Charles A. Steen, one of the most famous alumni of the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP), became a wealthy and world-famous figure after a discovery he made in the Utah desert in 1952. Steen’s finding of pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral in the Chinle formation in southeastern Utah changed the direction of the U.S. uranium industry at a time when uranium was highly sought after. The College of Mines alumnus proved that large deposits of high-grade uranium ore could be found on the Colorado Plateau of the Four Corners region. The uranium find fueled the 1950s uranium boom in the American west and made the impoverished prospector-geologist a wealthy individual. In 1972, from his Reno, Nevada home, Charles (Charlie) Steen wrote a letter to then President Richard M. Nixon stating: “In 1952, I discovered the first and largest major deposit of uranium in the United States. I found this deposit in the Chinle formation in an area that had been condemned by the Atomic Energy Commission, the United States Geological Survey, and major companies engaged in uranium production.” Steen’s drilling in Utah generated more than $1 billion in uranium ore, most of which would belong to the U.S. government. However, Steen’s findings did allow him to control “90% of the known uranium in the United States.”
In 1943, Charles Steen graduated with a degree in geology from the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso. Afterwards, he worked as a petroleum geologist in Bolivia and Peru before he began his search for uranium in 1949. Prospecting the remote and desolate canyons of the Colorado Plateau, Steen was assisted by his wife M.L., and his four young sons. Steen’s “rags-to-riches saga” made him “the country’s uranium king” according to Moab, Utah’s The Canyon Country Zephyr. His adventuresome nature and a series of bad investments eventually cost him most of his fortune. He was also seriously affected by a head injury he received when a drill fragment stuck him in the head, curtailing his prospecting career. The College of Mines graduate who became a multi-millionaire claimed that his uranium discovery saved the U.S. government “in excess of $2 billion dollars of foreign purchase” of the mineral. In the same letter written to President Nixon, the “uranium king” wrote: “this discovery placed our country in a have as opposed to a have not position as a nuclear power.” Mr. Steen is certainly one of the most fascinating of University of Texas at El Paso alumni. In recognition of his accomplishments, Steen even led the Homecoming parade of 1958. In 2002, the town of Moab, Utah commemorated Charlie and his wife M.L. Steen with a special plaque celebrating the 50th anniversary of Steen’s prominent find.
To learn more on UTEP’s alumni, as well as Charles A. Steen and the big 1952 uranium find stop by the University of Texas at El Paso’s C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department in the University Library.
[Sources: The Prospector, November 8, 1958; El Paso Herald Post, December 14, 1968; Charles A. Steen, letter to President Richard M. Nixon, October 2, 1972; Mark Steen, “My Old Man, The Uranium King,” The Canyon Country Zephyr 13, no. 6, Moab, UT.]
Bryan Winter is an assistant in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. He earned a BS in Geography from New Mexico State University, and is currently in his final year as an MA student in History at UTEP.