Capitol Reef
Administrative History
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"None of the citizens of Wayne County have become wealthy through the discovery and exploitation of mineral deposits." [1] Thus a local history of the Capitol Reef area sums up mining activities in and around Capitol Reef National Park from initial settlement through the end of the 20th century. Nonetheless, mining did afford some people a living.

Miners were free to pursue their dreams of a mother lode until the National Park Service arrived in 1937, with the creation of Capitol Reef National Monument. Even after the monument and later national park were established, some miners continued to excavate within the boundaries of the supposedly protected lands. In more recent times, the effort continued on an even larger scale as various attempts were made to strip mine coal and tar sands, drill for oil and gas, and build coal-burning power plants.

While long-term impacts from mining at Capitol Reef have been relatively limited, this fact is attributable more to a lack of success than to a lack of trying: local mines were just marginally successful. If the economic climate changes, making the local low-grade ores and deposits more valuable, there will no doubt be renewed attempts to harvest the mineral resources on lands surrounding Capitol Reef National Park.

The history of mining and encroachments at Capitol Reef can be broken down into four distinct phases: 1) the early, largely unsuccessful search for precious metals, "that myth of easy money" [2]; 2) the uranium boom of the 1950s; 3) mining in the expanded monument and later national park; and 4) recent large-scale encroachments from oil and gas exploration, coal strip mines, and power plants.

The Early Search For El Dorado

The structural geology necessary for large deposits of valuable oil, gas, or minerals is generally absent from the Waterpocket Fold country. This, however, did not stop early pioneering prospectors from viewing the varied, colorful rock layers as untapped potential. After all, in a land that is little else but rock, there must be some kind of riches to be had.

The scientific surveys toward the end of the 19th century were the first to describe the scenery and resources of the area. They concluded that hundreds of millions of years of sedimentary geology had been warped and then punctured with later plutonic upthrusts to form the rock layers found in south-central Utah. The numerous exposed sedimentary and volcanic strata were bound to hold a little bit of everything. Observed valuable minerals included copper, uranium, gypsum, silver, and gold. Several deposits of coal were also noted. Oil seeps were found near the mouth of the Escalante River, charging speculation that oil and gas would be found in some of the uplifted country surrounding the Waterpocket Fold. Virtually every report, however, predicted that only coal would be found in any abundance. [3]

Regardless of these studies, adventurous prospectors came to see what might lie in the rocks, streams, and sandbars. Reports of prospectors searching in the Henry Mountains, in the Colorado River canyons, and along the Waterpocket Fold date to the 1870s. [4] The first known prospectors through the Capitol Reef area were J. A. Call and Walter Bateman, who carved their names and the date September 20, 1871 just west of the Capitol Gorge narrows. These two men, presumably on their way to the Colorado River or Henry Mountains in search of gold, were representative of the fortune hunters who pre-dated permanent settlement of the area by a decade. [5]

By 1883, Cass Hite discovered fine traces of gold in the sandbars of the Colorado River within Glen Canyon. Hite's findings sparked a minor rush into one of the most remote and rugged areas of the country. With several hundred prospectors congregating in the isolated, lawless area, some of the first arrivals set up their own mining district to create order and establish the legitimacy of their own claims. This Henry Mountain Mining District, formed by nine men on December 3, 1883, set boundaries and mining law:

The boundaries of the district followed the Colorado from the mouth of the Dirty Devil to Halls Crossing, thence along the Waterpocket Fold to the "Big Sandy" (Fremont River), thence to the Dirty Devil, and thence to its mouth. The regulations specified the amount of 'discovery work' to hold a claim; qualifications for membership in the district were set out; penalties for 'claim jumping' and 'other fraudulent dishonorable conduct' were specified; rules for making amendments were given. [6]

These first mining regulations in the area showed these miners to be little different from those of earlier gold rushes. The Glen Canyon miners observed the federal mining laws of 1866 and 1872 and then added their own local rules to fit the existing conditions. [7] While the Glen Canyon gold rush had several peaks and valleys, the most activity took place between 1886 and 1889. Virtually every canyon opening and sand bar was explored and placer mined, some with remarkable but short-lived success. A sand bar named the "California," for example yielded almost $10,000 of gold. But most gold was too fine to be recovered by contemporary technology, and many miners left in frustration. One product of this gold rush, however, was the development of supply roads into the area, including the upgrade of the cattle trail down the east side of the Waterpocket Fold, and the establishment of a miner's trading station at Hanksville in 1884. [8]

Although the flour-like consistency of the sandbar gold suggested that the mineral had been washed a long distance downstream, miners combed the nearby Henry Mountains in search of the mother lode. [9] By 1890, Jack Sumner, who had been with John Wesley Powell on the 1869 expedition through the Grand Canyon, and his partner J. W. Wilson, found a fissure of gold at the head of Crescent Creek on the east side of Mount Ellen. They named their mine the Bromide, because of the ore's similarity to bromide ore Sumner had seen in Colorado. A five-stamp mill was erected on the site to pulverize the rock and separate the ore. It would not be long before the boom town of Eagle City was erected just down the hill. But despite the excitement, the mine and town quickly played out:

