south San Juan.
Few would dispute that Charles Steen and his amazing Mi Vida was and still is the single largest mining strike ever made by a single individual in the history of southern Utah and perhaps the entire Four Corners region.
May I quote the last paragraph of Maxine Newell’s excellent book on Charles Steen? “Charles Steen was never interested in accumulating money for money’s sake. The most he got out of his wealth was the satisfaction of accomplishment.
“Mi Vida gave him the opportunity to be a miner, a uranium mill operator, a builder and a statesman. Miners are a special breed of people – born gamblers, or they wouldn’t be in the business.
“Mi Vida was Steen’s Ace in the Hole, but he had another up his sleeve. Charles Augustus Steen may have lifted the lid of Pandora’s Box when he discovered Mi Vida, but, traditionally, one blessing remained inside. The Blessing of Hope.”