Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Adirondack Uranium Rush (Part 3)

Under the newly formed Mohawk Mining Company (MMC), the trio of George McDonnell, Lewis Lavery, and Robert Zullo had high hopes of successfully developing uranium deposits they discovered near Batchellerville in Saratoga County. Plans were made for radiometric surveys of the sites, and they began pumping water from two feldspar quarries to examine the deeper rock for additional specimens. Tests were also planned on old piles of mine tailings that caused Geiger counters to react.

The Albany Times-Union reported that many specimens from the site had “an astonishingly high degree of radioactivity,” and that “The State Geological Survey and the State Commerce Department have promised the prospectors their fair cooperation in determining the extent of their discovery, and the advisability of mining it.” The ore’s quality having been confirmed by multiple sources left one big question remaining: was there enough of the stuff in the ground to make mining it profitable?

If so, said the Schenectady Gazette, then a certain newspaper columnist from Gloversville might be kicking himself (wink, wink) for not following up on a lead. The reference was to columnist Julian Woodworth, who had written two years earlier: “If you’re looking for uranium, just go up to Art and Annie Richter’s Restaurant, and take your Geiger counter along. The Richters have a fireplace made out of rocks filled with uranium. The area is probably full of uranium. Art and Annie better look out or some morning they’ll find their fireplace missing.” The Richters, in fact, were among those who leased property to Zullo and company after uranium was discovered. They kept a Geiger counter on hand as a customer perk: patrons used it to experience the clicks caused by rocks in the restaurant’s fireplace.

Once the quality of MMC’s ore had been publicized and substantiated, the State Geological Survey office reported a flood of inquiries seeking details on where the ore was found, how to invest in the discovery, and where Geiger counters could be purchased. Meanwhile, Zullo, McDonnell, and Lavery continued radiometric surveying of the property to establish the size of the bed. If it proved large enough, the next step was both important and expensive: diamond-core drilling to map the potential riches that lay below.

Within a few days of when the ore discovery went public, Northville was a very busy place, according to the Schenectady Gazette: “Since a state geologist confirmed last Thursday that the ore had been really discovered at nearby Batchellerville, the restaurant and provision business has been booming — with no sign of a letup. Clarence Davidson, Northville constable, reported last night that ‘probably 40 cars’ have poured through the village on the way to prospecting grounds a few miles away, facing the Sacandaga Reservoir. Restaurants have been filled with out-of-towners chattering about uranium hunting, he added. Northville’s sole hotel, The Tower, has been turning away customers since Friday, Davidson said, with rooms filled to capacity.”

As interest heightened, businesses in nearby cities began stocking Geiger counters, which had mostly been purchased by mail order previous to the ore strike. A New York City company confirmed that within six hours of when news of the discovery broke, they received 25 inquiries about Geiger counters. Clearly there was a demand locally, for sales in the southern Adirondack foothills were up as amateur prospectors took to the Sacandaga woods, accompanied by a small army of curious onlookers.

That weekend, a second claim of finding radioactive ore was publicized, this one made by a pair of Northville men, Robert Satterlee and Wilfred Ellingwood. It was also reported in several newspapers that the head of the Canadian company mining uranium in Ontario had visited the area, spawning speculation that investments of know-how and money in the Adirondack deposits might be forthcoming.

On June 22, Robert Zullo confirmed that besides survey work currently confined to the surface, plans were in place for diamond-core drilling — boring 200 to 300 feet into the rock with hollow drills to extract samples. He added that a trip to the Ontario mine with his partners to assess the operations there would be happening soon, the results of which could bear heavily on how they chose to proceed.

Dr. Broughton, the state geologist, sent an assistant, John Prucha, to assess the Batchellerville find using a Geiger counter. He reported “generally low-grade radioactivity, and a consistently high reading in a small sector,” which was likely the feldspar quarry where Zullo said the best samples had been collected.

A week after the uranium discovery was first announced, Reginald Torrey, writing in the Saratogian for Gannett News Service, reported on recent news out of Washington. “The Atomic Energy Commission is watching ‘with a great deal of interest’ developments in the reported discovery of uranium in a sparsely settled area in northwest Saratoga County. An AEC spokesman … said ‘the commission’s geologists have reported receiving samples of ore from that general area…. The samples by themselves don’t mean too much. It is the evidence from the borings and other surveys which interest us. If concrete evidence indicates the find is promising, we’ll send a geologist to look it over.’” Aside from other minerals already found in the Sacandaga ore, AEC technicians informed Zullo and company that monazite, another important radioactive substance, was present.

Needing more information, and encouraged by results so far, the MMC (Zullo, McDonnell, and Lavery) made plans to blast deeper from the floors of two quarries that had been pumped free of water. It was easy to be optimistic about finding value below, for the surface area had yielded large pitchblende and uraninite specimens that were hotter in radioactive terms than any other American pegmatites yet found.

As the work continued, offers poured in from potential investors willing to loan seed money to the company, become financial partners, or purchase it outright in hopes of a bonanza. But Zullo said he fully intended to attempt mining the ore after familiarizing himself with the Canadian process.

Residents of communities for miles around, at post offices, beauty parlors, barbershops, and just about anywhere else, were talking about uranium. While it was serious business, bits of humor surfaced here and there in newspapers, including clever advertisements for real estate (house for sale … “Here you will find peace, comfort, and joy, also maybe uranium”; another one was advertised as “Rare as Uranium”) and stores (“Uranium has been discovered at Batchellerville, but the greatest treasures are still to be found at … The Old Country Store”). Times-Union writer Cecil Rosenberry, alluding to the fact that no uranium endeavors like the one at Sacandaga had yet succeeded in New York State, wrote, “So far, the only big commercial boom that has resulted from the uranium strikes in this state is the sale of Geiger-counters. Thousands have been sold, and a few firms have set up a rental plan.”

In mid-July, the three company principals, along with Lavery’s son, Adelbert, took an extended tour of the mining operations at Wilberforce, Ontario, where uranium was being successfully separated from pegmatites. Upon returning, Zullo shared with the media his conclusion that mining the Batchellerville strike was “a definite possibility. If the Canadians can do it profitably, I don’t see any reason why we can’t do the same. Now it’s a matter of waiting for the best offer, or deciding to do it ourselves.” Among their options was the New York City firm Separation Engineering Corporation, which built and owned the separation plant in Ontario. The company offered, on a percentage basis, to establish mining operations at the Sacandaga site. But before deciding on a partnership or any other option, Zullo enlisted the aid of a “geological uranium specialist” to help determine the extent of the ore bed.

The three men who started the uranium rush garnered most of the headlines, but they were by no means alone in the woods. Competing with them were several companies and individuals searching and surveying in the same area. In early August, another uranium find was reported on neighboring property, the vast estate owned by Anthony Farrell, an Albany businessman and Broadway investor. Although the find was verified with Geiger-counter readings, Farrell expressed the desire to maintain the wildness of his retreat, at least until the fate of the original discovery by Mohawk Mining was known.

Next week: a Lewis County uranium boondoggle uncovered

Photos: headline, Leader-Herald, Gloversville and Johnstown (1955); headline, Amsterdam Evening Recorder (1955); headline, Saratogian (1955); store advertisement, Schenectady Gazette (1955); left to right—George McDonnell, Lewis Lavery, Adelbert Lavery, Robert Zullo after return landing on trip to Ontario mine, 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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