Besides a dozen homes [Eagle City] had a hotel, two saloons, a dance hall, three stores, and a post office. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad made preliminary surveys of a route from the main line at Green River to Eagle City in anticipation of building a branch line when the mines could produce 100 tons of ore daily. But most of the prospects proved too small. The Bromide fissure paid well for a short time but the gold was confined to a pocket and the mine could no longer sustain the town. By 1900 Eagle City had become a ghost town and today a single lone cabin marks the site. [10]

A few other attempts were made to extract gold from the Henry Mountains and the Colorado and San Juan Rivers during the 1890s. The most notable was Robert B. Stanton's failed Hoskinini Company dredging operation near the mouth of Bullfrog Creek. The gold continued to be either too fine or scarce and the harsh, isolated landscape persuaded most prospectors to venture elsewhere in the search for the mythical mountain of gold. [11]

Other Early Attempts At Mining The Waterpocket Fold Country

Closer to Capitol Reef, copper and oil exploration occurred on the modern park boundaries through the 1920s. Southwest of Fruita is the uplift known as Miners Mountain. While it is unclear who named it this, the name probably was derived from several copper and lead deposits discovered on its exposed southeastern flanks. A geologist's report in 1920 noted, "For many years intermittent prospecting for copper has been carried on, and a few hundred pounds of high-grade ore is reported to have been shipped....In the development of the deposits several shafts have been sunk to depths of 30 to 50 feet and short tunnels have been driven." [12]

Unfortunately, little else is known about who discovered the deposits or when the last ore was mined on Miners Mountain. By 1963, these mines were reported to be "chiefly caved and inaccessible" with no evidence of recent copper production. Although the copper deposits, located in the Sinbad Limestone, were regarded as colorful, the deposits were small and the copper content of the rock was low. [13]

Nearby, less valuable but more practical limestone was quarried. The stone was excavated either from the vicinity of Grand Wash or up Sulphur Creek west of the modern visitor center, broken into small slabs, and heated at high temperatures in the lime kilns located on Sulphur Creek and near the present Fruita campground. In this way the limestone was converted to powdered calcium oxide for use in mortar, plaster, and whitewash. Another reported use was as an insecticide on the Fruita orchards. The lime kilns were active in the Fruita area from about the 1890s to 1930s, when they were last used to make mortar for the Caineville school. How much limestone was actually used and the specific locations in which it was mined are unknown. [14]

About 25 miles south, on the northwestern base of Wagon Box Mesa, there was a pioneering attempt to drill for oil during 1920-21. The Ohio Oil Company hauled the derrick, and associated equipment by truck up to the extremely isolated site by way of the old Halls Crossing road through Silver Falls Canyon. Supplies were also driven down from Notom through the mouth of Muley Twist Canyon and up the steep switchbacks of that Halls Crossing road to the drilling site. This operation was a source of great curiosity to the sleepy ranch town of Boulder, and several parties of sightseers ventured out to see the drilling progress. At reaching a depth of over 3,200 feet, the hole was abandoned on Nov. 9, 1921 for lack of oil. [15] Another drilling operation near North Caineville Mesa the following year also yielded little. [16]

Uranium and coal mining, which would later prove to be the most significant threats to national park lands in the area, also occurred on a limited scale during the early 20th century. Coal was first used for heating boilers at gold mining camps on the Colorado River. Then, about 1908, a coal mine was carved out of the badlands around Factory Butte, east of the Waterpocket Fold. [17] This mine produced relatively small amounts of coal needed for local domestic uses. The area's large coal deposits would not become a significant concern for many more decades.

Uranium, on the other hand, has always been the most marketable mineral found within the Waterpocket Fold country. The most historically significant uranium mining operation in the monument was the Oyler Mine at the head of Grand Wash, approximately two miles south of Fruita. First filed on in late 1901 by Thomas Pritchett and H. J. McClellan, the site was initially called the Nightingale Mining Claim. In early 1902, the "Little Jonnie" claim was filed in virtually the same spot by Torrey residents Willard Pace and James and Allen Russell. Gold, silver, and copper were listed as the minerals they were hoping to find. Then on Jan. 1, 1904, Thomas E. Nixon and Jack Sumner (the same Sumner of Powell Expedition and Bromide Mine fame) filed on the same spot. They dug two tunnels into the sandstone and apparently extracted a little ore. Nixon and Sumner may also have begun the unfinished building near the entrance of the mine. Nixon kept title to this claim until 1911, when he sold part to Jacob Young and T. J. Jukes. Then the claim apparently lapsed. M. V. "Tine" Oyler of Fruita was next to file on the claim, which he did on Jan. 1, 1913. From then until 1937, the area around the Oyler Mine was filed on no fewer than 75 times. [18]

The history of the Oyler Mine is complex and fraught with legal disputes between claimants and the various federal agencies, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Atomic Energy Commission. Since the mine's history has been previously examined in detail by historians Lenard Brown and Patrick O'Bannon, it will only be briefly addressed here. Instead, some of the other uranium prospects found throughout Capitol Reef National Park, previously overlooked due to the concentration on the Oyler Mine, will be explored.

