Home » Culture » The heyday of uranium mining in Gila County: Is there more to come?

The heyday of uranium mining in Gila County: Is there more to come?

 After WWII at the outset of the Cold War, the production of atomic weapons and dreams of a future powered by nuclear energy led to a boom in the uranium market that set off a mining craze in Arizona reminiscent of earlier booms of gold, silver, copper and other rare and valuable minerals.

Globe was at the heart of a region that would eventually see thousands of mining claims resulting in fewer than 100 active mines during a brief frenzy of prospecting that was over within a decade.

The Gila County boom began in 1950 with the discovery of uranium in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness. By 1957, it was all but over.

The U.S. had become the leading uranium producer in the world by the mid-1950s, with most of the mining taking place in the desert southwest. Much of the activity centered on the Colorado Plateau, a massive formation encompassing a 120,000-square-mile area radiating out of the Four Corners region where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet.

Workman Creek, about 30 miles north of Globe, and the Mescal Mountains, abutting the San Carlos Apache Reservation southeast of Globe, were rich in uranium, although the deposits were difficult to access due to a lack of roads.

According to the book “History of Globe Arizona” by Donna Anderson, a man by the name of Karl “Swede” Larsen led the charge in 1950 when he discovered uranium in an old asbestos claim and from there the floodgates opened for a mid-20th century version of prospectors flooding into the desert in hopes of “getting rich quick.”

People from all walks of life, from city dwellers to federal employees to grizzled desert rats became miners overnight, wandering into the desert to seek fortunes that, for the most part, never came to fruition.

Larsen eventually gave up and sold his claims to the Pittson Company in 1953. The other prospectors who made money during the 1950s uranium rush did so in large part by selling their claims to mining companies. One of the biggest transactions was in the Workman Creek area, where 14 claims were sold to the Continental Uranium Company for the then-staggering price of $1 million.

The “winners” came to be known as “uraniumaires,” but the boom was short-lived and relatively few people actually succeeded.

In addition to the lodes to the north, uranium was also discovered in Pinal and Mescal mountains and before long, the hills were dotted with mining camps similar to the earliest days of activity in the region.

In all, about 7,000 claims were filed during that time with about 80 substantial enough to offer legitimate returns on investment.

According to Arizona Republic reporting at the time, it was the biggest mining boom in 81 years, but prospectors faced daunting challenges, from the heat to the lack of roads in the area. Even the mining companies had problems with logistics.

“Dozens of prospective miners are virtually land-locked,” according to one report. “There just aren’t any roads. Right now at least six producing mines—firms that have spent many thousands of dollars in exploration and development—are piling up their ore at the mine because the summer’s rainwashed roads must be rebuilt before trucks can haul the ‘hot rock’ to the sampling plant.”

One firm spent $10,000 to build three miles of road, which was promptly washed out by a monsoon flash flood.

By spring 1954, Pittson’s Sierra Ancha Mining Company was shipping uranium ore to a government buying station in New Mexico. By the end of that year, the Atomic Energy Commission was in the process of building a sampling and collection station in Cutter, about eight miles east of Globe, that commenced operations in the summer of 1955.

For two years, the station—operated by the American Smelting and Refining Company—processed about 500 tons of uranium ore per month, but as often happened in the boom/bust cycle of mining, by 1957 the boom had ended after the AEC announced the remaining ore was too low grade and the costs of shipping it for processing were too prohibitive to continue.

Thus ended Gila County’s uranium mining boom.

All told, from 1953 to 1960, 14 uranium mines in and near the Sierra Ancha Wilderness produced a total of 21,851 tons of ore with more than 80 percent of the production from the Workman Creek and Red Bluff properties.

Mining companies kept an eye on the region in the following years, and exploration activity resumed in the 1970s through the 1980s. During that time, mining, drilling and sampling continued, according to the Department of Forestry, and mine access roads were built throughout the area.

Uranium in the news

Global nuclear energy production is expected to increase through 2050 and is one aspect of energy production intended to reduce carbon emissions in the future.

Gila County and Arizona have been big players in the production of uranium in the past and, despite protests by Native tribes and environmentalists, production appears to be ramping up.

Controversial mining is taking place near the Grand Canyon where, last year, President Joe Biden created a Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument to help protect the fragile area that is sacred to the Havasupai and other tribes in Northern Arizona.

The 917,000-acre area was intended to permanently stop the development of nearly 600 active mining claims within its borders

In 2012, the Obama Administration issued a 20-year mining ban on about 1 million acres of public land, but the Pinyon Plain Mine, then known as the Canyon Mine, was in development prior to either presidents’ actions and thus has been allowed to go through, thanks to the Mining Act of 1872.

High Country News, a nonprofit environmental news source based in Colorado, reported in January that mining companies throughout the Southwest are ramping up production as the price of uranium has increased dramatically.

Uranium prices hit 17-year high in January, reaching $91 per pound, more than doubling what it was at the beginning of 2023. Uranium prices have not been so high since 2007 in the wake of the Fukushima reactor disaster, thanks in part to the actions of the U.S. and 20 other countries announcing nuclear energy production will triple by 2050.

In response to the surge in pricing and the anticipated surge in demand, Energy Fuels Inc. began operations at the Pinyon site in December 2023, 10 miles south of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon inside the national monument. The region has some of the highest-grade uranium ore in the country.

Despite Energy Fuels’ assurances, opponents of the project are concerned about its effects on water supplies and the tribes’ sacred places.

The mine is expected to operate for 28 months and produce about 1.57 million pounds of uranium, but reclamation will take 30 years of monitoring to complete. Currently, the U.S. uses about 40 to 50 million pounds of uranium per year.

Another Gila County boom on the horizon?

According to a February 2023 report by the Uranium Energy Corp, the Workman Creek Project “inferred resources”—estimates with a low level of confidence—is 4,459,000 lbs, with 198 unpatented mining claims on three parcels, totaling approximately 3,871 acres around Workman, Pendleton and Oak creeks.

The project is in development with no beginning timeline, pending a feasibility study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *