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Beacon Senior News

Life in Uravan: the Western Slope’s uranium boom town

Dec 23, 2021 09:45AM ● By Diana Barnett
View of San Miguel with historical town photo on top

Although little of what used to be Uravan now remains, when Fran Ellinwood moved there in 1958 it was a thriving company town of 800 inhabitants. 

Located 96 miles from Grand Junction, along the San Miguel River between Nucla and Gateway, Uravan was established by Union Carbide Corporation in 1936 to mine uranium and vanadium. This effort eventually supplied needs created by the Manhattan Project—the secret endeavor tasked with developing the atomic bomb that ended World War II. The minerals were also used in electricity production, cancer treatments and medical diagnostic procedures.

After Fran’s husband, Ed, completed his medical residency in California, the Ellinwoods and their five small children set up their first permanent home and practice in the tiny company town. 

“We were planning to live there for just two years,” shared Fran, 95. “That’s why I never put curtains in the kitchen windows.”

However, what began as two stretched out to six years. 

A company town

The Ellinwoods moved into their company house, located in B Block, on one end of the “Circle”—a more prestigious area bordered by lilac bushes—where those in leadership positions (such as doctor) resided. For six years, Fran and Ed’s life revolved around his 24/7 position as the town’s only medical professional. 

“Ed did all the company physicals and attended to all mining accidents,” said Fran. “Sometimes we’d come home to find someone waiting on the front step for him and he’d invite them in. Our living room often became the second clinic.”

Deb McLaughlin moved to Uravan with her parents and siblings in the mid ’50s. 

“I was a sophomore in high school when my dad was hired as the company purchasing agent. The moving van got stuck on the mountain, so I arrived with only two outfits,” said McLaughlin, 81.

Although there was an elementary school in town, older kids were bussed to Nucla for high school. Having moved from Pueblo, McLaughlin said it was a bit of a culture shock.

“All the girls on the school bus wore jeans and had curlers in their hair. It was a 30-minute bus ride, so they would get ready on the way,” she said.

Because of her father’s job, McLaughlin’s family also lived in VIP housing and was one of the few that had telephones. Union Carbide provided all necessary supplies and services for residents. There was the commissary, or general store, where shoppers could charge their groceries and the amount would be deducted from the family paycheck. 

“If you didn’t have the things you needed by Saturday, then you went knocking on your neighbor’s door because the store was closed on Sunday,” Fran explained.

Friends Fran Ellinwood, left, and Deb McLaughlin, right, of Grand Junction met in Uravan in the late 1950s. Photo by Diana Barnett

 

Small but close-knit

Despite its size, Uravan had everything its residents needed, including a public library, a rifle range and a meeting place for community groups. There was also a post office and a filling station. The company had built pools to cool processing barrels, but kids also swam there. Eventually, an Olympic-style pool was constructed for recreational purposes.

In the close-knit community, the school and the recreation hall became the hubs of the town. 

“I participated in lots of [school] opportunities,” said McLaughlin. “There were few enough students, if there was a play and you had a pulse, you were in it. I may not have tried many of those things if the situation had been different.”

Locals gathered together at every opportunity, such as potlucks once a month after an Episcopal minister came to visit. Sometimes, though, the reasons to congregate were a little more low key. 

“One day, we gathered to watch a neighbor’s 100-year-old Christmas cactus bloom,” recalled Fran.

While small town life had its advantages, it also had its disadvantages.

“Bennie Benedict served as the town’s postmaster, and knew everyone and everything,” said McLaughlin. “When I was at the post office one day, he told me he knew where I was going for my honeymoon. I didn’t even know! He’d seen the tickets come in.” 

McLaughlin met her husband in Uravan while she was working as a switchboard operator. After marrying and leaving town to earn degrees, the couple moved back to the tiny community, living in a three-bedroom house in the Flat Tops, a new residential area, for $35 a month. 

“I really liked it when we moved back.” McLaughlin said. “There’s something about the connection you have with people because you depend on each other.”

Both Fran and McLaughlin’s families eventually moved to Grand Junction, and Uravan gradually faded away. 

The mining operations came to a halt in 1984 when the need for nuclear fuel decreased. With no further use for the town, and the potential for radiation exposure, all of its structures were eventually razed and the area reclaimed. 

Today, all that remains is a baseball field and the memories shared at the annual Uravan picnics.