Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Adirondack Uranium Rush (Conclusion)

The failure of Adirondack Uranium and Mineral Corporation in early 1957 dominated the news cycle, but there was still activity in a half-dozen Lewis County sites where prospectors were searching for uranium.

In May of that year, there was also related news on the eastern edge of the Adirondacks. After an aerial survey detected radioactivity along Route 22 between Ticonderoga and Whitehall, a mining company obtained options to explore the farms of John DeLorme and Earl Shattuck to verify the readings and determine if suitable quantities of ore were present. They weren’t.

By this time, the national uranium mania had settled down substantially. Where there were once thousands of small and large companies seeking fortune in the rocks, and money was thrown at the slightest hint of mineable uranium, only a few hundred firms now remained.

But there was still life in the craze, driven by two main entities. There was the federal government’s urging of citizens to support America’s atomic future by prospecting, and the entertainment industry, which produced many television episodes and movies that reflected events occurring across the country. At any given time, theaters somewhere in the North Country featured The Atomic Kid (1954, with Mickey Rooney), Uranium Boom (1956), and Dig That Uranium (1956). There were countless magazine articles about prospecting, board games like Uranium Rush, inexpensive Geiger counters, and a wide variety of uranium kits for children of all ages — meaning, of course many adults as well. And who can forget the likes of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo going uranium hunting with Fred MacMurray when Ricky was booked to entertain at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Lucy even mentions a couple of times the government’s standing offer of $10,000 for uranium discoveries.

To average folks like those in the Adirondacks, prospecting carried with it several positives. In some ways, it was like playing the lottery has become today: inexpensive compared to the potential payoff, a brief and exciting break from humdrum daily life, and despite the daunting odds against each participant, everyone loved the idea of, “Hey … you never know!” Although no discoveries in the Adirondacks had grown to anything of consequence, people kept trying their luck. With each newly publicized find, the woods were flooded again with Geiger-counter-toting hopefuls seeking to strike it rich.

The most active area for Adirondack prospectors in 1958 was Lewis County, but even if large amounts of ore were found, developers faced the same problem that Adirondack Uranium and Minerals Corporation failed to mention to potential investors: the only processing facilities were out west, and the cost of shipping ore that far was excessive. A few prospectors had mentioned building a mill near the southwestern Adirondacks, citing a cost of $1 million ($8.7 million in 2018). That, too, was considered prohibitive — but the point was moot, for no large deposits of uranium had been found.

Brief excitement was generated in the late 1950s by Mike Ardelio, a Rochester businessman who owned more than 100 acres in the Lewis County town of Watson and leased another 300. For two years he had been exploring and drilled a promising vein, but lacked the finances to develop it. Instead of selling stock in the company, he went public with information about his ore bed in hopes that owners of neighboring properties would seek similar discoveries on their land. He proposed — if that happened — they form a consortium to jointly develop their finds. While it sounded like a plan, nothing of the sort happened.

But the focus of attention in 1958 was on Fulton County and southern Hamilton County for what proved to be the last high-profile effort to develop uranium beds in the Adirondacks. It was led by a Gloversville contractor, 64-year-old Stuart Warner, who told reporter Frederick Corey of the Leader-Herald that feldspar, iron, quartz, and quartzite had also been found in appreciable quantities. After several years of probing 700 acres, much of which he owned, Warner had selected five sites to mine where there were already open quarries, including some in Mayfield and others north of Northville. Like earlier prospectors in the area, it appeared most of his finds were in old tailings piles, which indicated that more of the minerals could or should be found beneath the surface. He was well aware of the failed effort by Robert Zullo and the MMC to mine existing quarries near Batchellerville, but said, “My claims are much richer.”

In December, Warner, now 65, successfully chartered the Mayfield Mining Company, with a value of $10 per share and a capital stock of $100,000.

In March 1959, Warner told Ray Jarabek of the Schenectady Gazette that “core drilling, blasting, and trenching will begin as soon as possible.” He confirmed that feldspar on the property had been approved by Corning Glass for glassmaking, and that silica, “a derivative of quartz and feldspar,” was in strong demand for high-heat processes involved in rocketry and other modern industries. Both minerals appeared to be potentially profitable, but the operations hinged on successfully mining uranium.

