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A Good Night’s Work at the Four Aces Claim

May 14, 2012

*I meant this to be the third 1955 mining story right after my discussion of the geology of the area, but posted the fourth story first by mistake.  TWP*

Exploration Incorporate, the company for which I worked in the summer of 1955, was trying to learn how much uranium was in the Shinarump Formation around the Four Aces mine in the White Canyon Desert of southeast Utah.  This mine like the Happy Jack mine about 7 miles away in the same formation had been opened in 1893 for the rich copper deposit in the discontinuous Shinarump Formation, but the cost of transportation (by mule train down to Hite on the Colorado River, by boat down river and then by mule train up to a smelter) was too high for profitability even with very high grade ore.  After 1946 when the USA government said it would buy any ore over 0.10% U_2O_3, the Happy Jack Mine soon started shipping millions of dollars worth of such ore.  (I have explained the fascinating geology in a previoust essay, but here I should reiterate that the Shinarump formation was a conglomerate fill of ancient meandering river beds.)

A drilling rig at Four Aces Claim in August 1955 with the sloping Chinle shale mostly hiding the tall Wingate cliffs of Copper Point. (Most crews had one driller often in his 20s and two teenage kids. The latter often liked to shoot at the common, tiny (6 to 10 inches long and under 1/2 inch diameter) sidewinders. Since we all wore boots this shooting was much more dangerous (bullets fly off rocks in surprising directions) than the snakes themselves. They are only dangerous when you sleep on the ground. They may slide into your sleeping bag to escape the cold desert nights and if you role over a bite in the wrong place could easily be fatal.

A drilling rig at Four Aces Claim in August 1955 with the sloping Chinle shale mostly hiding the tall Wingate cliffs of Copper Point. (Most crews had one driller often in his 20s and two teenage kids. The latter often liked to shoot at the common, tiny (6 to 10 inches long and under 1/2 inch diameter) sidewinders. Since we all wore boots this shooting was much more dangerous (bullets fly off rocks in surprising directions) than the snakes themselves. They are only dangerous when you sleep on the ground. They may slide into your sleeping bag to escape the cold desert nights and if you role over a bite in the wrong place could easily be fatal.

Most of the summer there were two of us living in the Four Aces tunnel and supervising hired drilling crews from other small companies.  We were trying to follow the Shinarump ancient river channel as it meandered under the sloping, and thus increasingly thick Shinle shale.

This story related to one night late in the summer when I was the only company man on duty.  At the time, one drilling company was working for us 24 hours a day with three crews.  They charged us per foot of drilling in the Chinle, and a lot more per foot of core drilling when they hit the Shinarump.  They also charged $100 per hour if they had to wait for us to tell them where to drill next.  (That does not sound like much today, but it was a lot of money in 1955.)

The upper portion of the Chinle was unstable so they cased the top of each drill hole with 80 feet of steel casing.  After each hole was finished I lowered a sensitive scintillation counter on a measured cable to count the radiation every foot from top to bottom.  Then they pulled their only two 40 foot lengths of casing (so the drill hole usually caved in) and went on to the next spot.  Assuming the hole hit the light gray uranium and copper bearing Shinarump rather than going directly into the underlying purple very fine grained Moenkopi sandstone, the next drill hole was straight forward.  If the hole missed, we had to guess whether the ancient river channel had turned right or left.  (We were going upstream .)

That night the drilling crew guessed they would finish a 250 foot deep hole about 3:00 am so I bedded down next to the drill site.  When they had pulled most of the drill stem they waked me up so I could calibrate the scintillation counter.  It would not turn on!  Inspection showed that a solder joint between the counter itself and the 500 foot cable had broken.  Because the drilling company had only a single string of casing pipe they could not move until I had measured the radiation.

At Fry Canyon about five miles away there was a tiny settlement and I felt pretty sure that when people there woke up, there would be someone able to re-solder the joint.  If not, it was more than a three hour drive to the nearest town, Blanding, Utah.  Thus the drilling company would charge my company a minimum of $500 to possibly well over $1,000.

I remembered seeing a discard lead-acid car battery on the side of the road only a few miles away.  I convinced the drillers to take a 1.5 hour lunch break before beginning to charge down time. I sped off in my jeep to find the old battery.  I was not sure my headlights would illuminate it in the dark, but they did.  I chopped it open, took out a few lead plates and drove back up the tricky back-up switchback on the Moenkopi cliffs to the Four Aces tunnel. I melted the lead in an old tuna fish can on our propane stove.  Solder is a mixture of about 60% tin and 40% lead with a melting point around 185 degrees whereas pure lead melts at 327 degrees.  Even with solder one usually needs flux to make a joint.  I had already thought of this.  Our old tunnel had been re-timbered with pine logs.  Where they were bruised oily sap had accumulated which made an excellent flux.  Because of the high temperature of the melted lead, it took several attempts to make a good solder joint.

However, within 1.5 hours I had counted the radioactivity of the hole, the drilling company had pulled their casing and moved on to the next drill site without charging my company a penny for down time.

I went back to sleep feeling that I had earned the money I would charge for my night time work.

Human beings were evolved to be resourceful and deal with dozens of different kinds of challenges every day.  For the past few thousand years more and more of us have been assigned to specialized expert jobs.  We may face challenging and interesting problems, but they tend to be more and more the same kind day after day.  Thus I found prospecting at least as satisfying as the many jobs I have had since then.  If you know me, you know I have always managed to do several different kinds of work every day.

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