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MOAB - A week after the March 11 opening of the Dan O'Laurie Canyon Country Museum's exhibit celebrating the life of Charlie Steen, the "Uranium King" who first put southeastern Utah on the map, museum officials learned that the Steen had died more than two months earlier.
He died on New Year's Day. He was 86.
"The uranium boom was a part of our history that seems to be overlooked today. But if Charlie Steen hadn't made that big strike, we probably wouldn't be the tourist town we are now," said museum curator Rusty Salmon. "We really owe Charlie Steen and the miners of that time a big debt. His death marks the end of an era."
The rags-to-riches story of Charlie Steen captured the public imagination and made Steen an American icon.
Born Dec. 1, 1919, in Caddo, Texas, Charles Augustus Steen earned a geology degree from the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in 1943. In 1950, a U.S. government campaign to draw prospectors to the Four Corners area in search of uranium for Cold War weapons development sparked Steen's interest. He borrowed money from his mother to buy a portable drill, and moved his family - wife, Minnie Lee, also known as M.I., and three small sons - to the Moab area in search of his fortune.
Over the next two years, Steen staked dozens of claims in a place called Big Indian Wash in Lisbon Valley. He developed his own theory about the geology of the region and where and how to unlock its ore deposits, postulating that concentrated deposits of uranium in the mineral pitchblende would be located in the sandstone rock layers beneath. One of those claims eventually yielded the mother lode - the largest deposit of pitchblende in U.S. history. The find transformed Steen into a multi-millionaire, and transformed the town of Moab into the "Uranium Capital of the World."
During his Moab years, Steen served on the local school board and was elected to the Utah Senate.
In the mid-1960s Steen sold some of his Utah mining interests and the Atlas Uranium Mill, and moved first to Nevada and then Colorado, where he invested in several new mining ventures. He lost most of his fortune in 1968 in a dispute with the IRS. His wife died in 1997. In recent years, Steen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Steen is survived by his four sons, Mark, John, Andrew, and Charles.
Lifelong Moab resident Sam Taylor remembers Steen as an "energetic, enthusiastic, generous, excitable guy."
"He was generous to a fault," Taylor said, adding that during his hey days, Steen had donated land to every Moab church that asked, and he also gave land to the Grand County School District to construct a new elementary school. Steen's impact on Moab can still be found in the neighborhoods, including one area dubbed Steenville, where he constructed housing for his many mine employees.
Steen was also known for showering employees, friends, family and sometimes strangers with money and gifts. Stories of Steen's help to someone in trouble are legendary in Grand County. Taylor said Steen even loaned his equipment to employees, encouraging them to go out and find their own uranium strikes. Several became millionaires, Taylor said.
Much of Steen's legacy has been preserved through the collection of family photos and memorabilia, including the bronzed size 12 boots he was wearing when he hit pay dirt, now on loan from Steen's son, Mark, to the Dan O'Laurie Museum. The exhibit is scheduled to run for at least six months, board member Sena Hauer said.
"The loan of these artifacts is a huge, huge gift for the museum, and it helps spotlight what was such a big part of our history," Hauer said.
The exhibit also serves as an important reminder of the legacy Charlie Steen helped build, Hauer said.
"There are lots of silver mining towns, and gold mining towns, but we're the only big uranium boom town. In so many ways, Charlie Steen changed Moab forever."