Drilling began in June to create a stockpile of various minerals, and by summer 1960, enough uranium ore had been gathered for the most important test: a federal engineer’s examination to clear it for acceptance by the only legal buyer in the country — the US government.

In the meantime, Warner, always welcoming to the public, guided the Fulton County Mineral Club on a tour of his property at Pine Mountain in Mayfield, where black lights and Geiger counters were among the tools used to locate and collect different quartzes, mica, uraninite, and several other minerals. They also journeyed to his site on Corey Mountain to view the uranium ore bed there.

Unfortunately for Warner, the Mayfield Mining Company eventually went the way of all its predecessors in northern New York: excitement at the discovery, and glowing prospects from promising test results, but in the end, the ores weren’t particularly high grade, and the tonnages available fell well short of the amount needed to make mining economically viable.

Since the uranium rush of the 1950s, the North Country has been studied at times for its mineral potential. In 1980, the US Department of the Interior performed a geological survey titled, “Uranium Potential of the Adirondack Region.” It began with the statement that “There has been little recent exploration for uranium in the … Adirondack region, although uranium mineralization is known to occur in pegmatites and to be associated with magnetite ore” (which is common in the area).

In 1976, said the report, “field checks of previously reported uranium occurrences, and cursory field examination of favorable environments” were performed. Clinton County had deposits northeast of Dannemora and north of Ausable Forks. Essex County sites were southwest of Crown Point, southwest of Westport, and near Mineville village. Warren County’s sole location was at Lake George, a few miles north of the Rt.9–Rt.9N junction. In St. Lawrence County, deposits were found at three locations: north of Richville Station, northwest of the Talcville bridge, and east of Star Lake at Benson Mines.

Lewis County information included readings taken at four sites: north of Glenfield, “maximum radioactivity is about 40 times background”; south of the town of Greig, “maximum radioactivity is about 35 times background”; north of Lyons Falls, “maximum radioactivity is about 60 times background”; and south of Port Leyden, “maximum radioactivity is about 15 times background.”

Lest you live near one of those locations and worry about your safety, fear not. In 2005, Jim Kinney of the Saratogian interviewed William Kelly, state geologist and chief of the New York State Geological Survey, who said the reason all the mining ventures ultimately failed is the same reason there’s no danger from what’s in the ground: there are no large deposits, and the ore “is only about 1 percent uranium.”

The only concern would be that the natural breakdown of radium produces radon, a gas that can leak into homes and cause serious health issues. Living above concentrated ore deposits might increase the risk.

The Department of Interior’s county-by-county assessment said there were no “known large uranium deposits in the Adirondacks.” On the possibility that extensive, undiscovered ore beds existed, their conclusion was, “… anomalously high concentrations of uranium are found in pegmatites and in magnetite deposits in the Adirondacks…. It may be that the small uranium occurrences are indicative of vein-type or strata-bound uranium concentrations at depth. It is thought, however, that there is a lack of large uranium concentrations in the Adirondacks.”

Mining of any deposits in the region was dismissed by a brief summary of the issues. “Considering the private land and park status of much of the Adirondack region, the fact that there are no nearby processing mills, and the low tonnage of pegmatites, it appears neither practical nor profitable to explore for uraniferous pegmatites…. It is concluded that although uranium concentrations are present, they are too small to be developed.”

But for a while, during the uranium rush of the 1950s, the racing heartbeats of anxious North Country prospectors were as palpable as the clicks on their Geiger counters.

Photos: headline, Ticonderoga Sentinel (1957); publicity photo, I Love Lucy tv show (1957); headline, Lowville Journal and Republican (1958); headline and photos, Leader-Herald, Gloversville and Johnstown (1958); headline, Amsterdam Evening Recorder (1959); map, US Department of Interior Geological Survey, Uranium Potential of the Adirondack Region (1980)

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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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One Response

  1. Scott says:

    30 years ago when I was in high school we took an Earth Science field trip that stopped along Rt. 12 between Boonville and Lyons Falls. Our teacher used a Geiger counter to demonstrate the presence of the uranium in an exposed bedrock highway cut. So glad to hear the actual story these many years later!

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