Wirth Watching: Moab in the 1950's

The history of Moab from boomtown to painters paradise

MOAB, Utah (ABC4 Utah) - We are seeing hints of great weather to enjoy another season of playing in the red rock of Utah. The temperature in Moab was in the 60's today. Of course I am usually not thinking of today. I am all about what happened yesteryear. Like the boomtown of Moab in the 1950's.

With spring just around the corner, we begin thinking about Moab and hiking, biking and four wheeling. But there is another story about Moab.

Moab is a collection of great restaurants, hotels and tourists in the shadow of

Some of the world’s greatest scenery. But the red rock had a different draw 60 years ago. Prospectors crawled around where tourists now hike. For this was the uranium center of America

An excited Channel 4, with the call letters KTVT at the time, showed Utah the spectacular news in 1956. Our KTVT cameras where down in 4 corners country where just a few short years before where there was nothing but a painters and tourist paradise. Things changed when a gentleman named Charlie Steen spotted some uranium down there.

In something resembling a gold rush, Moab was overrun by fortune seekers. Uranium companies sprung up as fast as a mule could lead a miner to a claim.

Moab mayor, the reverend, Dave Sakrison remembers Moab as a kid. Sakrison told me, “It was wild and wooly. It was a bazaar place you think of a western town back in the 1880s or something like that. There was a lot of that going on around here. I mean it was crazy.”

All were looking for the ore. And for a dream. The mayor says it was often a rags to riches and back to rags story among prospectors. “The mill has been stockpiling uranium ore for fully a year as a result of this 8-million dollar instillation has several hundred thousand tons of uranium bearing rock to process.”

White canyon became the place of millionaires from names such as the rattlesnake mine. Sakrison says, “I’ve heard, and I don't know if it was absolutely true. that there were more millionaires in Moab per capita than any other place in the State of Utah - now whether or not that is true , I don't know, but I know a lot of fortunes were made and lost, lost in this community.”

And the poster child of fortunes was Charlie Steen. One symbol of growth was the home he built which was perched atop of a sizable cliff overlooking Moab. He named his home ‘Mi Vida’. Which means ‘My Life’.

Steen’s white canyon mine was the dream. The one in a million Moab story. The mayor remembers, “He was very unique man. He came from humble roots. He lived in a shack in town. He was looking for the big find you know, he struggled.”

And then like all booms, there was a bust. And Moab returned to being a painters and tourist's paradise.

The memories of the 1950's can be found in the older section of town. ‘Mi Vida’ still towers over the streets. 50's era houses of those who made it dot the streets in the ‘Mi Vida’ neighborhood…

The uranium building stands as a curio among down town art galleries. It is a remembrance of the Moab of the 1950's. The town for the new atomic age.

Unfortunately, I think we are losing a lot of that history and we are losing a lot of the people that lived during that time. It needs to be preserved. It needs to be remembered and it needs to be honored.

Charlie Steen will always be a bigger than life figure in Utah history. He threw lavish parties for the whole city. He gave away land for schools, a hospital, and churches. He used his private plane to fly to Salt Lake City for weekly Rumba lessons and later was a state senator. He lost his fortune and declared bankruptcy in 1968 after he invested in failed businesses including a pickle plant and an airplane factory.

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