When establishment of Capitol Reef National Monument was proposed in the early 1930s, there had been a few, mostly unsuccessful attempts to mine in the Waterpocket Fold country. Sporadic efforts to extract gold, oil, copper, and uranium had shown that, while many different minerals occur in the area, few existed in quantities that would make the backbreaking labor of mining worthwhile.

At this time, however, the federal government actually encouraged mineral exploration on public lands. There was little regulation of mining, other than the 1872 Mining Law that was intended to standardize claims, rights, and the amount of work necessary to avoid forfeiture. Thus, as time went on, even national parks and monuments were not exempt from mining claims.

The Start of the Uranium Boom

During the early 1950s, Capitol Reef National Monument was opened to the uranium frenzy sweeping the Colorado Plateau. After development of the atom bomb and the resulting nuclear arms race, the Atomic Energy Commission had wartime-like powers over the federal land-use agencies such as the National Park Service. Spurred by price supports, thousands of ill-equipped, would-be prospectors flooded the area with their scintillators and Geiger counters in search of radioactive uranium. Mining claims that had previously been invalidated with the creation of the monument in 1937 were reclaimed, updated, or both. Shafts were dug or dynamited, and miles of road were cut, even into the sheer sides of cliffs. Over 10,000 claims were filed on adjoining lands, which later were included within the present national park boundaries. The only protection the monument had was its one-man staff: Charles Kelly.

Oil Drilling Sites Dot The Landscape

Besides uranium, oil prospects were the only other recorded mining activity throughout the early years of Capitol Reef National Monument. About 20-30 miles north of the monument in Emery County, several test holes were drilled in the late 1940s' Last Chance oil and gas fields. While the gas finds were fairly significant, the few oil stains discovered were not. [19] In early 1949, Monument Custodian Charles Kelly reported that another prospective oil well was to be drilled "a short distance north of the monument boundary." To access this site (presumably the abandoned drill hole on Little Sand Flats), Kelly heard, a road was to be built up the cliff behind Chimney Rock, into the head of Spring Canyon, and then north through a branch of Spring Canyon to the site. [20] The road was never built, and the park has no record documenting why the oil company abandoned the idea.

In 1951, a small section of road was proposed in the southwestern section of the monument to gain access to an oil drilling site on state land south of Sleeping Rainbow Ranch on Pleasant Creek. Again, there is no record as to how this was resolved, or if any drilling actually occurred. [21] That same year, the Hunt Oil Company of Dallas, Texas began its search for oil in the area. Throughout the early 1950s, the Hunt Oil Company drilled several test holes in the Circle Cliffs area and placed a scattering of drill sites in the Tantalus Flat area west of the monument. The Standard Oil Company also proposed to drill an oil well south of Notom. Again, there was little to show for all this effort. [22]

Uranium In The Waterpocket Fold

Although abandoned oil drill holes dotted the landscape during the 1950s, the uranium boom, occurring at the same time, was by far the most significant mining activity in Capitol Reef. Before delving into uranium mining within the monument, however, it is important to briefly discuss where the uranium was potentially located. [23]

In the Waterpocket Fold country, uranium is usually found in two sedimentary layers. The one most often exposed at Capitol Reef is the Shinarump, lowest member of the Chinle Formation. Most of the uranium in this stratum lies near the contact between the Shinarump and the underlying Moenkopi mudstones. The Shinarump is a coarse sandstone and conglomerate mixture laid down by a massive river drainage system over 200 million years ago. The plant material trapped along those ancient river channels would become the primary component of uranium. When the Waterpocket Fold was uplifted and eroded eons later, the Shinarump was exposed in discontinuous outcroppings all along the western side of the Waterpocket Fold. [24]

The second stratum with locally high concentrations of uranium, the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation, is exposed in several spots along the eastern side of the Fold (Fig. 41). [25]

These exposures constitute almost 60 linear miles of radioactive materials, which made the Capitol Reef region particularly susceptible to the uranium boom. However, concentrations of high-grade ore were minimal in this region, and transportation costs were so high that only relatively small amounts of ore were ever taken from either the monument or later park lands. Uranium mining did provide some local people with an income, but it did not make them rich.

Figure 41. Shinarump channels and uranium mining claims. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 10-Dec-2002