Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Hot Spot During the Cold War

Temple Mountain
Now that the Cold War is history, we need to talk about the role Emery County and many of its residents played in it. There are the mysterious M.K. Tunnels [sometimes called Government Tunnels] out on the Swell, but I have a hard time talking about those without wanting to spit nails--so maybe later. (BLM closed them all and filled them in.) This week I want to talk about uranium and Temple Mountain.

Owen McClenahan was a prospector (among many other things) from Castle Dale. He was a pretty colorful character and wrote considerably about his experiences. I love viewing history through his pen [or typewriter], so I want to share some of his commentary with you. He said,  

"In the year 1949, a large government program was encouraging men to prospect with bonuses paid for special high grade uranium ore. They said that southeastern Utah offered great opportunity for discovery of uranium in the Morrison Formation where dinosaurs had become most prevalent during the Jurassic age and also in an older formation, the Chinle, during the Triassic Age. Men by the thousands flocked into these erosional wastelands in old jalopy automobiles and army surplus jeeps. There they would make 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 counters would follow the mineralized areas until they had a reading from their counters which was a loud response of amplified clacking reminding one of a rattlesnake showing its annoyance to man."
World War II ended in 1945 and in May of 1946 Winston Churchill gave his "Iron Curtain" Speech" warning to us of the "two great dangers which menace the homes of the people: War and Tyranny...an iron curtain has descended across the Continent [Central and Eastern Europe]."  And so it was less than a year after a peace treaty was signed, that the Cold War began, as the U.S. raced with the Soviet Russia to develop greater nuclear weapons in the battle for super power. (If you would like a simplified version of the Cold War read Dr. Suess's Butter Battle Book .)

Letter from the AEC
The fundamental component of this "Arms Race" was uranium. That's where Emery County comes in. There is a great source of uranium on the San Rafael Swell. The Atomic Energy Commission posted an ad calling for prospectors and motivated them with a $10,000 bonus if they found high grade ore [containing 2% radium or more]. That uranium was plentiful on the San Rafael Swell, especially Temple Mountain, and was a well known fact; it had been mined there in the late 1800s-early 1900s.
Temple City  (Marion Wheeler Collection

So with the encouragement of the government, Temple Mountain quickly came alive with mining. Temple City sprung up almost over night as shanty houses and trailers became a community. There was a garage where repairs were made and close by was a saloon where where you could get a cold beer—if they had any ice that day. Conditions were miserable: hot, dirty, no shade, far from any stores or towns, and no water--it had to be hauled in. Nevertheless, prospectors brought their whole families and sometimes even the children worked. One man remembers his first job as a child was to sort the ore into the various sizes --by hand!

Marion  standing at the loading bucket.
Marion Wheeler mined uranium with the Cline Family. Pa Cline was the owner. Marion is pictured to the right standing at the calex hole which is the vertical shaft that goes down into the mine to provide air for the miners. In some cases, such as this one, the calex hole was the means of travel in and out . Marion recorded,
 "The shaft went down 80 feet into the mine. The bucket was your ride down into the mine, and you just held on. It was the same bucket that brought up the uranium ore, and then it was dumped into the truck. The bucket held about 500 lbs of uranium ore. It was let down by a 6-cylinder Dodge engine. The cable had marks on it so the hoist man knew when to stop and let the men off. Our communication with the hoist-man was a horn to let him know when to go up or down."
Esther Wheeler (Marion Wheeler Collection)
 Once down to the bottom of the vertical hole, the mine shafts then went horizontally as they mined the ore out.  I interviewed Marion's wife Esther who said that she and the children spent a summer or two in Temple City while Marion worked for Pa Cline. They would take all they needed for two weeks and then go home and wash clothes and get ready to go back. The living situation was not great for the families, but the  conditions for the miners were much worse. Esther said, "I went down in that mine hole once. It was wet, damp, and so dark!"

I asked if they realized how dangerous uranium was. She said,
" Museums Of Our Past" (Vernell Rowley Photo)
"We all knew radium was down there. But in those days you went where the work was.(The three pictures above are from the Marion and Esther Wheeler Collection)


Barbara Ekker, from Hanksville, said, "My husband Jess wanted to go out there, and so we took his mother's trailer out [to Temple Mountain] and mined." Just the two of them worked their claim. Barbara  ran the jack hammer and was in charge of the blasting powder. When a safety inspector came along and asked where their stretcher was, her husband countered, “Who’s going to carry the other end of it?”  

Large uranium companies came into the area and bought or leased the smaller claims. They had more modern equipment and could hire many workers. Uranium was needed for national security, so there was a community cause behind the process.The Atomic Energy Commission was easy to work with because of they had very few regulations. The government is paying for it today with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act which offers an apology and monetary compensation to those with serious health problems from mining uranium. However, some people enjoyed their mining days. Ted Ekker, from Hanksville, mined in the Temple Mountain area and considered the AEC a partner, not an opponent. He has fond memories of that time of his life. In an oral history he said, 
Consolidated Uranium Mines, Inc. (Goblin Valley S.P.Collection)
"The Atomic Energy Commission was one of the finest organizations every assembled. They would help you in any way… The people were great, fun loving, no bickering, and very seldom any troubles happened. It was hazardous in those places, but the guys always took care of you. We had to take care of each other because it was a bad place down there. It was just a great time to live, I’ll tell you. I don’t think I‘ve experienced it since, and I don’t think we ever will."
Old Mining Cabin at Temple Mountain (Vernell Rowley photo)
Vernell Rowley, a local historian, says,"Today Temple Mountain is a place of solitude and quiet. The uranium mining remnants stand weathered against a backdrop of ledges quietly whispering of a feverish age of hard work and sweat. These old mines are museums to Emery County’s past. They are a reminder of our contribution to the nation’s security during the Cold War. As you visit the old uranium mines around Temple Mountain, visualize the men that worked in these mine. They were real people. Try to imagine their sense of humor, the way they dressed, what they ate, the conditions in which they worked and their dreams for a better life." 
Remains of the time left behind by the soldiers of the Cold War
Owen McClenahan summarized the Uranium Boom by saying,

“Few of us made any money in our exhaustive search, but it may be said that through this great effort by many, uranium was found in great enough supply to make our bombs, power our submarines and bring the Soviet Union to its knees, keeping it from greater conquest.”
We would like to ask the public to remember that the "junk" out in this and other areas of the Swell are remnants left by the "soldiers of the Cold War." They are considered cultural artifacts and should be respected as such. 
Our nation lived under a constant and real threat of destruction from our enemies during the Cold War. The battles were fought at a hectic pace, in the laboratories in universities, in offices in Washington D.C., at missile test sites, in the realms of the intelligence community, and out here in the heat, dust, and exposure to radioactive ore. 

The Emery County Historic Commission has created an interpretive sign with some of the information and photographs in this article, for Temple Mountain. The Commission interprets historic sites with the hope that people will realize their importance and respect them as a museums of our past.



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