Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Adirondack Rush of ’49: Searching For Uranium

After the big news of a possible uranium ore bed near Plattsburgh failed to pan out in early 1949, the search for ore continued locally and nationally.

Many magazines, including Life (“The Uranium Rush”) and Popular Mechanics (“The ’49 Uranium Rush”) featured stories on the phenomenon that was sweeping the country. The coincidence of timing — the 100th anniversary of the 1849 California gold rush — made for enticing newspaper headlines as well.

No finds in New York appeared likely to pan out until spring 1954, when 34 notices of discovery were filed on more than a thousand acres of public park property and a military preserve. The land in question, within 40 miles north of New York City, was state owned, which raised an important question: could private citizens stake mining claims on state property? As citizens of New York, they ostensibly had partial ownership, but so did the rest of the state’s population. People in the Adirondacks followed the story closely, for whatever solutions were decided upon would affect prospectors in the mountains up north, where some of the land was already off limits permanently due to the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution.

In late April 1954, Governor Averill Harriman signed a law, effective immediately, defining and restricting access to state land. Appropriated properties — land used by military reservations, hospitals, corrections, state parks, and the like — now required permission from the state land office and the governor before any prospecting was done. At the time, there were also about 2.3 million acres of state Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills that were already protected. Still open to exploring were another half million acres of state land, where any discoveries allowed to be mined would benefit state coffers via a minimum 2 percent royalty based on the value of minerals removed from the land.

In New York’s northern mountains, there was plenty of private land mixed in with state property, so prospectors continued to search. In late 1954, William Votraw of Ausable Forks garnered headlines for his involvement in the uranium hunt. Word leaked out that Votraw, a businessman, twice-wounded war veteran, and active civilly and politically, was soon to receive a Geiger counter. Even before it arrived, he had many requests from area citizens to survey their properties, and was asked to partner with a New York City investment firm interested in developing any valuable deposits he might find.

Votraw’s unit, marketed as a Detectron, was en route from Army Times magazine of Washington, D.C. As a respected veteran, he was selected to help locate ore deposits that might aid the nation’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Accompanying the Detectron were instructions, headphones, and ore samples from western mines, plus another with rather infamous origins — Alamagordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated as part of the test program. But like Linney’s search in the northern Adirondacks and foothills, Votraw’s efforts uncovered nothing suitable for mining operations.

A few months later, in spring 1955, came the next headline-gathering find, this one in Washington County, in the Blind Buck Hollow area of Salem near the Vermont border. Gerald Ennis, a lumberman who owned a 400-acre farm there, had been prospecting for the past five years in New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. After turning over Salem ore samples to a reputable firm for analysis, he shared their report excitedly with an Associated Press reporter. Aluminum and silicon were said to be present in “high quantities,” titanium and iron ore in “medium quantities,” silver at 0.80 ounce per ton, gold at 0.10 ounce per ton, and a 0.07 uranium percentage.

The day after the story was disseminated by the AP, Ennis visited the Albany office of Dr. James Broughton, director of the New York State Geological Survey, who said, “There is no reason to believe that any metallic mineral is present in any quantity.” Ennis, unfamiliar with interpreting the analysis, believed the report indicated that the amounts found were sufficient for mining operations. Broughton broke the news to him that the numbers were normal and “nothing to get excited about.” Although Ennis had found uranium, the AEC wasn’t interested in anything lower than 0.10 percent.

Other prospectors had their hopes similarly dashed by simple explanations. At DeKalb Junction in St. Lawrence County, strong readings that briefly caused elation were traced to bits of uraninite in a feldspar quarry tailings pile being used by roadbuilders. At Mineville, promising radioactivity readings were tracked to their source — waste apatite removed from the iron mines. And a reporter for the Ogdensburg Journal offered a story told to him by NYS Senior Geologist John Prucha. “One man was pretty excited because he got a nice patter of clicks from different kinds of rock over a wide area. Turned out the fellow had a big wrist watch with a radium dial. No matter what he held in his hand, he got clicks.”

But barely a month after the Salem story ended, news broke in regional newspapers that Geiger counters had reacted strongly to substances in the Batchellerville area on the Sacandaga Reservoir. Unlike the relatively quick letdowns following other hopeful discoveries up north, excitement over the latest find mounted day by day. Each ensuing report carried more promise and optimism rather than sudden disappointment. And when Dr. Broughton viewed samples that “pushed the needle off the scale,” he was impressed. “The specimens I have seen definitely are very good looking,” he told the Knickerbocker News. But, he cautioned, “It is one thing to test a few good-looking samples, and another thing to test samples of all the rock that would have to be mined in order to get uranium. I wouldn’t advise anyone to throw up his job and go up there.”

Still, after preliminary tests, Broughton estimated that some specimens “might assay as high as 50 to 75 percent, and were sufficient to warrant spending more time and money to investigate further.” The Adirondack Daily Enterprise quoted him as saying the Saratoga County specimens were “as rich as anything discovered so far in North America.” The Albany Times-Union reported that unofficial tests by the AEC “indicated a uranium oxide content of 20 to 30 percent.”

The trio who found the ore were Schenectady businessman Robert Zullo, forest ranger George McDonnell (Zullo’s uncle), and Round Lake pilot Lewis Lavery. Using methods employed by successful prospectors out west, they first located the deposits from the air, flying low while using, in this case, new technology — a multiplier tube attached to a Geiger counter, making it much more sensitive. Good readings were followed up on the ground, and samples were gathered from the site of an old feldspar mine that had been abandoned about 15 years earlier by the Atlas Feldspar Corporation.

Among the three minerals submitted by the men for testing were uraninite and autunite, principal sources of uranium. They were found in pegmatite, a coarse granite from which uranium had not been mined until recently, at a site in Ontario, which the men made plans to visit. They had already obtained rights to more than 200 acres, and were negotiating for more in case the ore bed proved large enough for commercialization. The third substance submitted was polycrase, the only real negative encountered so far: the difficulties of treating it metallurgically often precluded it as a source of other minerals. Still, it potentially hosted several materials on the US Bureau of Mines’ list of “desirables,” including uranium.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 1947, Dr. Edwin Smith of Union College had studied the area’s polycrase, which was first reported by famed gemologist and mineralogist Elmer Rowley. Smith expressed doubts that the recent find was large enough for mining operations, and said the main source he found was near Overlook Beach, in an old feldspar quarry about ten miles northeast of Batchellerville. West of Overlook and north of the Sacandaga Reservoir, people in the town of Wells began searching their properties in hopes of finding large enough uranium outcroppings for mining.

According to the Saratogian, a government expert was keeping an open mind about the deposits. “They could be very important to the atomic defense of this country and to peacetime atomic energy progress — and they could make these prospectors rich. Or they could turn out to be just nothing at all. These further borings and surveys now reported to be going on will tell the tale.”

Next week: uranium fever runs wild near the Sacandaga Reservoir
Photos: Popular Mechanics cover (1949); headline, Ausable Recorder-Post (1954); Detectron advertisement, National Radiation Instrument Catalog (1955); headline, Albany Times-Union (1955)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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