Location: Moab, Utah, USA
By Neil Rainford, April 2014
My Uncle Tom LaChance, who loved to tell stories, had often recounted how Uncle Den had bought a uranium mine, called “Hey Joe”, up the Green River in Moab, Utah. Uncle Tom would revel in admiration for his older brotherDennis LaChance 's ingenuity and "can-do anything attitude."
“Den,” he’d say, ”with no road building experience and not much time in heavy equipment, bought the Hey Joe and an old bulldozer and carved a nine mile-long road along the river's banks in only about six months.” The road connected the end of the only existing roads in the area in Spring Canyon up along the river to the mine itself. Uncle Tom also regaled almost any willing listener with tales of how Den then spent a few years with his partner, improving the mine and perhaps beginning to ship out uranium ore.
According to Uncle Tom, Uncle Den and his partner were part-time miners and they would spend a few weeks at a time working on the mine, and then return for a month or so to their respective homes and families in the nearby Farmington, New Mexico where Den lived. In between times, Tom recounted, how the hired man would while away the weeks keeping an eye on the mine and the equipment, with liberal quantities of drink, in the old mobile home they had also moved up to the site. Around 1967, Uncle Den and his partner were negotiating with some Canadian investors over the possible sale of the mine when Uncle Den passed away suddenly, the victim of a freak accidental aspiration of food while lying on a motel bed and laughing.
Uncle Tom was hardly the only one who liked to tell stories about Den's mining days. My Aunt Neva LaChance, Den's oldest sister, also had a Hey Joe story. Aunt Neva was a school teacher in Brookings, South Dakota. Early on she eschewed the hard-scrabble life of South Dakota farmer's wife, with its dirt, uncertainty and jack-of-all trades necessities. She chose the cleaner, more predictable and more refined life of a public school math and art teacher in the "big city" of Brookings- well, big in South Dakota anyway.
More than happy with her decision to stay as far away as possible from anything resembling her rugged, rag-tag childhood during the Depression on a South Dakota farm, she liked to tell the story of how she was once cajoled by her younger brother to visit the mine.
"It must have been a hundred degrees that day!" I can still hear her saying. “Den was driving ahead in the bulldozer, clearing the way of debris and rebuilding sections of the road that had washed out." “It was beautiful country, but I didn't bring near enough water along." "That old truck was overloaded with supplies and the 'road' was little more than a one-way wagon trail." "That old bulldozer only crawled along and then we’d have to stop to patch up sections of the road that had washed out!" "Parts of it were up against the cliff on one side, with the river flowing past a few feet away on the other side and there were sheer drops - plenty of them- why, I have never been so scared, hot and dirty in all my life!"
"When we finally reached the mine itself, there was a little stream running out of the hillside near the entrance with nice cold clear water." "Without a moment's hesitation I lapped up- right out of my dirty cupped hands- at least a gallon of that ice-cold water and nothing ever tasted so good as that water on such a hot day." "As soon as I was done, and feeling a little better, Den turned to me and said, 'Neva, you know, that spring water is rich with uranium up here - we don't drink from that stream on account of the cancer risk.'"
"Why, I didn't care one little bit!" she would always say, ending her story on a decidedly defiant note with a hint of wonder that she ever let Den talk her into going up there in the first place.